Seán MacDiarmada overcame polio to produce a masterplan for the 1916 Rising.
By Brian Feeney
Seán MacDiarmada organised the Easter Rising. Professor F.X. Martin called him ‘the mainspring’.
Organising was what MacDiarmada did best. He had been doing it all his adult life since the Belfast Irish Republican Brotherhood appointed him in 1907 at the age of 24 as full-time organiser for their republican Dungannon Clubs.
He became known to republicans nationally when he acted as organiser for Sinn Féin in the 1908 by-election in his home county of Leitrim: it was Sinn Féin’s first ever parliamentary contest. Sean T. O’Kelly said MacDiarmada’s efforts made him ‘an sár-fhear [the superman] of Leitrim’.
In March 1908, he moved to Dublin where he hit it off with Tom Clarke, the veteran Fenian recently returned from America.
Soon he was full-time national organiser for the IRB, paid by Clan na Gael money from the US which Clarke controlled. From 1908 until his execution, MacDiarmada travelled the country, continually recruiting men for the IRB, an organisation which had withered since the 1880s.
In 1911, MacDiarmada suffered a serious health shock when he contracted polio, probably from dirty water he had used on his travels. However, within four months he was active again, walking on a stick, sometimes on a hurley.
From 1911 MacDiarmada was also the business manager of Irish Freedom, in effect the IRB newspaper. In that capacity he developed contacts all over Ireland with local circulation managers of the paper, in most cases men he had recruited into the IRB.
By 1912, MacDiarmada and Clarke had taken control of the IRB. From then on, they acted as a two-man executive of the IRB, Clarke as treasurer and MacDiarmada as secretary.
For MacDiarmada, none of this activity was simply a matter of doing a job. As manager of Irish Freedom, he kept working through meal times until he finished the task in hand. Working for Irish independence was a vocation which consumed his life.
Everything he did was a function of that aim. His spare time was taken up with Irish-Ireland activities. He was a member of the Keating branch of the Gaelic League, an IRB hotbed. Other members included Cathal Brugha, Thomas MacDonagh, Thomas Ashe, Éamonn Ceannt.
The branch had its own Irish language journal, Banba, and a drama society, Na hAisteoirí, which staged plays in Irish. MacDiarmada acted in them.
He had started to call himself Seán MacDiarmada in 1906, which is how he signed the 1911 census. He was only being accurate when he described his religion on the census form as ‘Náisiúntacht na hÉireann’ (Irish nationalist).
MacDiarmada was obsessed with secrecy. He had imbibed from Tom Clarke the stories of betrayal of Fenians by informers and agents provocateurs.
MacDiarmada was determined to prevent information leaking out and he was substantially successful. He left no political testament. His surviving letters are personal rather than political.
Indeed, the irony is that if it were not for police surveillance reports, little would be known about his travels as IRB national organiser.
By 1913, with the formation of the Volunteers, MacDiarmada and Clarke at last had their army to enable them to mount an insurrection. From 1914, the IRB was determined there must be a rising before the war ended and accordingly MacDiarmada threw himself into its organisation.
As a ‘ticket-of-leave’ man, Clarke could be sent back to jail for any misdemeanour so MacDiarmada increasingly took the lead role. By 1915, he held in his grasp lines of communication to all the leading figures in the Irish Volunteers across the country who had rejected John Redmond’s call to arms in September 1914.
His planning and organising were done surreptitiously, under the noses of the official Volunteer command structure and of most of his fellow-members of the IRB Supreme Council. Until the last minute it seemed MacDiarmada would pull it off.
The Rising that took place was not the one MacDiarmada had organised or envisaged. There is good evidence there was a national plan kept in a safe in his office, not a ‘blood sacrifice’.
MacDiarmada had organised an enormous coordinated uprising with hundreds of men available in Kerry and Limerick, 1,000 in Cork, 700 in County Galway and 1,300 in Armagh, Down, Louth and Meath, not to mention the four battalions in the Dublin brigade. German weapons would arm the men of the south-west.
Over two days, the plan fell apart. The German weapons consignment was lost. Then the fatal countermanding order scuppered the deployment of volunteers around the country.
Nevertheless, MacDiarmada was intent on pressing on regardless, like his hero Robert Emmet. He believed that if Ireland did not demonstrate a will for independence by an insurrection, then the British government could claim that Irish people were content to be governed by the British.
MacDiarmada had devoted his life to that belief and the importance of his role is illustrated by the fact that his signature on the Proclamation of the Irish Republic is second only to Tom Clarke’s.
Brian Feeney is head of history at St Mary’s University College, Belfast, a political commentator, and author of Seán MacDiarmada in the 16 Lives biography series published by O’Brien Press.