Michael Mallin’s letter on the eve of his execution offers a moving insight into his mindset.
By Brian Hughes
On the evening of May 7, 1916, Michael Mallin wrote a letter to his wife Agnes. Mallin had been informed that a death sentence had been confirmed and he was to die at dawn the following morning.
As Chief of Staff of the Irish Citizen Army, Mallin had commanded the garrison of rebels in St Stephen’s Green and the Royal College of Surgeons. With his second-in-command, Constance Markievicz, he surrendered with 109 men and 10 women on Sunday, April 30, 1916.
Mallin’s letter is one of the most striking pieces of writing to emerge directly from Easter week 1916. He begins by reflecting on what is to come:
“My darling wife, pulse of my heart, this is the end of all things earthly; sentence of Death has been passed, and a quarter to four tomorrow the sentence will be carried out by shooting and so must Irishmen pay for trying to make Ireland a free nation, Gods will be done.”
The letter continues in a near stream-of-consciousness style, with little or no punctuation. It is permeated with a sense of regret and anguish about leaving his wife and children “to battle through the world … without me”.
But references to the “Education and general welfare of our dear ones”, the assistance “due to you as the wife one of the fallen”, and “any debts due” are mixed with a defiant and hopeful patriotism. He may regret that the family did not emigrate, or mourn the consequences of the Rising for himself and his family, “but Ireland always came first”.
He clearly demonstrates a conviction that the Rising was justified, writing, “I do not believe our Blood has been shed in vain”; his eldest sons are instructed to “make yourselves good strong men” and “Remember Ireland”. The letter is proudly signed, “Commandant Stephens Green Command”.
Mallin was a sensitive and thoughtful man, and a genuine, if perhaps blinkered, compassion can be seen in his attitude towards those he had raised arms against; he finds “no fault with the soldiers or Police I forgive them from the bottom of my heart”, and asks his wife to “pray for all souls who fell in this fight Irish & English”.
Mallin was also a devout and pious Catholic, and this is clearly echoed in his writing.
He believes that “Ireland will come out greater and grander but she must not forget she is Catholic she must keep her faith”.
In their ‘Events of Easter Week’ columns, published in the months after the Rising, the Catholic Bulletin quoted extracts from the letter, emphasising Mallin’s faith and remarking that “his character is mirrored in the course of his last letter to his wife, written immediately before his execution”.
This Catholicism influenced what now seems a remarkable request made of his children. Mallin asks that his youngest son Joseph and daughter Una join religious orders. On the final page he addresses them directly: “Una my little one be a Nun. Joseph my little man be a priest if you can.”
Una joined the Loreto order while Joseph became a Jesuit; another son John (or Seán) also joined the Jesuits.
In publishing a copy of the letter in the 1960s, Piarais MacLochlainn removed another request. “I would ask a special favour of you wife of my heart, but I leave you absolutely free in the matter don’t give your love to any other man you are only a girl yet and perhaps it is selfish of me to ask it of you.”
It perhaps seemed improper in the 1960s to publish such a personal piece of writing in a book about the 1916 leaders, but it serves as a reminder of their humanity. Mallin was a loving husband and father, aware and clearly affected by the knowledge that his decision to partake in an armed rebellion was about to cost him his family.
The manner in which Mallin writes about his young family — and the very obvious despair felt at leaving them behind — remains most poignant:
“If only you and the little ones were coming too if we could all reach heaven together my heart strings are torn to pieces when I think of you and them of our manly James, happy go lucky John shy warm Una dadys Girl and oh little Joseph my little man.”
The thought of his children very clearly distresses Mallin as he composes the letter: “Wife dear Wife I cannot keep the tears back when I think of him he will rest in my arms no more.”
Later, he offers a father’s blessing on “the heads of my children James John Una Joseph my little man, my little man, my little man, his name unnerves me again, all your dear faces arise before me God bless you God bless you my darlings.”
Michael Mallin’s last letter, and those quotes about his family in particular, are a reminder that while the political and symbolic significance of 1916 is well understood, its personal consequences for those who fought, and those left behind, is much less so.
Brian Hughes is working on a PhD dealing with the Irish Revolution 1917-1922, and is author of ‘Michael Mallin’ in the O’Brien Press series of biographies on the executed leaders, ‘16 Lives’. His M.Phil in Modern Irish History was completed at Trinity College, Dublin with a dissertation on Michael Mallin. He also works as a tour guide with the Office of Public Works in Maynooth Castle.