Tomás Mac Donnchadha, or Thomas MacDonagh (1 February 1878 – 3 May 1916), was born in Cloughjordan, County Tipperary, to Joseph and Mary MacDonagh (nee Parker). Both his parents were intellectuals and outstanding teachers. Thomas was educated in Rockwell College near Cashel, County Tipperary. He spent seven years at Rockwell in training for the priesthood, but left when he realised that this way of life was not for him.
MacDonagh was raised in a household where cultural education and music abounded. He would take all these traditions with him into his adult life.
When he left Rockwell College, MacDonagh went to work as teacher at St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny for two years. From there, it was on to Fermoy, County Cork where he stayed for approximately five years. During this time, he joined the Gaelic League where he was introduced to nationalist ideals. To improve his fluency in the Irish language, he went to the Aran Islands where the language was, and still remains, the first tongue. It was on the islands where he first met Patrick Pearse. Pearse and his brother, Willie, had recently opened St. Enda's and offered MacDonagh a job there. He accepted immediately and took up the post of Assistant Head Teacher.
While working full-time, MacDonagh studied part-time at University College Dublin. He graduated with a B.A. in 1910 and gained an M.A. in poetry the following year. Following this, MacDonagh was appointed as a lecturer in English at UCD.
MacDonagh went on to develop his talents in poetry and writing plays. He was establishing a reputation for himself in Dublin’s literary and theatrical circles. He was an enthusiastic member of the National Literary Society, and was additionally a founding member of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland. MacDonagh was an all-around intellectual scholar and poet. He strongly believed that Ireland's cultural heritage and language would not survive without very strong intervention. Together with Joseph Plunkett and Edward Martyn, MacDonagh established the Irish Theatre in Hardwick Street.
Always politically aware, he was a member of the provisional government of the Republic of Ireland. MacDonagh was active in the Women’s Franchise League as well as placing membership in the Dublin Industrial Peace Committee during the 1913 labour dispute. He joined the Irish Volunteers upon their formation in November of 1913. He was also a member of the provisional committee and asked to be part of the Howth gun running. He wrote a song about the Volunteers called "The Marching Song of the Irish Volunteers."
Although he was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood from April of 1915, he was not co-opted to the secret military council until April of 1916 due to the fact that he was a late addition to the IRB. Subsequently, he had little part to play in the planning and arranging of the Rising. He is, however, believed to have contributed to the content of the proclamation of the Irish Republic, to which he was also a signatory.
The reasons for his admittance to the secret military council at such a late date are unclear. Some have suggested that, as a relative newcomer, men such as Thomas Clarke may have been hesitant to elevate him to such a high position too soon. This raises the question for historians: Why was he admitted at all? Perhaps it was because of his close ties to Patrick Pearse and James Plunkett that swayed the argument for his elevation. This question remains unanswered.
Whatever the causes and effects of his elevation to the ranks of the secret military IRB, history records him now as being one of seven men who formed the "inner circle." MacDonagh's 2nd Battalion was stationed at the massive complex of Jacob's Biscuit Factory on the outskirts of Dublin City. On the way to their destination, he happened to meet John MacBride (a veteran Fenian) who joined the troops as second in command throughout the week of the Easter Rising. MacBride would full command at some point. MacDonagh's original second in command was Michael O’ Hanarhan.
Despite the fact that that MacDonagh commanded one of strongest battalions, they saw little fighting as the British army avoided the factory -- instead preferring to establish positions in central Dublin. When he received the order to surrender, his battalion was committed to continue the engagement. He ordered his men to stand down and was immediately captured, taken prisoner, and duly court martialled.
As with all the 1916 Easter Rising leaders, the Capuchin Friars were on hand to minister to them.
MacDonagh was a married man with four children. At the age of 38 years, he was executed by firing squad on the 3rd of May, 1916.
P.S. His wife died of heart failure while swimming in Skerries, County Dublin, in 1917.
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