The Sorrows of May

The month of May is a special month in the roster of Ireland’s heroes. It was in that month, in 1916, that some of Ireland’s greatest patriots were murdered by a British firing squad. They had come together in a dream; a dream eloquently articulated by Padraic Pearse; skillfully organized by Tom Clarke; expertly planned by Joseph Mary Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh: brilliantly guided by James Connolly; and courageously executed by Sean McDermott, Ed Daly, Micheal O’Hanrahan, Willie Pearse, John MacBride, Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt, Con Colbert, Sean Heuston , Eamon deValera and the men under their commands.

The dream was for an independent Ireland and Pearse passionately wrote of that dream in his poem, The Fool:

The Lawyers have sat in Council, the men with the keen long faces,
and said This man is a fool, and others have said he blasphemeth;
and the wise have pitied the fool who strove to give a life to a dream
that was dreamed in the heart and that only the heart can hold.
O Wise Men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true,
What if the dream come true and millions unborn shall dwell
in the house that I shaped in my heart?

To bring that dream to reality, brave men joined the Irish Volunteers, The Citizens’ Army, The Hibernian Rifles, Fianna Éireann, the Foresters, and equally brave ladies joined Cumann na mBan. Following the formation of the Provisional Government, as outlined in the Proclamation, these organizations formally became known as Óglaigh na Éireann, (the Irish Republican Army), under the command of James Connolly. The organization mustered into five commands: the 1st battalion under Commandant Ned Daly, the 2nd battalion under Commandant Thomas MacDonagh, the 3rd battalion under Commandant Éamon de Valera and the 4th battalion under Commandant Éamonn Ceannt. The 5th command was a joint force of Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and ladies of Cumann na mBan under the command of Commandant James Connolly as part of the headquarters command which, in addition to Connolly, included four other members of the Military Council: Patrick Pearse, President and Commander-in-Chief, Tom Clarke, Seán MacDermott and Joseph Mary Plunkett.

Last minute misfortunes upset the timetable of the Rising and after 7 days of fighting it became evident that the British had successfully isolated communications from Dublin and nationwide support would not materialize. After British Army casualties of 116 dead and 368 wounded; Police casualties of 16 dead and 29 wounded; and civilian casualties of 318 dead and 2,217 wounded, Pearse, seeing no hope of success, decided to surrender to stop the bloodshed. The Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army recorded 64 killed in action.

The British ordered the arrest of all who had supported the movement even if they were not in the Dublin rising. A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested and General Maxwell, in secret Court Martial sentenced more than 100 to be executed. One attempt to arrest members of the nationalist Kent family in County Cork on 2 May led to a Constable being shot dead in a gun battle. Thomas Kent was arrested and became the only rebel leader outside of Dublin to be executed for his role in the dream.

The Sorrows of May began on May 3 with the murder of Padraic Pearse, Clarke and McDonagh. On May 4, Daly, Willie Pearse, O’Hanrahan, and Plunkett were shot and May 5 saw the killing of Maj. John MacBride. Since May 6 and 7 were a Saturday and Sunday, the Brits gave their executioners the weekend off. On Monday, May 8 the slaughter commenced again with the homicides of Mallin, Ceannt, Colbert, and Heuston. Then, on May 9, Thomas Kent was slain at Cork Detention Barracks. A manuscript recently found in the Capuchin Archives in Church Street, Dublin revealed just how uncaring the executions were. Father Columbus Murphy, a Capuchin priest, was called on to help administer to the prisoners prior to their execution. He and Fathers Augustine, Albert, and Sebastian OFM Cap were allowed only a short time to exercise their ministry. He described the whole process as callously informal. The governor said a name and gave a signal. The prisoner’s hands were then tied behind his back, and a bandage placed over his eyes. Two soldiers, one on either side, guided the prisoner, and the priest went in front.

When the prisoner reached the outer door another soldier pinned a piece of white paper over his heart. The procession went along one yard, then through a gate leading to the stonebreaker’s yard. Here the firing squad of 12 soldiers was waiting, rifles loaded. An officer stood to the left; on the right were the governor and the doctor. The prisoner was led to the front wall and was turned to face the firing-squad. The two soldiers guiding him withdrew quickly to one side. There was a silent signal from the officer; then a deafening volley. The prisoner fell in a heap on the ground – dead. After the executions the friars were driven back to the friary where they celebrated Mass for the repose of the souls of the executed men. The public were horrified at the slaughter.

In the House of Commons, John Dillon, Irish Parliamentary Party MP, demanded an end to the killing. He intervened with Lloyd George to halt the 97 remaining sentences of execution pronounced by General Maxwell during court-martial without defense council nor jury. Dillon insisted that if they continued they would fill the whole country with rebels. He declared in the House that the rebels were wrong, but had fought a clean fight. His intervention resulted in Prime Minister Asquith sending a telegram to Maxwell to halt the executions until he arrived on May 12 to investigate for himself. On the morning of May 12, Maxwell defied the order and had Sean MacDermott brought to the Stonebreaker’s Yard at Kilmainham and shot. Then he ordered the wounded James Connolly brought from hospital; his ankle, shattered by a bullet during the rising, had gangrened from a lack of treatment. He was carried, in great pain, into the yard on a stretcher, placed on a chair against the back wall, nearest the entry gate, and propped up to receive the bullets for sharing a dream. When Asquith arrived, he commuted the remaining death sentences to terms of imprisonment, but it was too late; the fuse had been lit.

Following the Rising, the manner in which the trials and executions were carried out in secret, changed public opinion to sympathy for the rebels. The self-sacrifice of the leaders for the dream of a free Ireland, the bravery of the rank-and-file and the nauseating manner in which Connolly had been killed at last moved even the most liberal among the public to intense anti-British sentiment. Meanwhile, the 3,000 ‘rebels’ who had been picked up in the military sweep ordered by Maxwell, had been deported to Britain and held in prisons and internment camps which served as virtual academies of sedition. When the government realized they could not afford to house and feed all those interned, the declared a general amnesty secure in the belief that the Irish had once again been duly spanked into submission. On their return home, the Irishmen immediately set about building an army of opposition; it was called the Irish Republican Army and it would eventually fight the Brits to the treaty table after a brutal War of Independence. The leaders may have died, but the dream did not. And true to Pearse’s words, millions have dwelt in the house that he shaped in his heart in spite of the fact that the landlord still holds a small piece of the property!

Sean MacDairmada

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.