Friday, 9 January 2015

Seán MacDiarmada, the man, and a personal connection.

Seán MacDiarmada, the Mind of the Revolution. 
Gerard MacAtasney. Drumlin Publications, Manorhamilton, 2004.

Written on November 17th 2004
This review is a copy of a letter I sent to the author after I had read the book.

I was delighted to get the copy of your biography of Seán MacDiarmada which I have read in its entirety. It arrived just as I was laid low with influenza so it kept my fevered mind occupied. You are to be congratulated on producing the first biography of a historical figure who has been neglected by historians for too long. Your account of the lead up to 1916 from 1907 was very revealing and gives an excellent insight to the forces which lead up to the rebellion. What emerges from your biography was the fact that Seán MacDiarmada, although implacable in his early commitment to violence and revolution, was otherwise such a normal and popular figure and had come from such a humble background.

There is no doubt that MacDiarmada, with his hard work, his flair for organisation, his popularity with others, and his devotion to the cause, was the prime influence leading to the rebellion. It could not have taken place without him, a fact relatively few people are aware of. Even Tom Clarke, with his lifetime of sufferings at the hands of the British, and the encouragement and support of Clan na nGaedheal, could not have provided the necessary impetus without him. Others, such as Pearse and Connolly, also played a role in initiating the Rising but I doubt if they would have succeeded without the years of preparation by McDiarmada and his extraordinary discretion and success in hiding his plans from all except the chosen few in the IRB. Even his closest friends had no idea of his carefully laid plans up to the weekend of the Rising. Ulick O’Connor reminds me that when Pearse visited John Devoy in the United States in 1915, he so impressed Devoy that the latter concluded that Pearse had all the qualities of inspiration, dedication and patriotic culture which made him a natural figure to lead the rebellion. Pearse’s seminal role in the Rising could not have evolved without the years of preparation by McDiarmada and without his influence and  that of Tom Clarke.

I found the text well written and readable. Otherwise I could not have read it as quickly as I did. There were many interesting insights, including the roles of McCullough, Pat McCarton and Hobson who were early separatists in Belfast and the North. It was revealing how these three men, living in the unionist stronghold of Ulster, had such an early influence on the evolution of IRB policies, although they do not appear to have had the same radical outlook with the passage of time, perhaps because of the more hostile situation for the nationalists in Ulster. I know that McCullough did mobilise his group at the time of the Rising but he was in an impossible situation, isolated as he was in the North. I have always felt that his heart was not in the action once it had failed to involve the provinces. It is doubtful if even McDiarmada would have succeeded in organising the Rebellion without the early influence and encouragement of the three Northern patriots, and without McDiarmada’s early work in organising the Dungannon Clubs.

I was interested in the politicising of the Gaelic League and I did not know that it was the IRB leadership which was so influential in bringing about this unfortunate development. I have little doubt that the Gaelic League, if it had remained outside the political arena, would have contributed more to our language, culture and the national movement than it subsequently did. The move certainly alienated the more moderate section of the middle class Protestants. However, I suppose that it was unlikely that it could remain detached from the more extreme forms of politics, taking the fervent political activities of the early twentieth century. It would certainly have remained a more ecumenical Irish language movement if it had continued the neutral political policies of Douglas Hyde.

A letter from Seán to Mother, a month before the rising.
I was glad you had access to MacDiarmada’s letters to my mother as his association confirmed his very normal social and human side. It is hard not to see a parallel between letters to my mother and those from Michael Collins to Kitty Kiernan – the same frenetic activity and missed appointments, the impression that they were written while he was actually on the move, and the same discretion in relation to his political work. There was one important difference between McDiarmada and Collins. Collins was a dominating figure, both in the military and political areas. He was hugely admired by his intimates, including my father who was his chief of staff during the War of Independence, but he acquired enemies during his short and meteoric career because of his propensity to suffer fools and the incompetent badly, and perhaps too because of jealousy among his lesser political colleagues. Seán Mcdiarmada was greatly loved by all, lacked Collins’ brusqueness and was not the subject of resentment by his colleagues, largely because of his discretion and the secret nature of his work. Padraig O’Keeffe, secretary of Sinn Fein during the War of Independence, spoke of the anti-Treaty vote in the Dáil in January 1922. According to him it was partly an anti-Collins vote. O’Keeffe knew all the military and political leaders of the national movement during the War of Independence, the Truce and the Civil War. He was a good and impartial judge of his colleagues. His detailed account of the period is contained in several of the tapes he recorded with my father in the 1960s.

Whatever one might think of the merits of the 1916 rebellion, and there are plenty of revisionists about, it is remarkable that a society which, apart from Griffith and his small coterie of followers, had reached a low ebb in terms of nationalism and separatism had changed dramatically and almost entirely to extreme nationalism and even separatism within six short years. Would our status as an independent nation within the Commonwealth have been achieved as early or at all if 1916 had not taken place? We would certainly have been spared the Civil War, the greatest calamity to hit us since the Union. No doubt historians (and Kevin Myers!) will continue to speculate about such matters but it is clear that MacDiarmada was one of the principle architects of our recent turbulent history.

Since reading your biography, I read a short monograph about Griffith by George Lyons, published in 1923. I was reminded about the many strands of nationalism in Ireland at the time, extending from the most ardent unionists to the radical leaders of the Rebellion. It was surely a miracle that we did find a solution which went some way towards reconciling those with so many political differences and perhaps in the early twenty first century the country will have reached the final goals of unity and independence.  

Your book is an important addition to my library.

My Mother Min in 1921
PS recorded on 10/1/2014: Seán Mac Diarmada was close to my mother, then Mary Josephine ‘Min’ Ryan, who was an active member of Cumann na mBan. There exists 24 of his letters to her, the last of these written on the Friday before the weekend of the Rising. I have also read his final letter before his execution which he asked to be sent to his family in which he stated that he and Min would likely have married if he had survived  the rebellion.

Editor's note: In July 1916 Min was asked to contribute to the book “The Irish Rebellion of 1916 and it’s Martyrs". She wrote about the last time that she saw Seán McDermott in his cell in Kilmainham Jail. She and her sister Phyllis spent three hours with him before he was executed at four in the morning. She describes in a matter of fact but moving account his composure, his concern for those he was leaving behind, and his calm acceptance of his approaching death.  After his execution she wrote

At four o’clock that Friday morning when the shooting party had done their work, a gentle rain began to fall. I remember feeling that at last there was some harmony in Nature. These were assuredly the tears of my dark Rosaleen over one of her most beloved sons.

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