Historian of twentieth century Ireland Dr. Brian Hughes, biographer of Michael Mallin, considers objects and memorabilia relating to the men who were executed for their part in the events of Easter Week.
Ordinary men, extraordinary lives
The leaders of the Easter Rising were a socially diverse group of individuals. They ranged from a socialist organiser and agitator to the son of a propertied papal count; from a railway clerk to a schoolmaster; from a silk-weaver to a university lecturer. They came from humble and not so humble backgrounds, and had a whole range of different formative experiences. Each forged their own unique path to Easter Week 1916. Not all among them shared Patrick Pearse’s oft-quoted, if less often understood, vision of ‘blood sacrifice’, nor did they all share James Connolly’s Marxist socialism. Only seven of the sixteen men executed for their part in the Rising put their name to the now iconic proclamation of the Irish republic. Even still, there may not have been universal agreement on all it contained. Tom Clarke’s wife, Kathleen, for example, later suggested that one of the signatories (unnamed) had not approved of the reference to female suffrage.
The leaders of the rising were very different men in many ways, but they all shared the same ultimate fate: execution by firing squad. Fourteen of the men were executed in Dublin, one in Cork, while Roger Casement was hanged in London. All form part of what has been termed a ‘revolutionary generation’ of Irish men and women. Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Plunkett are most often recognised as the poets among the executed leaders, but Con Colbert and Thomas Kent also composed lines of patriotic and nationalist verse; Michael O’Hanrahan published a novel, The swordsman of the brigade, in 1914. Pearse and James Connolly were prolific writers and publishers both contributing to the radical journalism of the era. Perhaps tellingly, most held secretarial or administrative experience outside of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Irish Volunteers, or Irish Citizen Army. Seán Mac Diarmada, for example, was a full-time organiser for the Dungannon Clubs and Sinn Féin League, Éamonn Ceannt was a co-founder and honorary secretary of the Dublin Pipers’ Club (Cumann na bPíobairí), Michael Mallin served at least six years as secretary of the silk weavers’ trade union. Seán Heuston and Con Colbert were prominent organisers of the republican boy scout movement Fianna Éireann. The Gaelic League brought many of these men together, often for the first time. Pearse was secretary of the League’s publications committee, Ceannt was elected to its governing body in 1909, MacDonagh was on the Kilkenny branch executive, O’Hanrahan was secretary of the chief Gaelic League branch, and Clarke and MacDiarmada were active members in Dublin.
These men also led interested and varied lives outside of Irish revolutionary activism. Roger Casement was the reluctant recipient of a knighthood for trailblazing humanitarian work in the Belgian Congo. John MacBride organised a Boer brigade during the second Boer War, retaining the title ‘Major’ for the rest of his life, and later had a tempestuous marriage to the object of W. B. Yeats’ affections, Maud Gonne. The chronically ill Joseph Plunkett was a champion roller-skater. Michael Mallin was an ex-British soldier whose attempt at chicken farming was cut short by illness and followed by a short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful cinema house. Collectively, the leaders travelled widely – Mallin and Connolly served with the British army in India; Pearse went on a fact-finding mission to Belgium in 1905; Ceannt had an audience with Pope Pius X in Rome in 1908 – and drew influence and inspiration from their wide range of personal experiences.
It might be tempting to paint the leaders of the Rising in exclusively glowing, or even reverential, terms, but we must not forget that they were also men with human lives, human foibles, and human frailties. Pearse could be painfully shy; MacBride was accused by Maud Gonne of infidelity, cruelty, and drunkenness. Facts, rumours, and more, about Casement’s private life and alleged sordid sexual affairs, became public property during his trial and after his execution. But there was also the mundane, the routine, and the everyday. Willie Pearse’s razor, sent in for sharpening before the Rising and never collected by its owner, might offer a poignant reminder that his was a face that still needed to be shaved every day. Recognising all of this should do nothing to undermine their reputations, or their achievements, but allow us a greater understanding of these men as individuals and the forces that drove them to their ends.
The personal effects contained in this exhibition are a further reminder of these human lives, and of the simple nature of their final hours: apparently banal items were kept and cherished. With nothing else to hand in his Kilmainham jail cell Michael O’Hanrahan gave tunic buttons to his sisters; Mallin also enclosed buttons with his final letter to his wife, Agnes; a tunic button given to a nun by Ned Daly was later presented as a gift to his sister Madge. Similarly simple items gathered afterwards from a condemned man’s cell or from his workplace – a walking stick (with concealed sword blade!), rosary beads, a crucifix, a deck of cards, a cap – took on a new, emotional meaning when returned to family members in the wake of the executions. James Connolly’s blood-stained undershirt and Mallin’s hat, replete with bullet holes, give some sense of the dangers experienced during Easter Week. They also serve as evidence that the leaders of the Rising led from the front. Unlike the generals of the Great War, they were there, in the heat of battle, potentially exposed to bullets and bombs in the same way as those under their command; in that sense, it is remarkable that Connolly was the only executed leader to be wounded by gunfire during the fighting.
For those left behind, recovering the belongings of their loved ones was far more important than any monetary value the items may have had. Compensation was, for example, of little use to Áine Ceannt, wife of Eamonn, as she informed a prison official: ‘I applied for the return of his kit etc that I might keep them in memory of him. The goods in question were dear to me as his property but failing their return no money would compensate me.’ For those left behind, more than anything, it was about being able to hold on to a little piece of their loved ones. When Kathleen Clarke (who also lost her brother Ned Daly) was refused the return of her husband’s body to ‘enable me to pay him the last sad rights’, she was left instead with his spectacle case, a pencil, and a book of stamps. In a world where the personal belongings of famous people can sell for significant sums of money, it is worth thinking about what these ordinary items meant to the wives, children, siblings, and parents of their owners.
The political consequences of the Easter Rising are well documented, as are the places of the leaders in that political transformation, but the personal and material consequences for those left behind is less often considered. The image of Thomas MacDonagh holding his young son Donagh on their last family holiday in Greystones, County Wicklow, shows what he and the other leaders stood to lose by taking part in revolution. The images published in the Catholic Bulletin of widows and children in mourning gear, with fathers strikingly absent, vividly bring that loss to the fore. Ceannt, Clarke, Connolly, MacBride, MacDonagh, and Mallin were all married with young children (although MacBride had separated from Maud Gonne). Joseph Plunkett wed Grace Gifford on the eve of his execution and the couple were given just ten minutes together in the condemned man's cell. Those who were unmarried all left behind siblings, and many left surviving parents, not to mention friends, colleagues, and lovers.
The leaders of the Rising were remarkable individuals, as were the men and women who followed their lead during Easter week. Their idealism and vision was matched with bravery and commitment. But they were not saints and lived often normal, sometimes flawed, lives. They had families, friends, hobbies, and interests inside and outside their political activism. A collection of material like that assembled for this exhibition reminds us that we must think about these men not just as they died, or not just in terms of the cause for which they died, but also as they lived, strengths, flaws, and all.
Dr. Brian Hughes is Associate Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Exeter, England and author of Michael Mallin, 16 Lives, (Dublin, 2012).