One of the lesser known, but major figures, in the 1916 uprising is Sean McDermott. If you don’t know his story, don’t feel alone. He is so little known that you can’t even find him on the internet. You’ll find Sean McDermott the actor, Sean McDermott the singer, Sean McDermott the NFL star, Sean McDermott the missionary, and even Sean McDermott the U.S. Navy C2/E2 pilot of the year 2005. The only way to find our Sean McDermott is to look up his name the way he signed it on the proclamation of the Irish Republic – in the Irish language: Sean MacDiarmada – a name that was on British secret police files for years until his death.
Seán MacDiarmada was born on February 28, 1883 in small Co. Leitrim town near the Donegal border, where there now stands a monument to his memory. Sean was born there, but ran away at age 15 and went to Glasgow where his uncle was a gardener. He worked for a time with his uncle, but soon took a job as a conductor on the Glasgow trams. After 2 years, he went to Belfast and worked as a tram conductor, and later as a barman.
In Belfast, he joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians which was closely associated with the Irish Parliamentary Party. While the AOH were then considered to be the custodians of Irish nationalism, MacDiarmada looked for and joined other Irish nationalist organizations as well, including Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League. He gave a speech at a Sinn Féin convention in Dublin that made a deep impression on all who heard him. Described as “strikingly handsome and earnest, speaking with natural eloquence and a sincerity which held his audience”, he was also called lighthearted with a gift of telling a humorous story and a tongue that was witty without being malicious. Then, in 1906, MacDiarmada took the oath of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and it changed his life forever.
He moved to Dublin in 1908, and met the veteran Fenian Tom Clarke who had been sent back to Ireland from America to reorganize the IRB. MacDiarmada was tireless in his efforts to spread the IRB across the country. As a result Tom Clarke took the young dynamo under his wing, and made him a national organizer for the Brotherhood. A strong friendship developed and, over the years, MacDiarmada and Clarke became nearly inseparable. Then tragedy struck. MacDermott was afflicted with polio. After a long recuperation, however, he threw himself back into the nationalist movement. Though now forced use a cane just to walk about, his infirmity never slowed him down nor dampened his nationalist spirit.
In 1910 he became manager of the newspaper “Irish Freedom”, which he founded with Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough. In November 1913 he was one of the original members of the Irish Volunteers formed at the Rotunda by Padraic Pearse, and worked tirelessly to bring that organization under IRB control. Sean became Secretary of the IRB and in May 1915 he was arrested in Tuam, County Galway, under the Defense of the Realm Act for giving a speech against enlisting in the British Army for WWI. Released in September, he was invited to join the IRB’s secret Military Committee, to plan a rising against the Crown. Indeed, it was he and Tom Clarke who were most responsible for planning the Easter Rising of 1916. And, in spite of his handicap, Sean MacDiarmada limped into that milestone of Irish history, carrying his cane not as a crutch of dependence, but as a scepter of authority, as part of the HQ staff of James Connolly. It was MacDiarmada who read Pearse’s letter of surrender to those in the G.P.O.
After the Rising was put down by the British, and the rebels taken captive, a sneering British officer remarked as MacDiarmada limped by, “No wonder the Sinn Feiners lost, with such cripples in their army.” MacDiarmada made no reply. In fact, he almost escaped execution by blending in with the crowd of prisoners until a British officer named Lee-Wilson, pointed him out saying “take the man with the stick, he’s the most dangerous man here after Tom Clarke.” Lee-Wilson was later killed during the Irish War of Independence on the orders of one of MacDiarmada’s closest friends – a big fella by the name of Michael Collins.
On May 12, 1916, Sean MacDiarmada was murdered by the Crown in the Stonebreaker’s Yard of Kilmainham Jail; the same day as his comrade James Connolly. They were the last two to face the firing squad. In 1922, poet Seamus O’Sullivan wrote:
They have slain you, Sean MacDermott; never more these eyes will greet
The eyes beloved by women and the smile that true men loved;
Never more I’ll hear the stick-tap, and the gay and limping feet,
They have slain you, Sean the Gentle, Sean the valiant, Sean the proved.