How Unionist politician saved 1916 rebel Sean McEntee from firing squad

Picture: Matt Bohill

A CACHE of historical documents in a Belfast attic throws fascinating new light on the 1916 Easter Rising and the involvement and subsequent near-execution of a key northern participant.

The papers highlight the part played in the insurrection by Sean MacEntee (1889-1984), a Belfast man and later Dublin Cabinet minister who was sentenced to death for his involvement in events during Easter Week in which an RIC constable was shot dead.

The original documents, now in the hands of a collector, once belonged to Belfast journalist Daniel McCrea. They include a 70-page typescript account of the Rising by MacEntee entitled ‘Under the Tricolour: A Record of Experience in Easter Week’.

The manuscript was written by the revolutionary leader in Lewes Jail in England in the wake of the Rising. It was sent by MacEntee from prison in an official British government envelope to an unlikely figure, Thomas E Alexander, a Belfast Unionist politician and solicitor with a practice in Donegall Street.

Sean MacEntee (1889-1984) was born in Belfast’s Mill Street (now King Street) into a prosperous Catholic pub-owning family from Co Monaghan. His father James was a prominent Nationalist member of Belfast Corporation and a close friend of Joe Devlin, MP.

Sean was educated at St Mary’s CBS, Barrack Street, St Malachy’s College and Belfast Municipal College of Technology, qualifying as an electrical engineer. A product of the Gaelic League in the city, he wrote Nationalist poetry and joined the militant wing of the Irish Volunteers in 1914.

MacEntee’s typed memoir chronicles his early association with the Socialist Republican, James Connolly in Belfast and his command of 60 members of the militant Irish Volunteers in Dundalk during in 1916. His orders were to mobilise the Louth Volunteers along with those from Meath and south Armagh at the Hill of Tara by Easter Sunday evening. Subsequently, however, these plans were scuppered by the arrival of order from Eoin MacNeill, the Volunteers’ chief of staff, countermanding the mobilisation.

Confused, the 25 year old MacEntee rushed to Belfast to bid farewell to his family – "for what I thought would be the last time", he writes – and then made his way to an embattled Dublin to seek the views of Pearse and Connolly, the Rising’s key leaders.

At Liberty Hall he met Pearse who gave him a revolver and ordered him to return to Dundalk to rally his men. Of Pearse, later executed along with 14 of the insurgents, MacEntee later recalled: "Tall, broad-shouldered and commanding, his presence filled the room… there was an air of dignity and power about him."

On his return to Dundalk MacEntee ordered his men to commandeer a number of cars at Castlebellingham with a view to converging on Tara, as originally intended. It was Easter Monday and the main Belfast-Dublin road was busy with traffic heading north from the popular Fairyhouse Races.

He ordered his unit to disarm two RIC men who arrived on the scene and forced one of them, 22-year old Eddie McGee, a native Irish speaker from Donegal to hand over police despatches. Also detained as they drove by were two Belfast Unionist Councillors and Lieutenant Robert Dunville from Holywood, Co Down who had been driving to Kingstown to join his regiment

As MacEntee was leaving the scene with a party of his men a Volunteer, without warning, discharged a gun, killing Constable McGee and wounding Dunville.

MacEntee made his way to Dublin where he joined the embattled GPO garrison. He was subsequently court-martialled at Richmond Barracks on June 14 1916 along with three comrades on a charge of killing Constable McGee.

In the upshot he was sentenced to death, commuted to penal servitude for life. The reasons why MacEntee escaped the firing squad case were never clear. However, the McCrea papers reveal that the northern republican owed his life to the direct intervention of Unionist councillor TE Alexander.

Alexander had been motoring north from Fairyhouse with a colleague, Alderman John McGowan and their wives when they was stopped by armed men. The lawyer, who knew the MacEntee family well, gave evidence that MacEntee had exercised a restraining influence over his men.

"But for MacEntee, the other men would have behaved badly towards him…"

The vital role played by Alexander in his survival was stressed by MacEntee in a letter to Daniel McCrea, dated August 8 1967. The former Tanaiste recalled: "Tommy Alexander and my father were for many years the best of friends… I myself was greatly indebted to Tommy, not only because of his very favourable and impressive evidence at my court-martial, but because of his indefatigable efforts to save me from being executed as, but for him, I would have been."

MacEntee also confirmed that he had written his account of the Rising while a prisoner in various British jails in 1916 and 1917.

In her autobiography, As Old as the State, MacEntee’s daughter, the Irish-language poet Maire Mhac an tSaoi, recalls a childhood visit to Belfast in the 1920s when her father introduced her to an elderly Alexander as "the man who saved Daddy". Sean MacEntee died in 1984.


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