By David Griffiths
On this day in 1916, Irish Republican heroes Seán MacDiarmada and James Connolly were executed by firing squad for their participation in the Easter Rising. Connolly, organizer of the Irish Citizen Army through the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, was now Commandant General of the Army of the Irish Republic, and was regarded by the British as an enemy soldier and commander. MacDiarmada, on the other hand, disabled by polio, wielded a pen rather than a gun, and was executed for helping to write, and signing his name to, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the Irish equivalent of the US Declaration of Independence.
But at the end, the final indignity heaped upon him was aimed not at Seán MacDiarmada, of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, but rather at Seán MacDiarmada, crippled Irishman. He was denied the use of his cane to walk to his death, and was instead forced to limp and stumble his way unaided across the yard of Kilmainham Gaol in the pre-dawn dark, to the bloody wall where he met his end.
Although MacDiarmada’s work as an organizer and activist was not focused on issues specific to disability, he deserves to be recognized as a hero and role model for disabled people, as much as for the people of Ireland. He wasn’t able to take part in combat during the Rising, but he participated as fully as any, and more so than many, in planning the Rising, drafting the Proclamation, and laying the foundation of the Irish Republic. His was one of the great minds guiding the Irish struggle for independence, and he truly was one of the great leaders of that struggle. MacDiarmada was ultimately considered as great a threat to British imperialism as Connolly, or any of the “Sixteen of ’16”.
I have as much right to claim Seán MacDiarmada as a personal hero and role model by virtue of my disability as by virtue of my Irish blood, and I do so on both counts proudly and unreservedly. It is important to me to recognize that we do have disabled historical figures to study and learn from. There have been disabled people who are important to history, not only in the context of disability history, but world history. Their legacies belong to us all, disabled and non-disabled alike, and prove that disabled people have a rightful place in this world, and we always have.