Major John MacBride
One of the first effects of the 1916 Rising was the creation of a political revolution which, under the Sinn Féin organisation, gave an overwhelming majority to nationalist Ireland in the General Election of 1918 for self-determination, which led to withdrawal from the British House of Commons and the setting up of the First Dáil. The British had promised Home Rule since the eighties of the last century, and did, in fact, pass an Act granting us Home Rule in 1914, but ‘hung it up’ for the duration of World War 1, which began that year, while they launched recruiting campaign to cajole the youth of Ireland to go out and fight for ‘The Freedom of Small Nations’. Yet, in 1919, when the country had spoken in the 1918 Election, they sent the Black and Tans, and so began the War of Independence.
There is no doubt but the man who most inspired the West Mayo Flying Column was Major John MacBride. Born at Westport Quay in 1868, the son of Captain Patrick MacBride, a native of Co. Antrim, the owner of a merchant ship trading into Westport, where he married Honoria Gill and settled down as a merchant. They had five sons: Joseph, elected the first Sinn Féin T.D. for West Mayo in 1918; Patrick, who inherited the family business, Anthony, County Surgeon until the middle thirties; Francis, emigrated to Australia and John, the youngest. John was born in the year that followed the Fenian Rising of 1867 and in the shadow of the Auxiliary Workhouse, which, but twenty years earlier, housed thousands of victims of the Famine, which so ravaged the Westport area and of which sad and bitter memories were still fresh in the minds of his family and neighbours. Twenty five years before his birth, the Constitutional Movement under O’Connell for the repeal of the Act of Union had failed, but before the chagrin of the failure and the clouds of the Famine had risen from a mortally wounded nation, the flame of hope and freedom burst forth anew in the Young Irelander’s Rising of 1848 – reasserting afresh the separatist idea of ’98 and Ireland’s right to nationhood. In his early teens in the late seventies and early eighties, he witnessed the struggle of the National Land League to break the power of landlordism with its concomitant evils of eviction and famine. He heard of ‘The New Departure’ negotiated by Davitt and Parnell, as a result of which the Fenians threw in their weight behind the social and economic struggle for the land.
In his middle teens he as apprenticed as a draper’s assistant in the drapery store of John Fitzgibbon in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon. During his apprenticeship years he was very active organising the Brotherhood. After the death of Parnell (1891) he went to work in Dublin, where he became an active member of the Young Ireland League and the Celtic Literary Society in 1892, 1893, and 1894. Those societies, consisting as they did, of youth who sided with Parnell, helped to keep the separatist idea alive by organising visits to the graves of Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown and Owen Roe O’Neill in Cavan, and by visiting scenes of the ’98 Rebellion in Wexford, New Ross and Vinegar Hill. They supported the revival of the Irish Language by pressing for the appointment of Irish professors in the Training Colleges, and pressed Local Authorities to establish libraries throughout the country. The most zealous workers in the Young Ireland League were Arthur Griffith, Henry Dixon, Liam Ó Rúnaí and John MacBride. Indeed, it may well be said that it was at these meetings of the Young Ireland League, half secret, half open, held in the early nineties after the death of Parnell, in the stuffy backrooms of Dublin, that ideas of future rebellion and revolution were nurtured.
In 1895 MacBride emigrated to South Africa. Two years later he was joined by Arthur Griffith who received a warm welcome from him.
In 1898, the commemoration ceremonies in Ireland, in London, and in U.S.A. of the 1798 Rising, which resulted in the healing of the Parnelite Split by the formation of the United Irish League1 gave Griffith and MacBride an opportunity of uniting the Irish in South Africa. The hatred between the British and the Boers had now reached fever point. They set to work energetically to organise a commemoration ceremony in Johannesburg. They gave lectures on the ’98 Rebellion, spoke at meetings and organised publicity through two papers owned by a Boer friend.
A huge parade took place through the principal streets of Johannesburg carrying the Irish Flag and singing national songs, so that for the first time the great international gathering of onlookers realised that the Irish were not British and had a distinct national philosophy.
The celebrations ended with a function presided over by the Burgomaster at which a community of friendship was formed between the Boers and the Irish and at which, before the breakup, Die Folkslied and God Save Ireland were sung.
Griffith returned to Ireland in October 1898 to take up the editorship of a newly founded national paper, The United Irishman, and a year later, his friend, John MacBride, was elected a leader of the Irish Transvaal Brigade and commissioned a major in the Boer Army.
Nationalist sympathy in Ireland at the time of the Boer War lay on the side of the Boers and the formation of the Transvaal Brigade was greeted with much enthusiasm. As proof of this the Transvaal Committee was formed in Dublin with Maude Gonne as its first president, and including Arthur Griffith, James Connolly and the old Fenian, John O’Leary. It held anti-recruiting meetings, published anti-recruiting posters, and had its meeting broken up by the police and many of its members arrested including James Connolly.
