Pioneer magazine

The SPIRITUALITY of the MEN of 1916

January2016FRANK BURKE, well known to the alumni of Synge Street CBS, Dublin where he was a popular teacher for many years, presents lesser-known aspects of the last days of some of the Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising.

As we draw closer to the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, there have been many newspaper articles and spirited debates in the broadcasting media as interest in revisiting 1916 intensifies. It is only to be expected that the events leading up to the 1916 Rising and what motivated these men, sixteen of whom were executed, should come under the microscope of public discourse. Sadly, Father Leonard Coughlan, OFM Cap, who had much to contribute to the debate, died on 31 July 2011.

The County Cork born Capuchin spent almost seventy years as a much loved priest in the Capuchin Friary, Church Street in the heartland of Dublin’s north inner city. He was a loyal friend to many drawn from all walks of life and I feel privileged to have been a friend of his since 1990. I was a member of a small, but very motivated group led by Shane Redmond and Sean O’Siochain, RIP, that met for over seven years in assisting Father Leonard’s brainchild, ‘ Alert on Drink and Drugs’.

Father Leonard lived in a community with the Capuchin priests who were close to the events in 1916 and in a CD cassette disc, ‘ Rebirth of a Nation’ he scripted and recorded his memories of what was related to him by those men.

The recording was made in 2006 when ceremonies were held to mark the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Father Leonard noted that the one ingredient missing from the many commemorative ceremonies was an acknowledgment of the spirituality of the Easter heroes. ‘Rebirth of a Nation’ describes the spiritual character of the executed leaders an aspect of their lives rarely emphasised when historians write of their self-sacrifice. So we have here on disc what historians refer to as a ‘primary source.’ Fr Leonard takes up the story on Tuesday, 2 May – a day before the first three executions took place.

On Tuesday, May 2, 1916, a military car came to the Friary in Church Street, Dublin, with a letter for Father Aloysius. It read; ‘The prisoner P H Pearse wishes to see you and you have permission to see him. Failing this, he will be happy to see any of the Capuchins. I am your obedient servant,’ Major J S Klinnsman.

Accompanied by Father Augustine, Father Aloysius went to Kilmainham Jail. He was told there that Thomas Mac Donagh wanted to see him also. Aloysius said he would never forget the devotion with which Pearse and Mac Donagh received the Blessed Eucharist. Father Aloysius told Pearse that he had attended James Connolly in Dublin Castle that morning and Pearse said, “Thank God; it was the one thing I was anxious about.”

Father Aloysius told me that at some stage during the night he left Pearse’s cell and, on his return, he looked through the peephole of the door; a ray of light was shining through the inside and Pearse was silhouetted, lost in prayer, clasping a large Mission Cross that Fr Aloysius had given him. It was a memory that Aloysius always treasured. As a memento, Pearse scratched the first letter of his name with a pin on the back of the cross. Father Leonard gave the cross to the museum in Kilmainham. The two priests stayed with the prisoners until about 3.00 a.m. when they were ordered to leave; they were not allowed to stay for the actual executions of Padraig Pearse, Thomas Mac Donagh and Tom Clarke. But later that day, Wednesday May 3, they successfully protested and, from then on, the priests were allowed to be present at the executions. Father Leonard then speaks of James Connolly in more detail.

“At this stage I should speak about James Connolly because he was a Socialist and Labour reformer. Connolly has always been a subject of much controversy.” But, as Father Leonard argues, “Connolly was a man of faith as well as being a man of great principle.” Here he quotes Father Aloysius again, about what happened when he went to see Connolly in Dublin Castle. 

“The soldiers left the room and I was alone with Connolly.  I told him that I had given my word that I would act only as a priest and not in any political capacity. 

“I know that, Father,” he said, “you would not get the privilege of being alone with me otherwise, and it is as a priest I want to see you. I have seen and heard of the brave conduct of the priests and nuns during the week and I believe they are the best friends of the workers.”

Father Aloysius heard Connolly’s Confession and James Connolly told him of the kindness shown to him by Captain Stanley.  On the following Friday week, 12 May, Father Aloysius was again called to Dublin Castle and gave Connolly Holy Communion. Father Leonard takes up the story again. 

connolly pearse and plunkett

“Now in 1966 I saw a television programme which showed James Connolly being put into the back of an ambulance and taken on his own to Kilmainham Jail for execution.  It was a sad and touching programme which made for good television, but was historically untrue.  Father Aloysius and Sebastian went with him in the ambulance and stayed with him up to his execution.  Father McCarthy from James’s Street parish administered the Last Rites of the Church.”

When the Capuchins returned to Church Street, they offered Mass for the happy repose of the souls of the executed men, if not immediately, very soon afterwards.  On the night of the 3 May word came again to Church Street to attend the executions of Joseph Mary Plunkett, Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan and Willie Pearse.  All the men received Holy Communion.  Fathers Albert, Augustine, Columbus and Sebastian prepared the four men for death.  No need to stress the religious conviction and fidelity of these men.

It was Plunkett who wrote the lovely poem:'I see His Blood Upon the Rose' 

I see his blood upon the rose

And in the stars the glory of his eyes,

His body gleams amid eternal snows,

His tears fall form the skies.

I see his face in every flower;

The thunder and the singing of the birds

Are but his voice – and carven by his power

Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,

His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea;

His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,

His cross is every tree. 

Joseph Mary Plunkett was a descendant of the family of Saint Oliver Plunkett, martyred at Tyburn, near Marble Arch in London in July 1681.  Joseph Plunkett had studied at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.  He completed his studies in Belvedere College and University College, Dublin.  He married Grace Gifford in the presence of the Kilmainham prison chaplain with one warder acting as witness with the light of one candle.  Grace had been brought up like her sisters as Protestants, had become engaged to Joseph Plunkett the previous year and took instruction in Catholic doctrine, which was her Father’s religion.  Grace was received into the Catholic Church the previous month.  Her sister, Muriel, was married to Thomas MacDonagh, executed with Thomas Clarke and Padraic Pearse the previous day. 

The marriage of Joseph Plunkett to Grace Gifford a few hours before her husband’s execution is well documented, but what is less known is the death of Grace.  She died in her flat in South Richmond Street on 13 December 1955, close to her family home in Rathmines. She was buried in the local parish of Saint Kevin’s, Harrington Street. Her funeral Mass was attended by President Sean T O’Kelly.  She was buried with full military honours in Glasnevin Cemetery. 

Thomas MacDonagh, like Plunkett was also an academic. He was born in Cloughjordan, County Tipperary.   A pupil of Rockwell College, he intended to become a priest, but discovered he had not got a vocation.  Having turned to teaching, he met Pearse on the Aran Islands.  Pearse found him a pleasant companion, full of wit and gaiety.  Having married Muriel in 1912, Thomas MacDonagh began teaching in St Enda’s, a school set up by Pearse in Rathfarnham in South Dublin.  Here, MacDonagh lived in the Gate Lodge and his house became a centre for the well-known writers of his day.  He wrote a play, When the Dawn is Coming, which was staged at the Abbey Theatre in 1907.  The executions of Joseph Plunkett, Willie Pearse, Edward Daly and Michael O’Hanrahan on Thursday, 4 May, brought the number shot to seven. 

NEXT MONTH: The spirituality of Sean MacDiarmada, Tom Clarke, Major John MacBride, Con Colbert, Sean Heuston, Michael Mallin and Eamonn Ceannt.