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Thomas MacDonagh
Historic Kilkenny

Kilkenny teacher and Irish revolutionary Thomas MacDonagh, was born in Cloughjordan, Tipperary on the 1st of February 1878.


His parents who were both National School teachers. MacDonagh was educated at Rockwell College, Cashel, where he would later begin training to become a priest. He abandoned that path in 1901 and then worked as a school teacher at St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. While in Kilkenny he attended at Gaelic League meetings and quickly became an activist. He was elected to the local Gaelic League Committee and immersed himself in the Irish language. He also taught in Rothe House. By 1905 he had left the League and moved on to teach at St Colman’s College, Fermoy, where he also established himself as a published poet. Three years later he moved to a new position, as resident assistant headmaster at St Enda’s, Patrick Pearse’s school then based in Ranelagh. In 1911, after completing his BA and MA at UCD, he was appointed lecturer in English at the same institution. In 1912 he married Muriel Gifford, sister of Grace, who would later marry Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol.

In the years prior to the Rising MacDonagh became active in Irish literary circles and was a co-founder of the Irish Review and, with Plunkett, of the Irish Theatre on Hardwicke Street. MacDonagh was a witness to Bloody Sunday in 1913 and this event appears to have radicalised him so that he moved away from the circles of the literary revival and embraced political activism. He joined the Irish Volunteers in December 1913 and was appointed to the body’s governing committee.

In 1914 he rejected John Redmond’s appeal for the Volunteers to join the fight in the First World War. On 9 September 1914 he attended the secret meeting that agreed to plan for an armed insurrection against British rule. By March 1915 he had been sworn into the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was also serving on the central executive of the Irish Volunteers, was director of training for the Volunteers and commandant of the 2nd Battalion of the Dublin Brigade.

MacDonagh was made privy to the actual plans for the Rising in April 1916 and then joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s secret military council that would organise the rebellion. In the chaotic hours of late Easter Saturday when Eoin MacNeill issued his countermanding order, MacDonagh was the messenger between the military council and MacNeill.

On Easter Monday MacDonagh was in command of 150 Volunteers and took control of the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. While the Factory was a useful site for Volunteer snipers to work from, the area was not attacked by British forces and the week was largely uneventful with MacDonagh and his force remaining in control of the building until the following Sunday. When faced with the surrender order, MacDonagh initially refused to accept it stating that as Pearse was in custody. He only agreed to surrender after he had met with General Lowe and been driven to the South Dublin Union to meet with Éamonn Ceannt.

MacDonagh was found guilty by the British courts martial that followed the Rising, and sentenced to death. He was executed by firing squad on 3 May 1916 on the same day as Pearse and Tom Clarke.

MacDonagh is also associated with the Archer Mansion which is on High Street, of which a huge portion of the building's Medieval fabric survives, it should definitely be restored. The building is of the same importance as Rothe House, and like it, has more than one house. The inner house is now the Hole In The Wall.

MacDonagh's speech in Kilkenny on the 5th of March 1914:
I am attending tonight as the representative of the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers, we have began in Dublin and have three thousand men drilling and preparing to serve their country in this cause. Kilkenny is the first place that we are looking to in Leinster and all Ireland, for help in this movement, and from the meeting tonight we know that we had not counted falsely in counting on Kilkenny. Personally, I owe a debt of gratitude to Kilkenny. It was in Kilkenny that I received my first baptism of Nationalism. Twelve years ago I came to Kilkenny and it was in the national spirit of this town that I first learned what it was to feel the patriotism of an Irish man. As Roger Casement has said the work we have to do is urgent and it is our duty to set about it immediately. Our business is to drill and prepare ourselves to be efficient in the cause of Ireland. The Irish volunteers have been founded to secure the rights and liberties, common to all the people of Ireland. We have no rights and liberties to maintain at the present moment; we have been slaves in our own country. We were the only people who are ineffective and unable to defend themselves against foreign aggression. If a foreign power came to this country favourable or unfavourable to Ireland, 60000 English territorials will be landed in this country. The Irish people will have to take them into our own homes, put them up, feed them and entertain them, to preserve Ireland, forsooth for the British crown. The people are not going to have that. Within this year we hope to enroll a quarter of a million men in the Irish volunteers. The body I represent is not a political body; it is an Irish body a National body. We have no party or religious test. Our system is a territorial system. People of different religions, of different political parties, will drill side by side. The battle had not yet been won, and it is possible the Irish People will have to make a great sacrifice, perhaps the greatest sacrifice of all. This organisation of the Irish Volunteers has grown out of an organisation instituted in this Country since the days of O’Connell, under such leaders as George Henry Moore, who, in 1861, advocated Irish Volunteers under the Fenian leaders; under Parnell and under the present leader of the Irish Party, and, to mention a leader more peculiarly my own, under the leaders of the Gaelic League . This movement is the culmination of those movements. The other night a Frenchman came to the hall in which my company was drilling. In France every citizen was a soldier, every man was trained to use arms, and this Frenchman could not very well understand how it was that the men he saw training in that company should think it necessary to spend their evenings drilling. I explained that it was only the other day we got permission to do such a thing at all, and my visitor expressed his astonishment, but said the patriotism that inspired us was magnificent. The Irish Volunteer movement is going to give an opportunity to the manhood of the country to prove it -self.

There will be a difficulty in getting rifles but it will not require an enormous amount of money to buy them. No man is too old or too young to work for his country in this matter. At the end of this meeting those who want to enroll in the Irish volunteers, should go to the town hall and give in their names. Later on arrangements for drilling ect. will be made. This is a democratic organisation. We do not want this country to be governed by force or by corruption and if this Home Rule Bill is passed the country will be governed for a long time by corruption, doles and bribes to every department of life in Ireland.

It is not necessary to appeal to my friends of the Gaelic League to become Irish Volunteers. If a quarter of a million of Irishmen were trained and drilled in the use of arms, we will be able to give to Ireland whatever government we like.

He was very much shaped by Kilkenny and influenced by many movements and people here, such as the Gaelic League. He also in turn shaped the people of Kilkenny by influencing them to join his fight for Irish freedom.

Thomas MacDonagh was executed on the On the 3rd of May 1916, he has not been forgotten. In Kilkenny, 'MacDonagh Station', 'MacDonagh Shopping Centre' and 'MacDonagh Week' all bear his name and events and talks take place throughout the year dedicated to his life.

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