ÉAMONN CEANNT is, in many ways, the ‘unknown’ man among the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, and the signatories to the proclamation of the Irish Republic. The son of a head constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), he was an unlikely revolutionary. One of Ceannt’s brothers had followed their father into the RIC and another was a professional soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Ceannt himself had a secure, pensionable job in Dublin Corporation. He was very happily married and had a young son.
Some aspects of his life have been well documented – for example that he was a committed cultural nationalist who was passionate about the restoration of the Irish language, and, that, as a founding member of the Pipers’ Club, he was influential in reviving the fortunes of the Irish piper. In September 1908, on a pilgrimage to Rome, he played his pipes for Pope Pius X.
But he was a man of many parts. As a member of the Gaelic League he was an efficient administrator, a well-liked teacher and an enthusiastic event organiser. When it came to the Sinn Féin doctrine of self-sufficiency, he practiced what he preached.
As a young man he explored, although ultimately unsuccessfully, the possibility of setting up a small Irish enterprise – Irish Blue – a type of laundry whitener, as a substitution for the imported English product. He kept hens, experimented with growing mushrooms and wrote on modern soil cultivation methods.
From his earliest days in Dublin Corporation, Ceannt acted on his profound belief in the entitlement of men and women to organise in defence of their rights. He led a successful campaign by his fellow clerks in the Dublin Metropolitan Officers’ Association (DMOA) – a forerunner of today’s IMPACT trade union – in defence of their terms and conditions.
In August 1911, when the foundry owners of Wexford locked out their workers in a dispute over membership of the ITGWU, Ceannt – by then a member of Sinn Féin – publicly disassociated himself from the position taken by his party leader, Arthur Griffith.
Ceannt insisted that ‘the right of free speech, of public meeting, and of organising for a lawful purpose ought to be unquestioned and unquestionable.’
An active member of Sinn Féin, he was appointed to its national council in December 1912.
He used this political platform to voice his conviction that it was the duty of all Irishmen to possess a knowledge of arms. Although this has been used to suggest that Ceannt was the most ‘physical force’ advocate among the 1916 leaders, he made it clear that constitutional methods had their place – but, he insisted, ‘only where the laws of the country have been made and are being administered by the people of that country.’
In a 1912 speech to the Socialist Party of Ireland he highlighted the influence of the threat of physical force by the Ulster Unionists on the politics of England and concluded: ‘an armed opinion will prevail when opposed only by an unarmed opinion. It is the duty of all men to be skilled in the use of arms. Preparation for war is the best guarantee of peace.’
The establishment of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 meant that Ceannt had an Irish army that, with a clear conscience, he could join.
As Captain of “A” Company, 4th Battalion, Ceannt participated in the landing of rifles at Howth on 26 July and at Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, on August 1, 1914.
The outbreak of the war in Europe in September 1914, and the immense propaganda campaign that resulted in thousands of Irish men joining the British Army, finally convinced Ceannt of the inevitability of armed conflict. He was appointed with Patrick Pearse and Joseph Plunkett to the Military Council of the IRB in 1915, and he was irrevocably committed to a policy of physical force.
On Easter Monday morning 1916, as Commandant of the 4th Battalion of the Irish Volunteers in Dublin, he occupied the strategically-located South Dublin Union (now the site of St James’ Hospital), together with outposts in Jameson’s Distillery in Marrowbone Lane; Roe’s Distillery in Mount Brown; and Watkin’s brewery in Ardee Street. As a result of Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order and the decision to defer the Rising to Easter Monday, Ceannt had only 120 Volunteers out of the battalion’s full strength of 700.
During the following week, the 4th Battalion held off a number of sustained attacks by vastly superior British military forces until, under direct orders from the Provisional Government, Ceannt reluctantly surrendered. His cool leadership under pressure, and that of his vice-commandant Cathal Brugha during the intense fighting that took place during Easter 1916 in the South Dublin Union, was praised by his men and has been recognised by recent historians of the period.
Following a hastily convened field court martial, Éamonn Ceannt was executed at daybreak on Monday, May 8, on the same morning as Con Colbert, Sean Heuston and Michael Mallin.
In his final letter Ceannt expressed the hope that ‘… in the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916.’
Even before the final executions were carried out, politicians in Westminster were having serious doubts about the wisdom of leaving the suppression of the Rising in the hands of the British military. The Irish people, who had initially reacted to the Rising with a mixture of outrage and horror, were, as Ceannt had predicted, already developing a dawning respect for the rebels.
Mary Gallagher is author of Éamonn Ceannt in the 16 Lives biography series published by O’Brien Press. She is a grand niece of Eamonn Ceannt and received an MA in modern Irish history in 2011.