Pioneer magazine

The SPIRITUALITY of the MEN of 1916

february2016Continuing on from last month, FRANK BURKE takes a look at the last days of seven more of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising

In my previous article in last month’s issue of Pioneer, I conveyed the thoughts of the late Fr Leonard O Cap who scripted a cassette, The Birth of The Nation . Fr Leonard believed that the spirituality of the executed leaders was ignored in the 1916 commemorative ceremonies that took place in 1966 and 2006. The spiritual dimension of the 1916 leaders as told by Fr Leonard a few years before his death on 31 July 2011 was based on the memories and writings of the Capuchin priests (Fathers Aloysius, Augustine, Sebastian, Albert and Columbus) who attended to the spiritual needs of the leaders before their execution. Fr Leonard now speaks of Sean Mac Diarmada.

Sean Mac Diarmada

“It was said that Sean Mac Diarmada was estranged from the Church because of some difference he had with a priest. He was not the first man who had a difference with a priest and, as a consequence was estranged from the Church. But I will quote from Sean Mac Diarmada’s last letter to his brothers and sisters and people can judge for themselves. He wrote: ‘by the time this reaches you I will, with God’s mercy, have joined in heaven my father and mother as well as my dear friends who have been shot during the week. I have priests with me almost constantly for the past twenty-four hours. One dear old friend of mine, Dr Browne in Maynooth, stayed with me until a very late hour last night. I feel the happiness the likes of which I have never experienced in all my life before.’ At the end of the letter, he writes, ‘God bless and guard you all and may he have mercy on my soul.’" Fr Leonard concludes this part of the story as follows: “a letter, beautiful in its simplicity and marvellous in faith and trust in God.”

Bur Fr Leonard feels there is one more aspect of the Leitrim-born Mac Diarmada which shows the thoughtful and practical side of this man. Mac Diarmada said, “by the way, when you are in Dublin find out if I owe any money to my landlady and, if so, pay her. I don’t think I do but, at the moment, I am not certain.” And, apparently, there was a romantic side to his life as well because he said, “If I think of anything else to say, I will tell Miss Ryan. In all probability, had I lived, she would have been my wife.”

Thomas Clarke and Major John Mac Bride

“Tom Clarke was one of the senior men in the Easter Rising. He was attended to spiritually by Fr Columbus; while Major John Mac Bride was assisted by one of the Capuchins (Fr Leonard did not mention the Capuchin by name). Major John Mac Bride was one of the senior men of the Volunteers. He was a Mayo man from Westport. Mac Bride went to South Africa, formed the Irish Brigade and fought with the Boers against the English. So Clarke and John Mac Bride were what we might call seasoned warriors. Clarke had been previously in the Fenian Movement.

Con Colbert

“There is a story about Con Colbert which said that he had died joking with the men who prepared him for death. Con was not a man to joke at such a solemn time. Fr Augustine said that Con was far too reverent to joke with anyone at such a time. He was a quiet type of man who, a few days previously on Good Friday, would only take a finger of bread and a cup of black tea at the house of a friend – “a little penance for the suffering of Christ”.  He walked arm-in-arm with Fr Augustine across the jail yard to his execution.

Sean Heuston

He was another Young Volunteer. Fr Leonard quotes form a letter written by Fr Albert about Heuston. ‘At about 1.30am on 8 May (Monday) a military car came to Church Street for us. We went to Kilmainham where Fr Augustine went to Eamonn Ceannt’s cell, while me to Commandant Mallin’s cell. I didn’t remain long as he was on his knees in prayer. Having visited Con Colbert and Eamonn Ceannt, I went to Sean Heuston’s cell at about twenty-past-three (3.20am).

 He was kneeling at a small table with rosary beads in hand. He wore his overcoat as the morning was extremely cold. During the last quarter of an hour he knelt in complete darkness as the little piece of candle had burned out. He had been to Confession and had received Holy Communion early that morning and he was not afraid to die.

We now proceeded to the yard where the execution was to take place; my left arm was linked to his right. A soldier directed Sean and me to a corner of the yard a short distance from the outer wall of the prison. Here, there was a box, seemingly a soap box and Sean was told to sit down on it. He was perfectly calm and said to me for the last time, “My Jesus, Mercy.” Fr Albert in his letter on Sean Heuston wrote: ‘I had scarcely moved a few yards away when a volley went off and this noble soldier of Irish freedom fell dead.’

