Thomas MacDonagh was born 1 February 1878 in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary, to 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 1901 and then worked as a school teacher at St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. While in Kilkenny he attended a Gaelic League meeting and quickly became an activist. He was elected to the local Gaelic League Committee and immersed himself in the Irish language. 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 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.
Shane Kenna, 16 Lives: Thomas MacDonagh (Dublin, 2014)
MacDonagh Railway Station in Kilkenny (dedicated 1966)
Memorial Statue, Golden, Co. Tipperary.
Thomas MacDonagh Tower, Ballymun (built 1965, demolished 2003)
Thomas MacDonagh Heritage Centre, Cloughjordan (opened 2013)