Arthur Griffith was later to write of the Irish Brigade in the United Irishman:- ‘They have chosen the side of the weak, the side of right and liberty in the present war, but primarily they have gone out to battle for Ireland, to strike at and weaken her oppressor’. That was how leading nationalist opinion saw it – a war which might weaken the ties of Empire and so help towards Irish freedom.
The Transvaal Irish Brigade rendered a good account of themselves by their bravery. They took part in about twenty battles altogether including Colenso, Spion Kop and Ladysmith.
Back in Paris after the end of the Boer War, he was visited by Arthur Griffith and Maude Gonne. Griffith warned him that he must not return to Ireland and urged him to go on a lecture tour of the U.S.A. to collect funds for Griffith’s paper – The United Irishman – which he did, accompanied by Maude Gonne, a lady who was to become his wife in 1903.
Maude Gonne, the daughter of an English officer of Irish descent and an English mother, was brought up in Dublin, and educated in France. She travelled widely with her father who held various diplomatic appointments until his death. A woman of remarkable beauty, popular in many European capitals, she used her influence on behalf of many of the Irish treason – felony prisoners and was instrumental in securing their release. She was noted for her work in the Land League days as a founder of women’s organisations, particularly in north-west Mayo and in Co. Donegal. She became a prominent Irish revolutionary and was active in all phases of the national struggle.
Her son, Seán MacBride, has shed further lustre on the MacBride name. As Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists, as the Chairman of Amnesty International, he has won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Lenin Peace Prize and has been honoured with Doctorates from the Universities of the Old World, the New World and the Third World.
A constitutional lawyer of worldwide renown, he was elected by the General Assembly of the United Nations to the post of Commissioner for Namibia in South West Africa with the rank of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Major MacBride returned to Dublin in 1904 after the General Amnesty in 1903. His friends secured him a small post under Dublin Corporation. During the following twelve years to 1916, he spent his spare time organising the Irish Republican Brotherhood, addressing anti-recruiting meetings, and lecturing on the United Irishmen’s movement and the Manchester Martyrs. It is worthy of note that at an historic meeting held on 9 September 1914, in the library of the Gaelic League Headquarters at 25 Parnell Square, to which Éamonn Ceannt invited Arthur Griffith and James Connelly, that the other members present were P.H. Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, Joseph Plunkett, Major John MacBride, Éamonn Ceannt and William O’Brien (Labour).
That meeting made two important decisions:-
1. That there would be a Rising
- If the Germans invaded Ireland
- If Conscription was pressed.
- If the end of the war was in sight without a Rising.
2. That Ireland would seek to be represented at the Post-War Peace Conference.
It was further decided to use all open national movements to forward and strengthen the propaganda for freedom, and to further strengthen the secret military movement of the I.R.B. Among the long list of suspects listed by Sir Mathew Nathan shortly after his arrival in Ireland as Under Secretary in late 1914, were:- Thomas J. Clarke, whose shop at 75 Parnell St., was receiving daily attention from the police. Major John MacBride, Thomas Ashe, James Larkin, James Connolly, Bulmer Hobson, Arthur Griffith, John T. Kelly, Francis Sheefy-Skeffinton, P. H. Pearse and others. These were what Nathan described as ‘the small knot of violent men.’
In his address on the Manchester Martyrs in November, 1914, Major MacBride gives us the Fenian Credo of separation when he said:
No man can claim authority to barter away the immutable rights of Nationhood; for Irishmen have fought, suffered, and died in defence of those rights. And, thank God, Irishmen will always be found to snatch up the torch from the slumbering fire, to hold it aloft as a guiding light, and to hand it on, blazing afresh, to the succeeding generation.
He was at 41 Parnell Square on Easter Sunday morning when the shock of MacNeil’s countermand of the mobilisation ordered for that day by Pease occurred. It is known that Seán MacDermott wrote ‘a most urgent message’ to MacBride on Easter Monday morning. An account quotes the late John MacDonagh as having asked his brother, Thomas, ‘who is the man in the blue suit?’ when MacBride appeared at the head of Jacob’s Garrison as they marched from their mobilisation point in Stephen’s Green to the Factory. ‘That’s Major MacBride’, Commandant MacDonagh is reported to have replied. ‘He walked out to me and said, “Here I am if I’m any use to you.” Of course, I’m delighted to have him.’
After fortifying the factory, outposts were placed by MacBride, who also supervised the placing of snipers on roofs. With these aids on the side of the Rebels, the enemy found it safer to move under cover of darkness in the streets near the factory. Volunteer Pádraig Ó Ceallaigh, a member of the garrison in Jacob’s Factory, describing the fighting there during Easter Week said in an account published in the Capuchin Annual of 1966: – ‘Commandant MacDonagh sent small batches of Volunteers on frequent forays to reconnoitre or establish an outpost in case the enemy should attempt to creep up on us secretly – Major John MacBride personally led some of these expeditions.’ In the 1916 number of the Irish weekly, Inniu, Earnán de Blaghad, describing his acquaintance with the 1916 reader states:-
I once met a soldier who was not one of the signatories of the Proclamation, Major John MacBride. He came to Belfast to give a lecture to the small club we had there – an event of which we were proud. He was particularly brave, his ideas and example had a great influence on the young generation, and I think he should be named with the seven who changed Ireland.
