27 Sept 2022

History: The story of three Tipp men in Jacobs factory Rising


Jacobs Factory in Dublin

The legacy of Thomas and John MacDonagh and their brothers, Joe and James, is honoured at the Thomas MacDonagh Museum in Cloughjordan

At 12 noon on Easter Monday 1916 around 150 members of the 2nd Battalion, Dublin Brigade, of the Irish Volunteers assembled at Saint Stephens Green before marching to occupy Jacob's Biscuit Factory at nearby Bishop Street.

They were led by Thomas MacDonagh from Cloughjordan and they included two more Tipperary men; John MacDonagh, the younger brother of Thomas and Phil Shanahan from Hollyford who was the owner of a bar and grocery business at Foley Street, Dublin.
The legacy of Thomas and John MacDonagh and their brothers, Joe and James, is honoured at the Thomas MacDonagh Museum in Cloughjordan. Joe was elected Sinn Fein TD for North Tipperary at the 1918 election. He died on Christmas Day 1922 after being on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail. James emigrated to England and was a distinguished musician with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Due to the Covid-19 restrictions the Museum in Cloughjordon  is closed. When the restrictions are lifted the public will be very welcome to come and view the exhibition on the MacDonagh family and on many aspects of local and national historical events.

Hollyford's Phil Shanahan - a true Republican who was saddened by the Civil War

Phil Shanahan was born in 1874 at Foilmacduff, Hollyford. He was one of a family of five boys and three girls.

His parents, Tom Shanahan and Ellen Leahy, were farmers. In the late 1890s he went to work in Dublin as a grocer's assistant with Patrick Murphy who had a pub and grocery business at 25 Denzille Street

Phil was active in the GAA and he played senior hurling in Dublin with the Southern Rovers club who were beaten by Faughs in the 1900 county final. This final was not played until 1902. In the early 1920s Phil was the first President of the Peader Mackens Gaelic Football club.

Phil Shanahan 

In 1909 Phil purchased a pub and grocery business at 134 Foley Street in the notorious Monto district. The pub was surrounded by tenements and brothels and was adjacent to the Dublin Docks. His sister Sarah was his housekeeper and all his staff were from Tipperary.

Phil joined the Irish Volunteers in 1914 and he was also a member of the IRB. He served in Jacob’s Factory in the 1916 Rising under the leadership of fellow Tipperary man, Thomas MacDonagh. After the Rising he was interned in Knutsford Jail and in Frongoch Prison Camp where he became very friendly with Michael Collins.

After his release from prison his pub became a very important centre for Republican activity. In 1917 Phil was jailed in Mountjoy along with many other Republican activists, All the prisoners went on hunger strike and one prisoner, Thomas Ashe, died as a result of being force fed. Joe MacDonagh, brother of Thomas, also participated in this hunger strike.

In the 1918 general election Phil stood as a Sinn Fein candidate in the Dublin Harbour electoral area and he defeated the outgoing Member of Parliament, Alfie Byrne, on the first count. Thomas Hunter, who had served in Jacob’s Factory in 1916 with Phil, was also elected and represented Cork North East. Another man, also in Jacob’s with Phil, was Michael Hayes and he was elected as a Sinn Fein TD to represent The National University of Ireland at the 1921 general election. Phil retained his seat at the 1921 general election but lost his seat the following year when he ran as an anti-Treaty candidate.

During the War of Independence Phil's pub was a meeting place for leading Republicans and a safe house for Republicans from all over the country. IRA members on the run were provided with accommodation and food, and finance if it was needed, by Phil and his sister Sarah.

Michael Collins and members of ‘The Squad’ used his pub for meetings. Mick McDonnell, James Slattery, William Stapleton and Vinny Byrne, who were members of ‘The Squad’, had all served in Jacob’s Factory in 1916 with Phil. The ‘Big Four’ from the 3rd Tipperary Brigade IRA; Dan Breen, Sean Hogan, Sean Treacy and Seamus Robinson were accommodated in Phil's pub on their many missions in Dublin. When leading Republicans were holding their meetings in the rooms over the pub the local newsboys and girls, organised by Phil for intelligence purposes, kept watch in the immediate vicinity for British troops and Black and Tans.

The pub became a clearing house for guns smuggled in through Dublin Docks and guns purchased from Irishmen serving with the British Army. Many a British soldier or Auxiliary who frequented the Monto area was relieved of his gun by the ‘Ladies of the Night’ and all of these guns were handed in to Phil’s pub. If any finance was required to acquire these guns Phil willingly paid for them himself.

Phil was jailed again in late March 1920 along with others for Republican activity and they went on hunger strike. After two weeks on hunger strike the prisoners were released.

