Thomas MacDonagh in Kilkenny

Thomas MacDonagh in Kilkenny

Peter McQuillan

In 1966, on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the principal railway stations in Ireland were given the names of persons who were executed for their part in the Rising and Kilkenny Station became MacDonagh Station. Who was this MacDonagh and why was Kilkenny Station chosen to carry his name?
Thomas MacDonagh was born on 1st February, 1878 in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary. Both his parents were schoolteachers, his father Joseph a native of Co. Roscommon and his mother, Mary Parker, an English girl.
Thomas experienced what his biographer, Johann Norstedt described as ‘a religious childhood.’ While at school in Rockwell College he applied to the Superior-General of the Holy Ghost Order for admission to the Order and when his schooling was complete he stayed on at the College as a teacher.
By 1901 when he was 23, Mac Donagh’s relationship to God had changed. Much of his thinking on this is revealed in his poetry. He withdrew from the Holy Ghost Order and left his teaching post, saying he “had no vocation to the religious life.”
In May of that year he came to Kilkenny to take up a post in St. Kieran’s College as Senior Master in English, History and French. His period in the City was to be a short one but he left it as a different man. He had come here as a fairly unpolitical person, his thoughts taken up with his poetry and his religious troubles. He left after two years strongly committed to the revival of the Irish language, having undergone what he described as “a baptism in nationalism”.
How did this come about? Well, he went to a meeting of the Gaelic League, as he said himself ‘for a lark’. The League, just a few years in existence, was based in Rothe House, where they held their meetings, language classes, lectures, singing and dancing evenings and outdoor theatricals. Thomas became involved in these cultural and social activities to such an extent that little else seemed to matter; the language must be saved.
His biographer speculates that his position in St. Kieran’s may have become untenable because of his new preoccupation. At a meeting in Johnswell he likened the Gaelic League to a religious cause …..”the precursor of a great movement, having for its object an Irish Ireland.” He emphasised nationality rather than nationhood.
The whole matter of his leaving Kilkenny is rather strange. He was the Hon. Secretary of the Gaelic League branch and had become engaged in controversy with some other members over internal matters which seem of no great importance, but he declined to stand for re-election. It is possible that he knew he would be leaving St. Kieran’s and that this was a somewhat bitter and perhaps flamboyant gesture.
In any case, Thomas MacDonagh left in 1903 to take up a teaching post in St Colman’s College, Fermoy, and so passed out of the life of Kilkenny, where he would one day have the local railway station bear his name.
His story goes on……but that’s for another day. We know its ending. The spirit awakened in Thomas MacDonagh in his time in Kilkenny led him to a major role in the Insurrection of Easter Week, 1916, where he was one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and was assigned to his command in Jacob’s biscuit factory.
He was court-martialled on Tuesday, 2nd May and was executed at 3.30 the following morning in the company of Pearse and Thomas Clarke. He was buried in the cemetery in Arbour Hill Barracks.
“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.”
Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.

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