Featured Letter: Letter from Edward O’Farrell to the Controller, Foreign Trade Department, 29 February 1916 (National Archives of Ireland)

FEATURED LETTER

Letter from Edward O’Farrell to the Controller, Foreign Trade Department, 29 February 1916 (National Archives of Ireland)

by Dr Brian Hughes

On 3 May 1916, Thomas MacDonagh was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. Born in Cloughjordan, County Tipperary, in 1878, MacDonagh was a teacher, poet and writer. By 1916, he was a member of the secret revolutionary organisation responsible for the planning of the Easter Rising, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and commandant of the Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. He signed his name to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic as a member of the provisional government and on the first day of the Easter Rising, 24 April 1916, commanded the men who occupied Jacob’s Biscuit Factory (part of which is now the National Archives of Ireland on Bishop Street). MacDonagh’s position, impregnable but strategically unimportant, was never assaulted by the British forces sent to crush the rebellion and he reluctantly agreed to Patrick Pearse’s surrender order on 30 April, whereupon he was arrested, court-martialled and sentenced to death.[1]

This letter was written almost four months after Thomas MacDonagh’s death and, essentially, deals with his legacy. The author, James Stephens (d. 1950), was part of MacDonagh’s close circle of friends and collaborators in literary Dublin having co-founded the Irish Review with him. He contributed articles to Arthur Griffith’s journal United Irishman and his first book of poems appeared in 1909 entitled Insurrections. Over the following years he continued to publish poetry, contribute to journals and was appointed registrar of the National Gallery of Ireland after returning to Dublin in 1915 (despite the protests of the Provost of Trinity College, J.P. Mahaffy, who withdrew from the board in protest).[2] From the Gallery’s premises on Merrion Square, Stephens witnessed the fighting around St. Stephen’s Green, where Michael Mallin commanded the rebel forces during Easter week 1916. He immediately published an account of his observations entitled The Insurrection in Dublin which not only vividly captured what he witnessed, but also charted a changing mood among the population of Dublin.[3] It remains in print today.

Letter from James Stephens to John MacDonagh, 24 August 1916 | Image: National Library of Ireland
Letter from James Stephens to John MacDonagh, 24 August 1916 | Image: National Library of Ireland

Stephens wrote the letter to John MacDonagh (1880-1961), Thomas MacDonagh’s younger brother. John was a trained actor and operatic singer. After Thomas co-founded the Irish Theatre, John managed the theatre and acted in some of its plays, including some that he had written himself such as Author! Author!. John was also a member of the Irish Volunteers and fought under his brother in Jacob’s. He was arrested after the Rising and interned in Frongach in North Wales but had been released and returned to Dublin before August 1916.[4]

The letter is a response to copies of a number of Thomas MacDonagh’s poems that John had sent to him for publication. Stephens comments that while all of the poems can be printed, ‘A few of them I do not care for, & some are very carelessly written’. He does, however, note that ‘Tommy would have settled them if had he lived’.[5] Thomas MacDonagh was, by the time of his death, an established poet. His first volume of poetry, Through the Ivory Gate, was published in 1902 and a second volume, April and May, followed in 1903. Between 1908 and 1916, MacDonagh published several more volumes of poetry, produced three plays, co-founded and edited the Irish Review and managed the Irish Theatre.[6]

Although this short letter makes no direct reference to the circumstances of MacDonagh’s death and no attempt to console John on the loss of his brother (this might have come in other correspondence), there are hints that Stephens is mourning the loss of MacDonagh as a poet. As well as noting that MacDonagh would have tidied up the sloppier poems, Stephens suggests a later edition of poetry that ‘would be representative of our poor friend at his best’.[7] W.B. Yeats’s oft-quoted poem ‘Easter 1916’, contains the lines: ‘This man [Pearse] kept a school/ And rode our wingèd horse/ This other his helper and friend/ Was coming into his force’.[8] The ‘helper and friend’ is MacDonagh and the lines echoe Stephens’ sentiment that MacDonagh was a potentially important poet, if not quite there yet.

In October, The Poetical Works of Thomas MacDonagh was published, featuring the preface mentioned by Stephens in the letter. It was a compilation of two previous collections, Songs of Myself and Lyrical Poems, along with a new selection of poems entitled ‘Miscellaneous Poems’.[9] One biographer of MacDonagh has written that it was MacDonagh’s wife Muriel who had selected the poems for the new section, as she dealt with the proofs and the publisher.[10] Another biography suggests that Stephens may have chosen the poems.[11] This letter seems to confirm that Stephens was at least consulted in the selection process and that John MacDonagh also played some part.

