1916 Rebel Back Story: Thomas Macdonnagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett’s and Peadrig Pearce.

“Six years ago I created a series of portraits to remember the faces of the 1916 Easter Rising and mark the then imminent centenary. The revolt was largely centered around the British power base in Dublin but also involved flash points country wide. It spelt the beginning of the end of British rule in Ireland’s south.

The photos available to me were of varied quality, range from to professional portraits to rushed mug shots. I sought to impose a consistent style throughout the collection. I fused both contemporary and classical painting styles to draw together the vastly diverse photographic sources. The unity of style was an attempt underline the diverse nature of the Risings’ protagonists and how they bound together in common purpose.

Before starting I researched each subject’s background to understand better who was looking back at me from each reference photo. The stories I dug up fascinated me on a human level. Most importantly they informed my artistic relationship with the “sitter”, granting me a sliver of insight to their inner workings and motivations.

Here are those back stories now, along with videos from 2016 and links to the finished portraits.” – Rod Coyne.

Thomas MacDonagh 1878-1916

Thomas Mc Donagh photographic portrait

Thomas MacDonagh – Early Years

A native of Tipperary, Thomas MacDonagh trained as a priest but like his parents became a teacher, and was on the staff at St Enda’s, the school he helped to found with Padraig Pearse. A gifted poet, writer and dramatist, in 1909 he was a founding member of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland and also was active in setting up the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1911 which promoted Irish nationalism and the cultural revival.

Thomas MacDonagh – Road to Revolution

He joined the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, becoming a member of the provisional committee and taking part in the Howth gun-running. MacDonagh believed Irish freedom would be achieved by what he called “zealous martyrs”, hopefully through peace but, if necessary, by war.

Although a member of the IRB from April 1915, he was not co-opted to the Military Council until early April 1916, and so had little part in planning the Rising. He is believed, however, to have contributed to the content of the Proclamation.

As one of the four Dublin battalion commandants, MacDonagh was in charge at Jacob’s biscuit factory in Bishop Street. His two most senior officers were Major John MacBride and Michael O’Hanrahan. Survived by his wife Muriel Gifford and his children Donagh and Barbara, MacDonagh was executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Jail on May 3.

Thomas MacDonagh – Remembered

Thomas MacDonagh Tower in Ballymun, Dublin, which was built in the 1960s and demolished in June 2005, was named after him, as was the train station (MacDonagh Station) and shopping centre (MacDonagh Junction) in Kilkenny (as MacDonagh had taught in St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny City during the early years of his career).

The Thomas MacDonagh Heritage Centre in Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary was opened in 2013. The centre houses the town library and exhibition space. An annual Thomas MacDonagh Summer School takes place in Cloughjordan over the May bank holiday weekend.

View Thomas MacDonagh’s finished portrait here.

Rebel Talk! Bryan Dobson launches 1916 Portrait Collection

Joseph Plunkett 1887–1916

Joseph Mary Plunkett (Irish: Seosamh Máire Pluincéid, 21 November 1887 – 4 May 1916) was an Irish nationalist, poet, journalist, and a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Joseph Plunkett

Joseph Plunkett – Early years of a patriot

Plunkett was born at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street in one of Dublin’s most affluent neighbourhoods. Both his parents came from wealthy backgrounds, and his father, George Noble Plunkett, had been made a papal count. Despite being born into a life of privilege, young Joe Plunkett did not have an easy childhood.
Plunkett contracted tuberculosis at a young age. This was to be a lifelong burden. His mother was unwilling to believe his health was as bad as it was. He spent part of his youth in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean and north Africa. He was educated at the Catholic University School (CUS) and by the Jesuits at Belvedere College in Dublin and later at Stonyhurst College, in Lancashire, where he acquired some military knowledge from the Officers’ Training Corps. Throughout his life, Joseph Plunkett took an active interest in Irish heritage and the Irish language, and also studied Esperanto. Plunkett was one of the founders of the Irish Esperanto League. He joined the Gaelic League and began studying with Thomas MacDonagh, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. The two were both poets with an interest in theatre, and both were early members of the Irish Volunteers, joining their provisional committee. Plunkett’s interest in Irish nationalism spread throughout his family, notably to his younger brothers George and John, as well as his father, who allowed his property in Kimmage, south Dublin, to be used as a training camp for young men who wished to escape conscription in England during World War I. Men there were instead trained to fight for Ireland.

