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1916 Rising Leaders & Faces

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One hundred years ago this Easter, seven men from very different backgrounds journeyed into Dublin's city centre. They were sons and husbands, teachers, poets, journalists; each one determined to fight for his own vision of Ireland. This year, as we commemorate the history of Dublin City, we look at the personal stories behind the 1916 Easter Rising leaders and the six days that would mark the beginning of Ireland's journey towards independence.

The events of the 1916 Easter Rising are engraved on the identity of the nation – it's part and parcel of who we are. Names like Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Eamon Ceannt have been familiar to Dubliners since their days in school, but sometimes we forget the real human stories behind the historical records.

As city-wide tributes and cultural highlights hit Dublin and the rest of the country this spring, we'll commemorate the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, an event that changed Ireland's landscape forever. It was on the steps of the General Post Office on 24 April 1916 that seven Irishmen declared the establishment of the Irish Republic with the Proclamation of Independence. Irish volunteers rose up together in rebellion against British rule and fought for independence, shaking Dublin to its core.

The Irish rebels were left defeated; outnumbered and outgunned, with supplies running low and the city centre in ruins, they surrendered on 29 April. Doubts were cast on the leaders of the rebellion by those left unconvinced that fighting the British Crown was the right decision. Delve deeper into the lives and loves of the key players of the 1916 Easter Rising however, and you'll understand the passions and personalities that helped shape our heritage.

Joseph Mary Plunkett

Born into an affluent Dublin family, Joseph Plunkett was a poet and journalist who had contracted tuberculosis at a very young age. Just days before the fighting began, Plunkett had an operation on the glands in his neck. Adamant that he was not going to allow his comrades to fight while he recuperated, he joined the garrison at the General Post Office (GPO) still bandaged and weak.

When the rebels surrendered, Plunkett was among those taken to Kilmainham Gaol where he was permitted to marry the love of his life, Grace Gifford. Grace was summoned to Kilmainham Gaol on 3 May and the two were married in the prison chapel. They were given just ten short minutes to sit together.

At dawn the next morning, Plunkett was executed by firing squad. He was 28.

1916 Rising Leaders & Faces
1916 Rising Leaders & Faces

James Connolly

Born to impoverished Irish immigrant parents in Edinburgh, Scotland, James Connolly did not set foot on Irish soil until he was 14 years old, although from his early years, he was passionate about the Irish Republican cause. It is said that he wrote the majority of the 1916 Proclamation, original copies of which can be viewed in Trinity College Library or the National Museum of Decorative Arts and History.

On Easter Monday he served as Commandant General at the GPO and was badly wounded during the fighting. Following the surrender, he was taken to hospital where he remained until summoned for execution. 

Many historians cite the death of James Connolly as pivotal in gaining public support for the volunteers. Connolly was transported by ambulance from Dublin Castle, which had been converted to a first-aid station, to the stoneyard at Kilmainham Gaol. Unable even to sit upright, he was tied to the chair and executed on 12 May 1916. 

Patrick Pearse

A teacher, barrister and poet, Patrick Pearse is one of the most well-known leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. His father was an English-born stone carver, but Patrick was more influenced by his mother’s family, who were native Irish speakers. He believed that language was intrinsic to the identity of a nation. 

It was Pearse who read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from outside the GPO on Easter Monday and it was Pearse who issued the surrender five days later. 

He was among the first of the rebels to be executed on 3 May 1916. His younger brother Willie had been permitted to see him one last time before he was executed. However, as Willie made his way to his brother’s cell, he heard the sound of the fatal gunshots that took his life. Willie would outlive his brother by about 24 hours, as he was executed the next day. 

The general commanding the British forces in Ireland, Sir John Maxwell, withheld letters and poems which Pearse wrote from inside Kilmainham Gaol. They are dated 1 May 1916. His poem The Mother is regarded as one of the most harrowing of the Rebellion.

1916 Rising Leaders & Faces
1916 Rising Leaders & Faces

Éamonn Ceannt 

Born Edward Thomas Kent, Éamonn Ceannt took the Irish form of his name as a symbol of Irish pride. He was a master of the uilleann pipes and even performed for Pope Pius X in Rome. 

He was among the first men to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret association dating back to 1858, in 1913 and was very involved in the planning of the Easter Rising three years later. 

Like the other signatories and rebellion leaders, he was held at Kilmainham Gaol and executed by firing squad on 8 May, 1916. He was 34 years old.

Thomas Clarke

The oldest and first of the signatories, Thomas Clarke joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1883, and devoted the majority of his life to fighting for Irish independence.

Following the Easter Rising and subsequent surrender on 29 April, he was held at Kilmainham Gaol. Before he was executed, he asked his wife Kathleen to give the following message to the Irish people:

I and my fellow signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Irish freedom. The next blow, which we have no doubt Ireland will strike, will win through. In this belief, we die happy.”

Although she did not fight herself, Kathleen Clarke had been instrumental in the planning of the rebellion. Elected to Irish parliament in 1921, Kathleen would remain active in Irish politics and would eventually become the first woman elected as Lord Mayor of Dublin, in 1939.

1916 Rising Leaders & Faces
1916 Rising Leaders & Faces

Seán Mac Diarmada

Born in rural County Leitrim, Seán Mac Diarmada spent his childhood surrounded by reminders of impoverished and oppressed Ireland. There is no doubt that this influenced his involvement in several Irish separatist organisations, most notably the Irish Republican Brotherhood

He contracted polio at a young age and walked with a cane so he did not participate in the fighting during the Rising. However, Mac Diarmada was stationed at the headquarters in the GPO and was instrumental in the strategy and planning of the Rising.

After the surrender, he nearly escaped execution by blending in with the numerous prisoners at Kilmainham Gaol. However, he was recognised by a guard on 9 May and executed on 12 May.  

In a letter written while awaiting execution, Mac Diarmada wrote, "I feel happiness the like of which I have never experienced. I die that the Irish nation might live!

Thomas MacDonagh

A teacher, playwright and poet, Thomas MacDonagh was the leader of the 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, in the Easter Rising. He was a very late addition to the leadership, joining the inner circle only weeks before the Rising unfolded.

He helped found St. Enda’s school with fellow rebellion leader Patrick Pearse in 1910, he was the tutor to a young Joseph Plunkett. Throughout the years, MacDonagh and Plunkett’s lives would become closely intertwined. 

In 1912, Thomas MacDonagh married Muriel Gifford. The night before he was executed, Joseph Plunkett married Muriel’s younger sister Grace. The two sisters would see their husbands meet the same tragic fate for their roles in the Rebellion. 

He was executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol on 3 May 1916, aged 38.

1916 Rising Leaders & Faces