Uncovering another Belfast revolutionary
Secret local history of 1916 hero

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Sean MacDiarmada

It has been well documented that Irish socialist James Connolly lived in Belfast prior to his participation and subsequent death in the 1916 Rising. Little, however, has been written about his compatriot, Sean MacDiarmada, who also dwelt in the city before his execution in 1916 – until now, that is.

Belfast author Gerard McAtasney has undertaken the less travelled path to write a book on one of the signatories of the Proclamation who hasn’t received as much coverage as his fellow patriots including Patrick Pearse and the aforementioned James Connolly.

Sean MacDiarmada was born in County Leitrim in 1883 and in his youth worked as a gardener and tram conductor at home and in Edinburgh. However, it was in Belfast that he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood which started him off on his relatively short but highly significant journey through Irish politics.

“Sean took a teacher’s exam called the King’s Scholarship Exam. He failed it and seemed to be at a loose end which led him to go to Belfast in late 1905. He got a job working on the trams in Belfast and may have lived in Hannahstown for a while, but it is certain that he ended up in Butler Street in Ardoyne which was close to the tram depot,” explained Gerard McAtasney.

In Belfast, Sean MacDiarmada joined the Ancient Order of Hibernians which was closely associated with the Irish Parliamentary Party. Whilst the AOH were then considered to be the custodians of Irish nationalism, MacDiarmada did not remain a member of the Order for long.

Soon after settling in Belfast he joined the local branch of the Gaelic League and became a fine Irish speaker. It was in the Gaelic League that he came into contact with such men as Denis McCullough and Bulmer Hobson, who were then leading the secret republican organisation, the IRB, and working through an open political organisation called Cumann na nGael, an advanced political movement which advocated republicanism and was founded by Arthur Griffith.

“Denis McCullough from the Grosvenor Road and Bulmer Hobson from Holywood were at that time reorganising the IRB which had essentially become a drinking club,” added Gerard.

“They made it their job to purge the useless members of the Brotherhood and recruit new members who were keen to further the republican cause. It was these two men who established the Dungannon Clubs, named in memory of the 1782 volunteers who had sworn allegiance to Dungannon.”

The original Dungannon Clubs were organised after the Convention at Dungannon in February 1782 at which the Irish volunteers demanded – and were subsequently granted – legislative independence for Ireland.
“McCullough and Hobson would travel around Ulster giving speeches, it would have been at one of the speeches that Sean MacDiarmada would first have encountered them.

“In early 1906 he joined the Dungannon Clubs himself and his personal charm, sincerity and his capacity for hard work made him the obvious choice for the IRB who employed him as a full-time organiser.”

MacDiarmada would travel mainly through Counties Antrim and Down, organising and giving speeches. He made an impact right away and became a very active member.
“The first time the public would have become aware of MacDiarmada would have been after his debut speech which he gave in Clonard Street in June 1906, from then on his name was on secret police files until his death in 1916.”

By 1907, after the amalgamation of the Dungannon Clubs and Cumann na nGael to form the Sinn Féin League, MacDiarmada became the Sinn Féin organiser in Ulster and then the Director of Elections in a North Leitrim by-election.

“This was the first time that Sinn Féin involved themselves in a British election. The hard work that MacDiarmada put in was recognised and put his profile on the national stage. Through this, he lost his Belfast base and moved to Dublin in 1908.”

In the capital MacDiarmada developed a close friendship with Thomas Clarke and became one of the founding members of the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and was Secretary of the Supreme Council of the IRB. He was a member of the Military Council and member of the Provisional Government.

Sean MacDiarmada fought in the GPO in 1916 where he was attached to the headquarters staff under James Connolly. It was MacDiarmada who read Padraig Pearse’s letter of surrender to those in the GPO. He was subsequently executed on May 12, 1916 – the same day as James Connolly.
Gerard took six years to research and complete the book, he studied files on Mac Diarmada kept in Ireland, England and the US.

“Ironically, much of the information came from secret British files made available in the 1960s and court martial papers from the English National Archives made available in 1998. These are not available in Ireland,” said Gerard.

So, why did he choose Sean MacDiarmada when most authors hone in on the more famous faces of the 1916 Rising?

“Due to my close family connections with Leitrim, I had written several books on the area in relation to the famine, but it was a publisher who approached me to write this one about Sean who was from Leitrim. I was more than happy to do so.

“MacDiarmada’s spell in Belfast was crucial to the formation of his Irish republican outlook, it was here at the young age of 22 that he first became involved in Irish politics. He reigned supreme in reactivating old Fenian clubs of republicanism and setting up new IRB branches throughout Belfast and the surrounding areas.

“The influence that Belfast, which was then considered the cradle of republicanism, had on Sean MacDiarmada can not be understated.”

• Sean MacDiarmada, The Mind of the Revolution is available in most bookshops priced £15.