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Seán Mac Diarmada
Séan Mac Diarmada, from Co. Leitrim served in the GPO during Easter week. Photo: Irish Life, May 19 1916. Full collection available at the National Library of Ireland

Seán Mac Diarmada

Seán Mac Diarmada was born in January 1883 in Corranmore, Co. Leitrim. He studied at the local national school, and later attempted to qualify as a teacher but failed the exams. After working briefly as a gardener in Edinburgh, he moved to Belfast where he lived worked between 1905 and 1906. While in Belfast he had joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians but his views of the national situation became ever more radicalised and by 1906 he had been sworn in as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Mac Diarmada was appointed as a full-time organiser of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and given the role of promoting the cause of republicanism across Ulster. In 1907, shortly after the creation of Sinn Féin and he was a national organiser for the party, charged with establishing branches across the island. In 1908 Mac Diarmada moved to Dublin and was appointed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood supreme council as national organiser of the secret organisation.

It is clear from 1908, and particularly given his close relationship with Thomas Clarke, that Mac Diarmada was a key driving force in radicalising the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He played a central role in the recruitment of young activists into the ranks of the Brotherhood and also worked tirelessly in infiltrating other nationally minded organisations such as the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association.

Despite suffering an acute illness during 1908 that affected his mobility, Mac Diarmada’s life was centred around his work for the Irish Republican Brotherhood and by 1913 he had been elected secretary of the supreme council. He was present at the foundation of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 and worked as a paid Volunteer organiser establishing units across the country. Mac Diarmada saw the Volunteers as an army that might be used in any future insurrection and through his organisational work ensured that many lead positions within the Volunteers, at national and local level, were filled by men from the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Mac Diarmada’s strength was as an organiser of the first order and had the greatest knowledge and insight into the politics and personnel of both the Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

On the outbreak of the First World War Mac Diarmada rejected John Redmond’s Woodenbridge speech in September 1914 that pledged the Volunteers to the British war effort. In the resulting split within the Volunteers Mac Diarmada emerged as a leading figure in the smaller, more radical Irish Volunteers. In May 1915 he was sent to prison for four months for making an anti-recruitment speech, and after his release he joined the secret military council of the Brotherhood that would plan the Rising. He was an active force in the detail of the planning for the Rising, and was also responsible for persuading James Connolly to commit the Irish Citizen Army to the insurrection.

In the days leading up to the Rising Mac Diarmada was highly active in ensuring that it would take place. On Good Friday he used the promised delivery of German arms to convince a sceptical Eoin MacNeill to commit to the Rising and, following MacNeill’s later countermanding order was instrumental in ensuring that the Rising actually happened on Easter Monday.

As one of the military architects of the Rising Mac Diarmada played a key role in directing rebel actions during Easter week. He served in the General Post Office as adjunct to Connolly, and by the end of the week was instrumental in the break out from the burning building. On 29 April it was Mac Diarmada who read out the surrender order to the GPO garrison which was by that time based in Moore Street.

On 30 April Mac Diarmada was moved to Richmond barracks. He was placed before the courts martial on 9 May and mounted a strong defence against the evidence. His fight in court was to no avail, and he was executed on the same day as Connolly, the 12 May 1916.

Dr Fearghal McGarry explains how Seán Mac Diarmada became one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation. 

Further reading:
Brian Feeney, 16 Lives: Seán Mac Diarmada (Dublin, 2014)

Mac Diarmada statue, Kiltyclogher (dedicated 1940)
Mac Diarmada railway station, Sligo (dedicated 1966)
Mac Diarmada homestead, Corranmore (purchased by the state in 1964)


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.