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  • Thomas MacDonagh’s 1916: Protagonist and Playwright
  • Anthony Roche

On the evening of Saturday, April 23, 2016, a group gathered inside the always chilly precincts of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. They were there to attend the opening night of Signatories, a play about the seven men who had signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The play consisted of eight monologues by contemporary Irish writers; seven about the signatories, and the eighth, by Emma Donoghue, about Elizabeth O’Farrell, the woman who brought the surrender order from Pádraig Pearse. Signatories was UCD’s contribution to the commemoration of the Rising and all eight of the playwrights were UCD graduates: Donoghue, Thomas Kilroy, Hugo Hamilton, Frank McGuinness, Rachel Feehily, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Joseph O’Connor, and Marina Carr, whose contribution was in the voice of Thomas MacDonagh. The college had shown particular interest in MacDonagh during this commemorative year: he, too, not only acquired a BA from UCD but taught there in the Department of English right up to the Rising. MacDonagh was also working, at the end, on a book titled Literature in Ireland: Studies Irish and Anglo-Irish, based on lectures he had given at the university and which was to form the basis of a course there which he never lived to deliver.

Kilmainham was a hugely symbolic location for the first performances of Signatories. The director Patrick Mason had obtained permission to stage Signatories in the East Wing of the prison.1 All seven had been tried and found guilty of treason, and all seven were executed on premises of the jail—the sequence of events that, in a space of a few weeks, turned the tide of Dublin sympathy in favor of the rebellion. During the Rising, the revolutionaries had almost as much to fear from groups of irate Dubliners as they had from the British army. As Marina Carr has MacDonagh recall in her monologue, “My men were very angry, what with the surrender and the jeering and the booing on the streets as they [End Page 18] marched us to Richmond” (S 96), which was the barracks where the rebels were first held before being transferred to Kilmainham after the court proceedings. Shane Kenna, in his 2014 biography of MacDonagh, notes that “Kilmainham had not functioned as a prison since 1910, when the General Prison Board evacuated the complex.”2 It had been temporarily reopened in 1914 with the outbreak of the World War to be “used by the British Army as a billet and military prison. The army, however, only occupied the east wing and as a result the older west wing had fallen into disrepair.”3 As MacDonagh indicates in his monologue, the conditions the signatories endured during their imprisonment in Kilmainham in April 1916 were primitive in the extreme; he laments, “I wish to God they’d let me wash. I stink to high heaven, have hardly closed my eyes in a week, my feet, my hands, filthy” (S 95).

As he waits in his cell, Carr’s MacDonagh thinks about his family, his wife Muriel Gifford, son Donnchadha, and daughter Barbara. Visited by his sister Mary, a Catholic nun, he has requested that she “look after the children because Muriel is not the strongest” (S 97). MacDonagh had written to a friend on January 15, 1914, that “Muriel had six weeks of a nervous breakdown. She was half of the time in a nursing home and half at Sandycove convalescing.”4 He was right to be concerned; his wife did not long survive him. On July 9, 1917, while at Skerries beach with a group of republican women—including her sister Grace, who had married Joseph Plunkett the night before his execution—Muriel suffered a heart attack while swimming and drowned. The couple left two orphaned children. Donagh went on to become a successful playwright, notably for his experimental Happy As Larry (1946), and Barbara had four children with the Irish actor Liam Redmond. Speaking of Muriel and himself MacDonagh remarked on the eve of their wedding in 1911 that “Muriel and I are of the same religion, which is neither Catholic or Protestant nor any other form of...


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