On this Day: 8th May 1916, Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Seán Heuston and Cornelius Colbert were executed.
On Sunday, 7th May, 1916, Éamonn Ceannt was informed at 4 p.m. that he was to be shot at 3:45 a.m. the following morning. Upon receiving this news Ceannt requested writing materials, and wrote his last words to his country, his wife and his child.
Éamonn Ceannt (christened Edward Kent) was born on 21 September 1881 , in Ballymoe, County Galway, the son of an RIC constable, James Kent. He was ten years of age when his family moved to Dublin, where he attended the Christian Brothers’ School on North Richmond Street. Later on, he became a member of Conradh na Gaeilge and he pursued an avid interest in all aspects of the Irish language, literature, and culture. It was at this point that he adopted the Irish form of his name by which he was thereafter known.
Above all else, Ceannt was a leader who could inspire confidence through competence. If an organization needed a clear thinking and organized secretary, Ceannt frequently filled the breach. He did this without complaint for he was a practical man, but as he labored over minute entries, accounts, and ledger entries, he sometimes wrote with a measure of exasperation at the existence of pen-scratching and record-keeping.
When it came to organizing and uniting men to action, Ceannt didn’t have the rhetorical gifts of Pearse or Connolly, but it was plain to all that he was the right man for a fight in a tight corner. He proved a lodestar for the volunteers as they built the organization, and when the Rising exploded into action he was a steady and inspiring leader at the South Dublin Union, one of the most frenetic locations of fighting.
He had proven his worth on manoeuvers when, on the 26th of July 1914, he led the men of the 4th Dublin Battalion to Howth for the famous gun-running incident. He was a major reason for the success of the operation when his quick thinking and logistical planning outwitted the authorities and ensured that the arms got to safe houses around the city. He was also present a week later when the Volunteers landed a second consignment of guns at Kilcoole, County Wicklow.
As a young boy, this competence wasn’t obvious. Ceannt was shy and not a very distinguished student. However, it seems he was holding back, because in his final year at the Christian Brothers, he achieved the highest results in his class and was asked to deliver an oration at the end of year’s prizegiving. His family attended the event expecting him to forfeit the chance, but to their amazement he confidently stepped onto the podium and delivered an eloquent speech.
His pleasantly surprised father, James, said “My boy Éamonn will do something great yet”. He hadn’t seen the quarter of it!
Ceannt became known as someone who would diligently apply himself to a task and master it pretty quickly. He started getting Irish lessons in Conradh na Gaeilge in 1898, and just four years later he was known as one of the best Irish teachers in Dublin.
He was an accomplished musician and athlete. He attended the Jubilee Celebrations held in Rome in 1908, in honour of Pope Pius X. As the Irish athletes marched into the Roman arena to compete in the Celebrations, they were led by Éamonn Ceannt who, it was reported, looked quite regal playing his pipes and dressed in an 11th-century Irish costume. He made such a sensation that the Pope, hearing of his performance, summoned him for a Papal appearance.
Ceannt played a crucial part in another critical moment for Irish culture. In founding the Piper’s Club he gave a critical lifeline to the tradition of uilleann piping which was in danger of dying out. There were very few pipers in Ireland at the time and the revivalist nature of Ceannt’s organizational zeal and enthusiasm for the art of piping cannot be understated. If it was not for Ceannt it is quite likely that the unbroken tradition of Irish piping that goes from the present young people learning at na Píobairí Uilleann all the way back through the 18th century would have been severed at the turn of the 20th Century.
Ceannt learned the pipes himself, but more significantly he was one of the founding members of Cumann na bPíóbairí (The Pipers Club). He was at the heart of organizing the activities of this organization and he bought a printing press and published a monthly pamphlet named An Píobaire.
The following is from a flyer he was seen handing out on Sackville Street (O’Connell Street) in 1901 announcing the first edition of An Píobaire.
The above is the title of a new journal which will be read once a month in future before the members of CUMANN NA bPIOBAIRI (Pipers Club) in Nth. Frederick St., Dublin.
AN PIOBAIRE will be devoted to Irish Music in general, to the pipes in particular. Needless to say articles in Irish will be a feature. The first number will be ready, July 5th, 1901. It is intended to transcribe articles from old journals such as “The Dublin Penny Journal” which are now difficult to obtain. All references to pipes and Pipers from the earliest times to the present day will be collected and read for the information of members. The first number contains a song in Irish entitled “Ceol an Phiobaire” written down by Mr. J.J. Loyd (Editor , “Gaelic Journal.”) A brief account of work done in past month will also be read.
You are cordially invited to attend
ÉAMONN CEANNT, Hon. Sec.
His last words on this earth were written to his wife Áine.
‘My dearest wife Áine – not wife, but widow before these lines reach you. I am here without hope of this world, and without fear, calmly awaiting the end. I have had Holy Communion, and Fr. Augustine has been with me, and will be back again. Dearest “silly little Fanny”! my poor little sweetheart of how many years now? Ever my comforter, God comfort you now. What can I say? I die a noble death for Ireland’s freedom. Men and women will vie with one another to shake your dear hand. Be proud of me, as I am and ever was of you. My cold exterior was but a mask. It has served me in these last days. You have a duty to me and to Rónán – that is to live. My dying wishes are that you remember your state of health. Work only as much as may be necessary, and freely accept the little attentions which in due course will be showered upon you.
‘You will be, you are, the wife of one of the leaders of the Revolution. Sweeter still, you are my little child, my dearest pet, my sweetheart, of the hawthorn hedges, and summer eves. I remember all, and I banish all, so that I may die bravely. I have but one hour to live; then God’s judgement, and through His infinite mercy, a place near your poor Grannie and my father and mother, and all the fine old Irish who went through the scourge of similar misfortune from this vale of tears into the Promised Land. Bíodh misneach agat a stóirín mo chroidhe. Tóg do cheann agus mo chroidhe agus bíodh foighne agat go bfeicimid a chéile arís i bhflaithis Dé. Tusa and mise agus Rónán beag bocht. – Adieu, Éamonn’
On Monday morning, 8th May 1916, Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Seán Heuston and Cornelius Colbert were executed.
Éamonn Ceannt, full-length, facing front portrait, seated, holding pipes. Photo by Arnall. Credit: National Library of Ireland