Born in Dublin on November 22, 1912, Donagh MacDonagh made the most of a life that was singularly unlucky and troubled. His father, Thomas MacDonagh, the great Irish patriot, was executed when Donagh was only three years old, and shortly afterward the young boy contracted tuberculosis. On July 9, 1917, only fifteen months after his father’s death, Muriel MacDonagh, Donagh’s mother, drowned while attempting to swim to an island off the shore of Skerries, an ocean resort close to Dublin. Thereafter, the custody of Donagh and his sister Barbara was contested for some time by the families of their father and mother, apparently in part because of a disagreement about whether the children should be reared as Catholics.
In time, Donagh was sent off to school, first to Belvedere College, where James Joyce had been a student some years earlier, and then to University College, Dublin, where he was part of a brilliant student generation that included such future notables as Niall Sheridan, Brian O’Nolan (who is best known under his pen names, Flann O’Brien and Myles na Gopaleen), Denis Devlin, Charles Donnelly—MacDonagh’s close friend who died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War—and Cyril Cusack, who later became an accomplished actor.
MacDonagh took both his bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees at University College, Dublin, and became a barrister in 1935. He practiced law until 1941, when he was named as a district justice for County Dublin, a post that required much traveling in the countryside.
At the time of his death on New Year’s Day, 1968, MacDonagh was serving as a justice for the Dublin Metropolitan Courts. MacDonagh was twice married. His first wife drowned while she was taking a bath, and his second wife, who survived him, later choked to death on a chicken bone.