Phil voted against the Treaty and lost his seat at the 1922 election. He was saddened by the Civil War as he was friends with the leading men on both sides. After the Civil War his former comrades drifted away from going to his pub and his business declined. Two former comrades who maintained contact with Phil after the Civil War were Peader Kearney and Martin Walton. Both Peadar Kearney and Martin Walton served with Phil in Jacob’s in 1916. Martin, only fifteen years old at the time, later founded Walton’s Music Shop in Dublin. Peadar, uncle to the playwright Brendan Behan, wrote the lyrics for the national anthem.

In later years Phil's health declined and for a time he was looked after by local people in the Foley Street area who had a great affection for him. The pub closed in 1927 and with his health declining Phil returned to Hollyford in 1928. He died on November 22, 1931 and is buried in Upperchurch Cemetery. After his death Phil was made an Honorary Colonel of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade IRA.

Thomas MacDonagh was unwavering in his belief of Irish freedom

On the eve of his execution on May 3, 1916, in his cell in Kilmainham Jail, Thomas MacDonagh began his last letter to his beloved wife, Muriel, and their children, Donagh and Barbara.

He expressed his love for them, his concern for their welfare and bid them farewell, ‘until we meet in Heaven’. He was unwavering in his belief that his deed, in Ireland’s cause, had ‘won the first step of her freedom’ and so faced the firing squad in such a manner that prompted one of the British officers to comment, ‘They all died well but MacDonagh died like a prince’.
His Tipperary roots were strong and frequently referred to in his poetry.

Thomas MacDonagh

He held onto his soft Tipperary accent, his love of the rural people and surrounding countryside and the interest in music and literature nurtured in his home in Cloughjordan. Perhaps the greatest influence came after his student days in Rockwell College when he began his teaching career in St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny. Accompanying his friends to a Gaelic League meeting he was introduced to the Irish Language through an inspirational talk given by Douglas Hyde. He likened the moment to St Paul on the road to Damascus and it gave him a direction that presented him with Gaelic Ireland.

He immersed himself in the Irish language, leaving his post in St Kieran’s to accept a teaching post in St Colman’s College in Fermoy which he found to be ‘Gaelic to the spine’. He spent time in the Gaeltacht of Kerry and the Aran Islands where he met fellow enthusiasts, including Pádraig Colm and Patrick Pearse. He became active in the Gaelic League.

It was W.B. Yeats who recommended he hone his poetic skills in translating from the Irish which led him to produce the masterly, The Yellow Bittern and Ned of the Hills. Eventually his interest in the language brought him to found, with Patrick Pearse, the bilingual school, St Enda’s; where he was assistant headmaster and where he met his wife, Muriel Gifford. Through dramatic productions on Irish history and folklore, poetry and literature a patriotic spirit was nurtured amongst the pupils.

While in Fermoy he displayed a keen social conscience when, with three colleagues, a meeting was called to address the lack of employment structures for secondary teachers – this became the foundation of the ASTI. Witnessing the violent reaction of the police force to the striking workers in Dublin during the 1913 Lockout he, with his friend Francis Sheehy Skeffington, set up the Industrial Peace Committee to address the issues.

This was the time of Woman’s Suffrage and Thomas, who married in 1912, joined the Woman’s Franchise Movement with Muriel, ready for action in seeking justice. When the Volunteers were established in 1914 Thomas entered into an organisational role as Director of Training and entered on the path to the reality of the Irish proclamation.

In 1915 MacDonagh, acting Commandant General, took a prominent role in organising the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, whose body was repatriated to Ireland after forced exile in USA.

The Volunteers gathered in a spirit of nationhood which Pearse articulated in a rousing graveside oration. MacDonagh wrote in the funeral booklet, ‘The ideal that he has concerned in his heart can never die, it is one for ever with love and honour and right, it is the ideal of his country free ……that leads him to battle to sacrifice and victory.’ Plans were consolidated for the Rising. The unloading of guns and ammunition, procured by Mary Spring Rice with Molly and Erskine Childers, onto the harbour at Howth was carried out successfully under the command of MacDonagh.

He was the last of the seven members to be co-opted onto the military council of the IRB that finalised plans for the Easter Rising.

MacDonagh, in command of 150 Volunteers and members of Fianna Éireann and Cumann na mBan, occupied Jacob’s factory, a mile south of the GPO. Second in command was Major John McBride with Michael O’Hanrahan next in line. British troops from outlying barracks did not enter the city, at this point, as expected. Nevertheless, Jacob’s garrison was constantly under sniper fire and harassed by Dubliners on the street protesting at disruption in their daily lives.

A party was successfully dispatched to support the Boland Mills Garrison, after receiving a plea for help. By the end of the week MacDonagh reluctantly surrendered, after meeting with General Lowe and then Éamonn Ceannt to confirm the order signed by Pearse and carried by Nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell.