Father Aloysius, O.F.M. Cap, has told that when he and Father Augustine came to Jacob’s with Pearse’s surrender order, ‘Major MacBride said that if any attempt were made to counsel surrender he would oppose it with all the strength he could command.’ A fearless and courageous fighter to the last ditch and the last man. After the surrender MacBride was taken to Richmond Barracks where he was tried by Court Martial on 4 May 1916.
The late President of Ireland, Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh, in his autobiography – Seán T. – describes how he saw him being marched across the Barracks Square on the day of his trial:-
We had great respect for him but remembering his ‘history’ we had little hope of his being reprieved. He had fought bravely against the English in the Boer War and that was something we felt would not be forgotten. The enemy would be glad to even the score.
We stayed watching out on the Barrack Square until MacBride and his companions returned and where should they be marched to but right under our window. I raised the lower half of the window and I spoke to them, especially to John MacBride and I enquired if he were tried yet. He confirmed that he had been. I then asked if they were told the result. He replied ‘No, but we are to be told later to-night. But in my own case I know very well what the judgement will be.’ Then, speaking very seriously, he pointed his index finger in the direction of his heart and said:- ‘I will get it here in the morning.’
‘Oh! Don’t say that John’, I said. ‘God is strong, you don’t know yet what could happen to save you’.
‘Nothing will save me, Seán T.’ He replied. ‘This is the end. Remember that this is the second time that I have sinned against them.’
After a few more words an officer came along, pointed a revolver at me and ordered me to shut the window, which I did.
Very soon after he bade farewell to Seán T., MacBride was taken to Kilmainham Jail. He was attended there by Father Augustine, O.F.M. Cap who wrote:-
“Friday morning, May 5, 1916. After two o’clock this morning a loud knocking was heard at the Bowe St. Gate of the Friary. I went down and a soldier told me that I had been asked for by one of the prisoners Kilmainham. I went at once.
On reaching the prison I was immediately shown to a cell and on it being opened, I gripped the hand of Major MacBride. He was quiet and natural as ever. His very first words expressed sorrow for the surrender, and then he went on quickly to say that on his asking for water to have a wash, a soldier had brought him a cupful. ‘I suppose’, he added with a smile ‘they think I could wash myself with that much.’ He then emptied his pockets of whatever silver and coppers he had and asked me to give it to the poor.
Finally, placing his Rosary tenderly in my hand, he uttered a little sentence that thrilled me: ‘And give that to my mother.’ Then, he began his Confession with the simplicity and humility of a child. After a few minutes I gave him Holy Communion and we spent some while together in prayer.
I told him I would be with him to the last and that I would anoint him when he fell.
When the time was up a soldier knocked on the door and we went down together to the passage where final preparations were made. He asked quietly not to have his hands bound and promised to remain perfectly still.
“Sorry Sir,” the soldier answered, “‘but these are orders”’ Then he requested not to be blindfolded and a similar answer was given.
Turning slightly aside, he said to me, quite naturally in a soft voice: “You know, Father Augustine, I’ve often looked down their guns before.”
Later, a piece of white paper is pinned above his heart, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, I whisper into his ear: “We are all sinners. Offer up your life for any faults or sins of the past.”
And this brave man, fearless of death, responds like a child, yet firmly: “I’m glad you told me that, Father. I will.” The two soldiers and myself now move along the corridor, turn to the left and enter the yard where the firing squad of twelve is already waiting with loaded rifles.
Six now kneel on one knee and behind them six stand. He faces them about fifty feet from the guns, two or three feet from the wall.
The two soldiers withdraw to the left, near the Governor and Doctor, and I, oblivious of all but him, stand close at his right in prayer.
The officer approaches, takes me gently by the arm and leads me to a position below himself on the right.
He speaks a word. The prisoner stiffens and expands his chest.
Then quickly, a silent signal, a loud volley, and the body collapses in a heap.
I moved forward quickly and anointed him.”
Major Blackadder, who presided at the Court Martial had this to say:
“All the men behaved well, but the one who stands out as the most soldierly was John MacBride.” He, on entering, stood to attention facing us and in his eyes I could read: “You are soldiers. I am one. You have won. I have lost. Do your worst.”
Finally, he is named with three of the signatories to the Proclamation in the immortal poem – Easter 1916 – by W. B. Yeats.
We know their dreams enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride,
And Connolly and Pearse,
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly,
A terrible beauty is born.
The late Owen Hughes: B.A. Principal Knockrooskey National School, 1931 – 74. Served on Mayo Co. Council 1950 – 79. Member of Agriculture and Vocational Education Committees. He was Chairman of the Mayo 1916 Commemoration Committee in 1966. He wrote about and lectured on Major John MacBride.
This article was first published in Cathair na Mart 10. (1990).
© Liam Lyons Collection.
1 The United Irish League, founded by William O’Brien, had its inaugural public meeting at The Octagon, Westport, on January 29th 1898.