The publication of Poetical Works came at a time when the creation of the myth that surrounded the executed leaders of the Rising was well underway. Stephens’s preface, however, is an early acknowledgment of the difficulty of reconciling MacDonagh the rebel with the literary man that he had known. He asks, ‘was the MacDonagh of April, 1916, the same man with whom I walked and talked and quarrelled in 1910?’[12] He is already wondering if MacDonagh can be disentangled from the myth that was almost immediately created around him by his role in the Rising. Stephens praises MacDonagh the man and insists that three weeks before Easter week, when they last met, ‘he did not intend any rebellion’. There is no commentary on the rights and wrongs of the rebellion but there is a brief remark on MacDonagh’s execution (quoting an officer who remarked that he ‘died like a prince’).[13]

Stephens was more reticent about MacDonagh the poet, believing it was too soon to fully appreciate his work and ‘yet too early for anything in the nature of literary criticism. Recollection is too recent, his death too tragic to permit it.’ He did, however, believe that it was through his poetry that the real MacDonagh could be found, as he worte in the preface to The Poetical Works:

Here are the poems of a good man, and if, outside of rebellion and violence, you wish to know what his thoughts were like, you will find all his thoughts here; and here, more truly expressed that any of his public actions could tell it, you will find exactly what kind of man he was.[14]

This notion poses some questions. Can, or should, his words be separated from his actions? Is the 1967 biography of MacDonagh which contains separate chapters for ‘The Man’, ‘The Patriot’, ‘The Poet’, etc., the best way to approach a biography of Thomas MacDonagh or are they one and the same?

This short letter, and the context in which it was written, demonstrates that modern concerns about the memory of the Rising and the legacy of its leaders were shared by friends and contemporaries. It is clear from his preface and his letter to John MacDonagh, that James Stephens believed that the ‘real’ Thomas MacDonagh could be found in his writing rather than his revolutionary activities. Are these two strands of Thomas MacDonagh too incongruous or contradictory to be judged together or can MacDonagh’s literary career help us learn more about his road to rebellion in 1916 and vice versa? This is something to consider as the legacy of the Rising is debated.


Dr Brian Hughes is the author of  Michael Mallin (O’Brien Press) which was published in  2012 as part of their 16 Lives series of biographies. He was recently awarded a PhD at Trinity College Dublin. His dissertation entitled Defying the IRA: intimidation, coercion and communities in Ireland, 1917-1922, was completed under the supervision of Dr Anne Dolan.


[1] Lawrence William White, ‘MacDonagh, Thomas’, in James McGuire and James Quinn (ed),

Dictionary of Irish Biography. (Cambridge, 2009). (http://dib.cambridge.org/quicksearch.do;jsessionid=A3D8C86486476794397AAF4E8574EE5C#).

[2] Patrick Maume, ‘Stephens, James’, in James McGuire and James Quinn (ed), Dictionary of Irish Biography. (Cambridge, 2009). (http://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a8278).

[3] James Stephens, Insurrection in Dublin (Gerrards Cross, 1992; 1st edn., Dublin & London, 1916).

[4] White, ‘MacDonagh, Thomas’.

[5] James Stephens to John MacDonagh, 24 Aug. 1916 (NLI: Thomas MacDonagh Family Papers, Ms. 20,648/2).

[6] White, ‘MacDonagh, Thomas’.

[7] Stephens to MacDonagh, 24 Aug. 1916.

[8] W.B. Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’.

[9] Thomas MacDonagh, The Poetical Works of Thomas MacDonagh (London, 1916).

[10] Johann A. Norstedt, Thomas MacDonagh: A Critical Biography (Charlottesville, 1980), p. 137.

[11] Edd Winfield Parks and Aileen Wells Parks, Thomas MacDonagh: The Man, The Patriot: The Writer(Athens GA, 1967), p. 98. They note that the book ‘had practically no editorial supervision’, as even typographical errors from the original collections remained uncorrected.

[12] MacDonagh, Poetical Works, p. ix.

[13] Ibid, pp ix-xii.

[14] MacDonagh, Poetical Works, p. xii.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Barton, Brian, From Behind a Closed Door: Secret Court Martial Records of the 1916 Easter Rising (Belfast, 2002).

Barton, Brian and Foy, Michael, The Easter Rising (Stroud, 2011; 1st edn., 2004).

Maume, Patrick, ‘Stephens, James’, in James McGuire and James Quinn (ed), Dictionary of Irish Biography. (Cambridge, 2009). (http://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a8278).

Norstedt, Johann A., Thomas MacDonagh: A Critical Biography (Charlottesville, 1980).

Parks, Edd Winfield and Parks, Eileen Wells, Thomas MacDonagh: The Man, The Patriot: The Writer (Athens GA, 1967).

Stephens, James, Insurrection in Dublin (Gerrards Cross, 1992; 1st edn., Dublin & London, 1916).

Townshend, Charles, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London, 2005).

White, Laurence William, ‘MacDonagh, Thomas’, in James McGuire and James Quinn (ed),

Dictionary of Irish Biography. (Cambridge, 2009).

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