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Tomás Mac Donnchadha

Thomas Stanislaus MacDonagh (Tomás Anéislis Mac Donnchadha).
Irish revolutionary, poet, playwright, educator and 1916 leader. He was one of the seven 1916 Easter Rising leaders, signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and Commandant, 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, Irish Volunteers. He was executed for his part in the Rising at the age of thirty-eight.

MacDonagh was assistant headmaster at St Endas, Scoil Éanna, and lecturer in English at University College Dublin. Through the Gaelic league he befriended Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill. With them he was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers. A poet and playwright his play When the Dawn is Come, was produced by the Abbey Theatre in 1908. Other plays include Metempsychosis, 1912 and Pagans, 1915, both produced by the Irish Theatre Company.

Tomás MacDonagh was born to Joseph MacDonagh and Mary Parker in Cloughjordan, County Tipperary. He grew up in a household filled with music, poetry and learning and was instilled with a love of both English and Irish culture. Both his parents were teachers with a strong education ethos. MacDonagh attended Rockwell College. There he spent some years as a scholastic in preparation for a missionary career. On realizing that wasn’t for him, he left. He soon published his first book of poems, Through the Ivory Gate, in 1902. He taught in St Kieran’s College Kilkenny and from 1903 he was employed as a professor of French, English and Latin at St. Colman’s College, Fermoy, Co Cork, where he also formed a Gaelic League branch. MacDonagh was a founding member of ASTI, the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland, formed in the Fermoy College in 1908. He moved to Dublin and soon established a strong friendship with MacNeill and Pádraig Pearse.

MacDonagh in uniform (1915)

Teaching Career

Due to his friendship with Pearse and his love of Irish he joined the staff of Pearse’s school St Enda’s on its 1908 establishment, taking the on teaching roles of French and English and Assistant Headmaster. MacDonagh was a key part St. Enda’s early success.

On his marriage he took the position of lecturer in English at the National University while continuing to support St Enda’s. MacDonagh devotion to the Irish language led him in 1910 to become tutor to a young Gaelic League member, Joseph Plunkett. Both being poets with an interest in the Irish Theatre, and they formed a lasting friendship and married sisters.

On January 3rd 1912 he married Muriel Gifford. Their son, Donagh, was born that November, and their daughter, Barbara, in March 1915. His wife Muriel’s sister, Grace married Joseph Mary Plunkett in Kilmainham Jail just before his execution. MacDonagh was a member of the Irish Women’s Franchise League. He supported the strikers during the 1913 Dublin lockout and was a member of the “Industrial Peace Committee” alongside Joseph Plunkett, whose stated aim was to achieve a fair outcome to the dispute.


In 1913 MacDonagh and Plunkett attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers and joined its Provisional Committee. MacDonagh was appointed Commandant of Dublin’s 2nd battalion and was later made commandant of the entire Dublin Brigade. Originally a constitutionalist influenced by Pearse, Plunkett, and MacDermott, and increasing European militarization leading to W.W.I, MacDonagh’s republicanism blossomed and in the summer of 1915 he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).Tom Clarke asked him to plan the spectacular funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, which was an outstanding  propaganda success, largely due to his organization and  Pádraig Pearse’s resounding graveside oration.

The Easter Rising

One of the 1916 Easter Rising’s leaders and Proclamation signatory, MacDonagh was a late addition to the secret Military Council planners of the rising. New in the IRB, Clarke and others hesitated in elevating him to a high position too early. His closeness to Pearse and Plunkett accelerated his inclusion, as well as being commandant of the Dublin Brigade.

During the rising, MacDonagh’s battalion was assigned to Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. On their way the battalion encountered Major John MacBride a veteran Fenian who fought with the Boers in South Africa. MacBride had had no prior knowledge of the rising and just happened to be in the area. He immediately joined the battalion as second-in-command, and command throughout Easter Week. The original second in command was Michael O’Hanrahan.

Despite being one of the strongest battalions, MacDonagh’s command saw little fighting, as the British Army avoided their location on their way to Dublin City centre. MacDonagh received the surrender order on April 30th though his battalion was prepared to continue fighting. Following the surrender, MacDonagh was court-martialed, and executed by firing squad on May 3rd 1916, aged just thirty-eight the 3rd Proclamation signatory to be shot. As he was taken from his cell to be executed he whistled.

His widow, Muriel, died of heart failure while swimming at Skerries, County Dublin on 9 July 1917. His son Donagh MacDonagh became a judge, and was also a prominent poet, Broadway playwright, songwriter and broadcaster, and a central member of the Irish literary revival of the 1940’s/1960’s.

Reputation and commemoration

MacDonagh was one of the most gregarious and personable of the rising’s leaders. Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, a sister of Joseph Plunkett described him in her book All in the Blood: “As soon as Tomás came into our house everyone was a friend of his. He had a pleasant, intelligent face and was always smiling, and you had the impression that he was always thinking about what you were saying.”

On hearing news of the Rising in America where Mary Colum and her husband Padraic Colum lived she wrote in her Life and the Dream saying she remembered Tomás MacDonagh saying to her: “This country will be one entire slum unless we get into action, in spite of our literary movements and Gaelic Leagues it is going down and down. There is no life or heart left in the country.”  A prominent figure in the Dublin literary world, he was commemorated in several poems by W.B. Yeats and in his friend Francis Ledwidge’s Lament for Thomas MacDonagh a poem rich with allegory – the Dark Cow is an 18th Century symbol of Ireland. Ledwidge wrote:

Lament for Thomas MacDonagh

He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain…

But when the Dark Cow leaves the moor
And pastures poor with greedy weeds,
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn,
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

Ledwidge would die just a year later, blown to pieces in Ypres. A fine patriotic young Irishman one of 50,000 died fighting for the British Empire all victims of Redmond’s sellout.

Thomas MacDonagh Tower in Ballymun, Dublin, which was built in the 1960s and demolished in June 2005, was named after him. MacDonagh had taught in St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny City during the early years of his career, where MacDonagh Railway Station was named in his memory, as was the MacDonagh Junction shopping centre. The Thomas MacDonagh Heritage Centre in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary was opened in 2013. The centre houses the town library and exhibition space. An annual Thomas MacDonagh Summer School takes place in Cloughjordan over the May bank holiday weekend.

Gaelic Athletic Association clubs and grounds named after MacDonagh have been established in County Tipperary, Kilruane MacDonagh’s, Nenagh and a North Tipperary amalgamation.

His Work includes:

Through the Ivory Gate
April and May
When the Dawn is Come
Songs of Myself
Lyrical Poems
The Golden Joy
The Stars Stand Up in the Air
Thomas Campion and the Art of English Poetry
Literature in Ireland (published posthumously)

Because – like his gallant comrades – he unselfishly gave his life for Ireland in the full bloom of his youth his true genius was never given the opportunity to fully express itself as undoubtedly it would have. He dreamed and gave his life for an Ireland that must be achieved. He was an IRB man to emulate in spirit and in action. He is our inspiration today and for a new resurgence of Irish culture and national pride.


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