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Michael Mallin

“Commandant Michael Mallin,” Fr Leonard said, “a most loveable character. At 2.30am in the morning of 8 May (an hour after a military car came to take Fr Augustine and Fr Albert to Kilmainham) a military lorry called to Michael Mallin’s home to take Mrs Mallon to Kilmainham. She had to take the four children with her because she had nobody to mind them. While the mother was in the cell with Michael, the children were left sitting in a waiting room. Una was then a little girl of eight and the guard came over to her, put his arm around her and said, “you poor little thing.” Una became a nun and her two brothers, Sean and Joseph, became Jesuits, one of whom, Fr Joe Mallin, SJ, is the sole surviving son or daughter of all the 1916 leaders. He was 102 years of age on 13 September last and had been working as a Jesuit priest in Hong Kong since 1948.

Fr Leonard continues, “One thing that strikes me about those dreadful days, is the tremendous respect that the British soldiers had for the Volunteers and on the other hand, how the prisoners spoke of the kindness shown to them by the soldiers. When Con Colbert was being led out for execution, the soldier who was to bind his arms before he went to the firing squad, grasped his right hand and shook it warmly with affection and tears. Or as Fr Augustine put it, in his own inimitable way, “a warm-hearted soldier pinioned Con’s arms gently.”

Eamonn Ceannt

He was born in the small village of Ballymoe, County Galway. He went to school in O’Connell’s, CBS, which was also the alma mater of Sean Hesuton and Con Colbert. A fluent Irish speaker, he worked as a clerk in the City Treasury Office and as an accountant from 1901 in Dublin Corporation. Fr Leonard speaks of him as a quiet man, distant, remote and even his fellow workers knew little about him. He was a great lover of music and had a passion for Irish music. He was also an excellent athlete and, in 1908, he was a member of the Irish team of athletes who were invited to Rome for the Jubilee celebrations to honour Pope Pius X where he played the uileann pipes for the saintly pontiff.

During Easter Week, he fought in The South Dublin Union where he commanded the Fourth Dublin Battalion of The Volunteers against a vastly superior force. Fr Leonard refers to an eyewitness account, probably one of the Capuchin priests who attended him in Kilmainham Jail. He wrote: ‘Someday I hope to tell you much that is inspiring of his last moments and his glorious death with my own Crucifix in his hand.’ Fr Leonard concludes by quoting from a letter that Ceannt wrote the night before his execution. Ceannt wrote:  ‘I have found the higher officers and soldiers sociable.  I have met the man who escaped from me by a trick … I do not regret withholding fire. He gave me cakes.’

In 2006, Fr Leonard revealed his concerns for our country. “May 1916 was a terrible month and yet there was a certain dignity, nobility and idealism in the whole conflict. These qualities are no longer to be found in modern society. They are replaced by a self-interested greed, not to speak of bitterness and violence. There is no doubt that we have become a richer nation. But man does not live on bread alone. Many of our troubles started with the Civil War. I was too young then to remember much about it, though I do remember seeing Michael Collins a short time before he was shot. He was walking from a car in the town of Macroom. I remember a very poor-looking woman give him a bunch of flowers. Shortly after that, Michael Collins was shot at  Beal na mBlath  – the Gap of the Blossoms.

easter1916 2And what of the future? It is hard to say, but there is one thing for sure. We cannot build a peaceful and just society if we ignore proper moral standards. But to the heroes of 1916, I say, ‘ go ndeana Dia trocaire are bhur n-anamacha.’ (May God have mercy on your souls).

From 3 May to 12 May each year during the latter stages of my teaching career, I would write the names of the executed men at the top of the classroom board on the anniversary date of their execution. We would then include those men in our classroom Morning Prayer. It is an idea I would encourage teachers to copy in making our pupils aware of the price paid by the executed men of 1916 in the cause of Irish freedom.

All but two of the sixteen men were executed in Dublin. Thomas Kent was executed by Firing Squad in Collins Barracks, Cork on Tuesday, 9 May 1916. Last June, 2015, his remains were exhumed and were reinterred in his native Castlelyons on 18 September following a State funeral. The last of the executed men, Roger Casement, was hanged in Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916. His remains were repatriated to Ireland in 1965.

The CD, Rebirth of a Nation, was one of two CDs recorded by Fr Leonard Coughlan, O Cap, at SOL Productions Limited. The second recording is Memories of Easter Week 1916.