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Remarks by Minister Varadkar at the Commemoration of the Execution of Sean MacDiarmada

The night before he died, Sean MacDiarmada predicted that the cause of Irish freedom would triumph, because it had been rebaptised through the sacrifice of its leaders.

Today, one hundred years later, we gather here to commemorate that sacrifice. We remember the life and death of Sean MacDiarmada, and we celebrate his legacy – the cause of Irish freedom. We do so in the presence of his family, and with so many others who were inspired by his example.

After the 1916 Rising, Sean MacDiarmada was hailed by one Volunteer as ‘the mind of the revolution’. It was a fair description. He was a man of intellect and great organisational ability, who inspired people around him with his courage.

Kathleen Clarke, Tom Clarke’s widow, described MacDiarmada as ‘a wonderful organiser, full of charm and magnetism, and very handsome…a very loveable character and Tom’s loyal and loved comrade’. The Bureau of Military History gives us many stirring accounts of Sean MacDiarmada as a person. One volunteer described him as ‘a monarch among men’, and remembered clearly ‘the pink coloured scarf he was wearing, the burning big brown eyes, so kindly, so unwavering’.

Born in Co. Leitrim, Sean MacDiarmada came to believe passionately in the cause of Irish freedom. Affected by polio in 1911, he had a limp and walked with the aid of a walking stick. He travelled widely around the countryside – on foot, by bicycle, and by motorcar – organising and planning for what became the 1916 Rising. He was one of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation and he believed passionately in its vision of a better and fairer Ireland, an Ireland both free and independent.

After the rebellion he was arrested, and the authorities scrambled to find enough evidence to convict and execute him. He was a bit of a mystery to them – their files even refer to a ‘John MacDermott’. But he was convicted at his court martial and sentenced to death.

In the prison yard where we are now gathered, one of his fellow rebels tried to lighten the mood and joked: ‘They won’t waste a bullet on an old cripple like you’. But MacDiarmada replied that that he wasn’t afraid, and said it would be a privilege to die in the company of Clarke, Connolly, and the others. His calm courage made a huge impression.

Sean MacDiarmada inspired a new generation. When the rebel prisoners were released from internment, they continued to meet in groups. One group called itself ‘The Sean MacDermott Circle’ and was led by Michael Collins. In this centenary year he continues to inspire us.

Today we should also remember the loved ones he left behind. One of the last people to see him alive was the love of his life, Min Ryan. In his final days, he said he would have married Min if he had lived. She left a heart-breaking description of visiting him in the prison cell, ‘with a smile on his face that seemed to transcend this brutal place’. They talked of the past, joking and laughing as if they were enjoying a coffee in Bewley’s.
A few hours later, at 3.45 am on this date one hundred years ago, he was taken out and shot by firing squad.

Min Ryan later married Richard Mulcahy, who went on to become leader of Cumann na nGaedheal. Her brother, James Ryan, was a very close friend of MacDiarmada, and acted for him on many missions, serving alongside him in the GPO. He was a leading political figure in the new Irish state, and in 1947 was appointed the first ever Minister for Social Welfare.

Capuchin friars from Church Street attended MacDiarmada and the other rebel leaders in their final hours in Kilmainham Jail. It’s only appropriate that a member of the Capuchin Order has been invited to read from the memoirs of one of his predecessors about Sean MacDiarmada’s last moments.

But I want like to conclude with one last thought. In his final letter to his brothers and sisters, Sean MacDiarmada reminded them that he died so that the Irish nation might live. It is up to us to live up to his legacy. Thank you.