He believed that a Peace Conference was imminent in Europe and if the insurrection could hold out for a week it would necessitate Ireland’s case being brought before the conference. Despite delay tactics, lasting into the Sunday afternoon, MacDonagh sadly addressed his men praising them for the good fight; they had lasted one glorious week and achieved what they had set out to accomplish.

As signatory to the proclamation Thomas MacDonagh’s fate was sealed and following Pearse and Clarke he was led to his execution.

John MacDonagh - a talented musician full of gravitas but with a steely determination

Just two years younger than his brother, Thomas, John MacDonagh was well known for his good humour and wit.

He too was a talented musician and dramatist and combined these talents in his theatrical productions in London’s West End and on Broadway. He had a fine tenor voice and as a young man travelled to Milan for musical tuition. He worked in opera companies in England and the United States and while in America he became involved in the film industry as an actor and script writer.

John MacDonagh

He returned in 1914 and worked for the National Health Insurance in Tipperary town where he joined the Volunteers. Later that year he went to Dublin to join with Thomas in setting up the Irish Theatre. John’s role was manager, actor and producer; staging several international plays for the first time in Ireland.

Working with Thomas and Joseph Plunkett he, too, was drawn into the Gaelic cultural revival and the nationalist movement. He joined the 3rd Battalion Dublin Brigade and in 1916 he changed to the 2nd Battalion led by his brother Thomas. Three days before the Rising John was sent by Pearse with a written dispatch to Éamon O’Dwyer near Cashel and on the same day he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by Éamon Ceannt.

On Easter Monday morning 1916 John and Thomas MacDonagh walked together to the mobilization point of the 2nd Battalion, at St Stephen’s Green. On the way they were joined by an exuberant gentleman in civilian clothes. When Major John McBride, in Dublin for his brother’s wedding, learned of their mission he immediately joined them, to the amusement of John, whom he was meeting for the first time.

During his life John spoke little of his part in the Rising, and his week in Jacob’s that had passed in ‘exhilaration and in weariness; in danger and in odd moments of relaxation’. After the surrender, at the courts martial in Richmond Barracks he received a life sentence and, along with many others, he was marched to Dublin docks to embark for England. He anxiously asked about the fate of Thomas but it was several days later that he heard of Thomas’ execution by firing squad. He was imprisoned in Knutsford Jail but, on being awarded prisoner of war status, was moved to Frongoch internment camp.

To every situation, despite its gravitas, John brought wit and good humour. Stories abound from theatre, military and civilian life. He wrote on how Volunteers came upon a record player in Jacob’s Factory. One day, while ‘Tom and McBride’ were on a tour of inspection John played the only record available, God save the King.

Not the most appropriate at that moment but it does show how he could rely on a shared brotherly sense of humour. One of his fellow prisoners described John’s cheerful personality and sharp wit as ‘a God send’ during their days of internment.

On his release in August 1916 John went to the United States but returned to reopen the Irish Theatre. His play Weeds was produced before the demise of that theatre in 1920. He then began working with the Film Company of Ireland. By that time Dublin had twenty cinemas and the Gaelic League and others had become aware of the undermining of Irish culture through cinema. John was script writer, director and acted in the full-length film Willy Reilly and his Colleen Bawn which was filmed at St Enda’s School. While there, a short propaganda film, Republican Loan, was made, marking the launch of a fund for the newly formed Dáil Éireann.

This film featured Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, several widows of those executed in 1916 and elected Dáil members, among them, John’s brother, Joseph MacDonagh TD for North Tipperary. To distribute the film, as cinema owners wouldn’t risk showing it, a few Volunteers in fast cars came to the cinema, rushed the operations box and at gun point forced the operator to take off the film being shown and put on the loan film.

It was a tense time in the country, the directors of the Film Company of Ireland were on the run. However, in the USA the film appealed to the Irish diaspora and proved a successful fundraiser. The Film Company did not survive the War of Independence and the following Civil War.

John established himself as a writer and director of plays for the theatre. He wrote and produced a four-act play, The Irish Jew, that premiered in 1921. It had a long and successful run on Broadway. Jimmy O’Dea featured in the production and for the following six years appeared in stage shows and three films, written and directed by John MacDonagh. Until the late 1930s he continued to write and produce sketches, satires and pantomimes, winning international acclaim. In 1928 he collaborated with Fritz Brase in a musical production, The Blarney Stone. From 1935 until 1947 he was employed as productions officer in the early days of Radio Éireann, 2 RN.

In 1925 he was married to Eileen Phillipa Coyne, a professional violinist. While they had no children, they cared for Donagh and Barbara, orphans of Thomas and Muriel, for a time.

In July 1961, then aged eighty-one years, John MacDonagh, singer; actor; playwright; director; broadcaster and musician, died. He is buried in Dean’s Grange cemetery in Dublin.

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