Joseph Plunkett – Radicalization

Sometime in 1915 Joseph Plunkett joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and soon after was sent to Germany to meet with Roger Casement, who was negotiating with the German government on behalf of Ireland. Casement’s role as emissary was self-appointed, and, as he was not a member of the IRB, that organisation’s leadership wished to have one of their own contact Germany to negotiate German aid for an uprising the following year. He was seeking (but not limiting himself to) a shipment of arms. Casement, on the other hand, spent most of his energies recruiting Irish prisoners of war in Germany to form a brigade to fight instead for Ireland. Some nationalists in Ireland saw this as a fruitless endeavour, and preferred to seek weapons. Plunkett successfully got a promise of a German arms shipment to coincide with the rising.

Joseph Plunkett  – Easter Rising

Plunkett was one of the original members of the IRB Military Committee that was responsible for planning the Easter Rising, and it was largely his plan that was followed. Shortly before the rising was to begin, Plunkett was hospitalised following a turn for the worse in his health. He had an operation on his neck glands days before Easter and had to struggle out of bed to take part in what was to follow. Still bandaged, he took his place in the General Post Office with several other of the rising’s leaders such as Patrick Pearse and Tom Clarke, though his health prevented him from being terribly active. His energetic aide de camp was Michael Collins.

Joseph Plunkett – Condemned and Married

Following the surrender Plunkett was held in Kilmainham Gaol, and faced a court martial. Seven hours before his execution by firing squad at the age of 28, he was married in the prison chapel to his sweetheart Grace Gifford, a Protestant convert to Catholicism, whose sister, Muriel, had years before also converted and married his best friend Thomas MacDonagh, who was also executed for his role in the Easter Rising.

Joseph Plunkett  – Patriot Remembered

The main railway station in Waterford City is named after him as is Joseph Plunkett Tower in Ballymun. Plunkett barracks in the Curragh Camp, County Kildare is also named after him.

View Joseph Plunkett’s finished portrait here.

Pádraig Pearse 1879–1916

Patrick Henry Pearse (also known as Pádraic or Pádraig Pearse; Irish: Pádraig Anraí Mac Piarais; An Piarsach; 10 November 1879 – 3 May 1916) was an Irish teacher, barrister, poet, writer, nationalist and political activist who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. Following his execution along with fifteen other leaders, Pearse came to be seen by many as the embodiment of the rebellion.

Pádraig Pearse

The Rising

Pearse was chosen by the leading IRB man Tom Clarke to be the spokesman for the Rising. It was Pádraig Pearse who, on behalf of the IRB shortly before Easter in 1916, issued the orders to all Volunteer units throughout the country for three days of manoeuvres beginning Easter Sunday, which was the signal for a general uprising. When Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Volunteers, learned what was being planned without the promised arms from Germany, he countermanded the orders via newspaper, causing the IRB to issue a last-minute order to go through with the plan the following day, greatly limiting the numbers who turned out for the rising.

When the Easter Rising eventually began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, it was Pearse who read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from outside the General Post Office, the headquarters of the rising. After six days of fighting, heavy civilian casualties and great destruction of property, Pearse issued the order to surrender.
Pearse and fourteen other leaders, including his brother Willie, were court-martialled and executed by firing squad. Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh and Pádraig Pearse himself were the first of the rebels to be executed, on the morning of 3 May 1916. Pearse was 36 years old at the time of his death.

Sir John Maxwell, the General Officer commanding the British forces in Ireland suppressed a letter from Pearse to his mother, and two poems dated 1 May 1916. He submitted copies of them also to Prime Minister Asquith, saying that some of the content was “objectionable”.


Pádraig Pearse wrote stories and poems in both Irish and English. His best-known English poems include “The Mother”, “The Fool” and “The Wayfarer”. He also wrote several allegorical plays in the Irish language. Most of his ideas on education are contained in his famous essay “The Murder Machine”. He also wrote many essays on politics and language, notably “The Coming Revolution” and “Ghosts”.
Pearse is closely associated with the song, “Oró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile”, for which he composed additional lyrics.


Largely as a result of a series of political pamphlets that Pearse wrote in the months leading up to the Rising, he soon became recognised as the main voice of the Rising. In the middle decades of the 20th century Pearse was idolised by Irish nationalists as the supreme idealist of their cause. With the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969 Pearse’s legacy was used by the Provisional IRA. However, Pearse’s reputation and writings have been subject to criticism by some historians, who have seen him as fanatical, psychologically unsound and ultra-religious. As Conor Cruise O’Brien, onetime Labour TD and former unionist politician, put it: “Pearse saw the Rising as a Passion Play with real blood.” Others have defended Pearse, suggesting that to blame him for the violence in Northern Ireland was unhistorical and a distortion of the real spirit of his writings. Though the passion of those arguments has waned in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, his complex personality still remains a subject of controversy for those who wish to debate the evolving meaning of Irish nationalism.

View Padraig Pearse’s finished portrait here.

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