Éamonn Ceannt: Gunman in the shadow
Perhaps the least known of the Proclamation's signatories, Éamonn Ceannt is nonetheless an important figure, writes Aoife Whelan
On the eve of his execution, Éamonn Ceannt issued a statement from his cell in Kilmainham Jail, declaring that 'Ireland has shown she is a Nation. This generation can claim to have raised sons as brave as any that went before. And in the years to come Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916.'
Edward Thomas Kent was born in 1881 in the RIC barracks in Ballymoe where his father was a constable. In 1883 the family moved to Ardee, Co Louth when his father was transferred and in 1892 they settled in Dublin. By the age of 15, he had begun to sign his name Éamonn Ceannt in his school diaries and, in 1898, achieved excellent results in his final exams and took up a clerical position with Dublin Corporation.
The same year also marked the centenary of the United Irishmen's 1798 Rebellion. Ceannt marched in the commemorative processions and was greatly influenced by these public displays of nationalist sentiment. The following St Patrick's Day, he purchased a copy of O'Growney's book on the Irish language. Shortly after, on 13 September 1899, Ceannt joined the central branch of the Gaelic League. Although the League claimed to be apolitical, it seems that Ceannt became more politicised in it, having been introduced to Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill among others. He began teaching Irish at various League branches and his students included Seán T Ó Kelly and Áine Ní Bhraonáin, who was to become his wife in 1905. Áine was a sister of the journalist and playwright Kathleen O'Brennan.
The Gaelic League was concerned not only with the revival of the Irish language, but also with promotion of a truly 'Irish-Ireland'. This included the fostering of Irish music, dancing, literature, heritage, customs, habits and points of view. Ceannt shared this ideology. As an enthusiast of the uileann and war pipes, he was involved in the establishment of Cumann na bPíobairí (The Pipers' Club) in Dublin in February 1900 and was elected honorary secretary a year later. Ceannt purchased a printing press in order to produce a journal entitled An Píobaire which first appeared on 5 July 1901. In September 1908, he travelled to Rome as official piper for a contingent of Irish athletes. He is reported to have played 'O'Donnell Abú' and 'The Wearing of the Green' during the group's audience with Pope Pius X.
In 1907, Ceannt joined the central branch of Sinn Féin in Dublin. He was an active member of the movement and was elected to the branch committee and then to the National Council. He was also elected to the Gaelic League Executive in 1909. Ceannt was among those who protested against the visit of King George V in July 1911, under the auspices of the newly-formed United National Societies Committee. His colleagues on the committee included Seán Fitzgibbon, Seán Mac Diarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse and The O'Rahilly. The protestors organised a visit to the grave of Wolfe Tone at Bodenstown during the royal visit.
In March 1912, Pearse launched his own newspaper, An Barr Buadh, as a platform for his nationalist philosophy. Ceannt was among its most significant contributors. By 1913, Ceannt had been sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by Seán Mac Diarmada. When the Irish Volunteers were established in November 1913 in response to the foundation of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ceannt was elected to the provisional committee. Although by this point Home Rule seemed to be within reach, many extreme nationalists believed the time had come to seek political independence for Ireland by force if necessary.
Ceannt played an active role in the financing and arming of the Volunteers and was involved in the importation of guns at both Howth and Kilcoole in the summer of 1914. These manoeuvres by the Volunteers were praised openly by the Irish Independent's Gaelic columnist, Eoghan Ó Neachtain, who beseeched God to reward the men who completed this task for Ireland's benefit: 'Nár laga Dia na buachaillí a rinne obair an Domhnaigh ar son na hÉireann,' he wrote.
Following the split within the Volunteers, Ceannt was elected financial secretary and was appointed commandant of the 4th Battalion in March 1915. He was also co-opted onto the IRB Military Council, along with Pearse and Plunkett, and became director of communications. Many of the meetings of the Military Council were held at Ceannt's residence in Dolphin's Barn. The song 'Ireland Over All', penned by Ceannt, was sold to raise money for his battalion.
As plans for an armed rebellion took shape, Thomas Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada were recruited to the Military Council, followed by James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army and finally by Thomas MacDonagh. Despite Eoin MacNeill's countermanding orders which appeared in the Sunday Independent, on Easter Monday 1916 Ceannt took command of 120 Volunteers at the South Dublin Union workhouse and hospital (now St James's Hospital). Cathal Brugha served as his Vice-Commandant.
Ceannt's wife Áine, son Rónán and mother-in-law had been dispatched to stay with the Brugha family during the agitation. Ceannt and his men entered the Union through the Rialto entrance and immediately cut the telephone lines and erected barricades. Patients, inmates and staff were relocated to safer buildings displaying Red Cross Flags and provisions were allowed through. The strategically-located Night Nurses' Home became the rebels' HQ. They soon came under fire from British forces on the ground, supported by marksmen from the roof of the Royal Hospital nearby. The Volunteers held their positions and following the deaths of two commanding officers, Lieutenant Ramsey and Captain Warmington, the British retreated.
A second wave of troops managed to enter the Union complex. The fighting became an intense hand-to-hand struggle but Ceannt's military expertise and bravery ensured that his men held their position despite heavy losses on both sides. On Thursday 27 April, British troops launched a fierce assault on Ceannt's headquarters. Although losses were sustained and Cathal Brugha was seriously wounded, the British military didn't succeed in breaching the rebels' barricade. When the order to surrender was issued on Sunday 29 April, Ceannt was initially reluctant to comply but eventually stood down as the orders had come from Pearse and Connolly.
Éamonn Ceannt was sentenced to death following court-martial and was executed on 8 May. He hoped his actions and those of his comrades would form a legacy for future generations. He wrote in a letter to his wife: 'Tell Rónán to be a good boy and remember Easter 1916 for ever.' Although overshadowed somewhat in the aftermath of the Rising as scholars focused on other Nationalist leaders, Ceannt was nonetheless a quintessential revival figure as his political and military activism was preceded by his involvement in the Gaelic League, his Catholic schooling and his interest in traditional Irish music.
Dr Aoife Whelan (pictured right) has recently completed a PhD in UCD's School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore on Irish language journalism during the revival period
Born: 21 September 1881, Ballymoe, Co Galway
Educated: De La Salle NS, Ardee; CBS, Drogheda; CBS North Richmond St, Dublin
Affiliation: IRB/Irish Volunteers
Career: Dublin Corporation accountant
Died: 8 May 1916, Kilmainham Jail