Thomas MacDonagh was born in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary in 1878 to schoolteacher parents. His parents were not supporters of nationalist politics and in fact the young Thomas was not interested in the burgeoning Irish language movements of the time.
Like his parents he went into teaching. He also became involved in the cultural and literal movements of the late 19th century and shared his poetry with the Anglo-Irish literary set, who held a lively discourse in the upper echelons of Dublin at the time. In these circles he met many of the poets and writers of Ireland. His own poetry was praised by W.B Yeats who thought he had a “thoughtful and imaginative mind” but wasn’t fully formed.
His “thoughtful” mind was probably his greater gift to Irish literature; his review of Anglo-Irish literature is still the seminal work on the topic. His poetic translations of Irish poetry are also skilfully done and beautifully captures the essence and meter of the original Gaelic.
One of these, An Droimfhionn Donn Dílis is an Irish allegorical poem, which uses a historical cultural-anthropomorphic representation of the nation and the “tailte” (an old Irish word meaning the land of the people) to represent the disposed Irish. This poem laments the reduced state of the herder’s ‘Droimfhionn Donn,’ a native breed of cow which translates as white-ridged brown-backed. It’s an unusual metaphor for a wandering people, leaderless and exiled from their homes; but it’s one that is emotionally weighted to be easily grasped by its intended audience of agrarian 18th Century Ireland.
The cow is driven from its pastures to the wilds and wastelands, while the usurper feasts in halls formally occupied by the cow’s herder.
An Droimfhionn Donn Dílis -Translation by Thomas MacDonagh
O Droimfhionn Donn Dílis,
O Silk of the Kine!
Where goest thou for sleeping?
What pastures are thine?
In the woods with my gilly
Always I must keep,
And tis that now that leaves me
Forsaken to weep
“Land, homestead, wines, music
I am reft of them all!
Chief and bard that once wooed me
Are gone from my call!
And cold water to soothe me
I sup with my tears,
While the foe that pursues me
Has the drinking that cheers.”
“Through the mist of the glensides
And the hills I’ll return
Like a brogue beyond mending
The Sasanach I’ll spurn:
If in battle’s contention
I have sight of the crown,
I’ll befriend thee and defend thee
My young Droimeann Donn
In his youth Thomas had little interest in the Irish language renewal and in fact attended a Conradh na Gaeilge event in Kilkenny in 1902, in a mood of bohemian scorn. He intended to make fun at the rustic attempts of culture but to the surprise of this self described “greatest West Briton in Ireland” he found himself impressed beyond comprehension by the vision and sincere activity of this movement. In his own words he had a “baptism in nationalism” and “a conversion to the Irish-Ireland creed”.
It was a rapid evolution. A year later he founded a branch of Conradh na Gaeilge in Fermoy where he was teaching. In 1908 he was one of the founders of Patrick Pearse’s experimental school for boys, St. Enda’s. He would teach here for the rest of his life.
One of Mac Donagh’s most gifted students was a young poet named Joseph Plunkett. Plunkett was seeking a teacher for private lessons in Irish and MacDonagh was recommended to him. As it turned out MacDonagh and Plunkett had much more interests in common and a fruitful friendship and literary partnership was formed between them.
Along with Edward Martyn they formed The Irish Theatre Company in 1914. This company staged a different style of play to the Abbey which they felt was too influenced by Yeats and Lady Gregory. They consciously selected modern European plays and new Irish plays, in both Irish and English, which were not the type of Irish peasant morality plays that the Abbey produced.
They also were founders, and eventually took over, a very influential publication named The Irish Review. This periodical included contributions from all factions of Irish cultural society and while it focussed on arts and literature mainly at the start, after the 1913 lockout it became increasingly political. It really was eclectic and in one issue it might include contributions on obscurantism in poetry, critical reviews of Ibsen’s latest work, a treatise on education, and an economist view of the taxation of land. It brought in contributions from across the spectrum of Irish society.
One of the poets that MacDonagh met and grew close to within the Irish literary circle was a young self-taught writer from rural Meath. A child of a widow and one of seven, he was a labourer from Slane who had infused a sincerity of the Irish rural heartland in his writing.
This writer, Francis Ledwidge, was away in the trenches of WWI when he found out about the execution of Thomas MacDonagh, and was grief stricken by it. Remembering Mac Donagh’s Droimfhionn Donn he turned the metaphor into a wonderful elegy for his friend, his lost vision, and his stolen life.
LAMENT FOR THOMAS MACDONAGH
by Francis Ledwidge
He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain.
Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.
But when the dark cow leaves the moor,
And pastures poor with greedy weeds,
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.
After his court-martial, McDonagh wrote to his wife:
“I made no appeal, no recantation, no apology for my acts. In what I said I merely claimed that I acted honorably and thoroughly in all that I set myself to do…In all my acts…I have been actuated by one motive only, the love of my country, the desire to make her a sovereign independent state. I am ready to die and I think God that I die in such a holy cause.”
On May 3rd 1916, McDonagh was executed along at dawn along with two other signatories of the Proclamation, Pádraig Mac Piarais and Thomas Clarke.
Listen to first hand accounts of those who remembered Thomas MacDonagh as a teacher, poet and colleague