Patrick Pearse, Collected Plays/Drámaí an Phiarsaigh, edited by Róisín Ní Ghairbhí and Eugene McNulty
A new edition of the republican leader’s dramas casts a fresh light on him – and on the Revival
Patrick Pearse, Collected Plays / Drámaí an Phiarsaigh
Irish Academic Press
Patrick Pearse was 36 when a British firing squad executed him in Dublin on May 3rd, 1916. David Thornley was the same age in 1971, when he wrote about Pearse and his family in the Jesuit journal, Studies. It was the third year of the Troubles, and the English-born Thornley (like Pearse, he had an English father and an Irish mother, and died young), had become fascinated by Pearse. He had not been enthusiastic a few years earlier, when FX Martin asked him to prepare a Thomas Davis Lecture about Pearse for Radio Éireann’s 50th-anniversary commemorations in 1966: at that point he “just did not like the man”. But after some careful reading, the Pearse he presented in his lecture “was not a selfless demigod . . . but a rather likeable young man . . . with a sense of destiny totally at odds with his sense of fun”. This view, he wrote in 1971, “infuriated the republicans, who regard[ed] his peccadilloes as unmentionable, and the constitutionalists, who regarded him as a blood-crazy maniac”.
Those opposing attitudes to Pearse remained frozen in place throughout the years of conflict in Northern Ireland, and have persisted, but the centenary of 1916 will offer a very different landscape in which to contemplate his complexities and contradictions. A level playing field may even appear, shored up by the recently refurbished and reimagined Pearse Museum at St Enda’s in Rathfarnham, and by the new biographies, new assessments and new, critical, editions of Pearse’s own writings, which have begun to appear in the past couple of years, and will certainly continue to do so.
If a level playing field in these current years is an aspiration worthy of Myles na Gopaleen, it is one particularly suited to Patrick Pearse. His own writings distinguish between the terms “play” and “drama”: “ ‘Play’ covers anything and everything from Droghedy’s March [a kind of mumming dance, with sticks, practised in Co Wexford] up to a tragedy of Sophocles. Obviously some plays are dramas, quite as obviously most are not. A drama is a picture of human life intended and suitable for representation by means of action.”
While he exhorted his contemporaries to move away from stock characters and cliched scenes, and to express a view of human life in drama, Pearse did not disdain play. As founder and headmaster of Ireland’s first bilingual boarding school, Sgoil Éanna/St Enda’s, he not only had his pupils perform Shakespeare; he sent them out to entertain and inspire their siblings, parents and the wider community in ambitious, colourful, carefully orchestrated open-air pageants that featured hurling teams playing against each other in medieval dress, then breaking off to march around the field and sing, before enacting heroic episodes from early Irish sagas.
The first of these, Macghníomhartha Chú Chulainn (Cúchulainn’s Boyhood Deeds), based on the opening episodes of Táin Bó Cuailnge, was performed in June 1909 before an audience of 500 at Cullenswood House, Ranelagh (now the site of Scoil Bhríde, and Gael Scoil Lios na nÓg), to celebrate St Enda’s first year in existence.
The second, The Defence of the Ford, also based on the Ulster Cycle, came four years later, after the school moved to Rathfarnham. With 200 performers, it was part of a week-long “St Enda’s Fête” at Jones’s Road, now Croke Park, organised to raise funds for the school; Sean O’Casey was one of its supporters.
Pearse’s longer, more literary, plays, with their finely judged combination of drama, pedagogy and propaganda, were remarkably successful. St Enda’s pupils and teachers performed them to large and influential audiences at the school – and also in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Speeches from Pearse and others introduced and concluded the performances, and the national newspapers reviewed them regularly.
Dynamic cultural engagement
The theatricality of Pearse’s vision for education in a new Ireland and the prominence of his school in Dublin’s cultural life from 1908 to 1916 are central to this new bilingual edition of the plays he wrote and directed for St Enda’s. Not all of them were fully scripted, and none was published for a general readership during his lifetime, though some of his scripts did appear in the school magazine, An Macaomh. Four plays, The Singer, The King, The Master and Íosagán appeared in English in Plays, Stories, Poems, the first volume of Pearse’s Collected Works, published with what now looks like indecent haste within months of his death, and reprinted many times.
In this volume, they are accompanied by Macghníomhartha Chú Chulainn, with Pearse’s English-language summary from the original programme, the Irish texts of Íosagán and An Rí, an unfinished and previously unpublished play, Eoghan Gabha, with a new translation by Róisín Ní Ghairbhí, and most interestingly, the surviving notes on what the editors call Pearse’s “scriptless” plays: his Passion Play, An Pháis, performed at the Abbey to reverent acclaim in the week before Easter 1911, and two heroic pieces.
The editors bracket the annotated play scripts in Irish and English between a thoughtful, informed Introduction and a fascinating bundle of appendices, drawn mainly from Pearse’s editorials for An Claidheamh Soluis, the Gaelic League’s bilingual weekly newspaper, which he edited from 1903 to 1909; they include his tetchy, yet tolerant, verdict on Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World and on the scenes of disorder that greeted its first performance. Some repetition is inevitable with such an approach, but it serves a rhetorical purpose that echoes Pearse’s own, building a picture of a liberating theory of education and a dynamic cultural engagement in the years that led up to 1916. The way this cultural engagement segued into a mystical elevation of violence and a preoccupation with glorious, virginal martyrdom is a topic that needs more discussion than could be expected here.
The editors have done a considerable service to scholars and general readers, casting new light on the making of theatre in Dublin during the Revival, as well as on the troubled, passionate schoolmaster who has given his name to so many GAA clubs, schools, halls and other enterprises, as well as to a railway station, a museum, and a street best known these days for traffic jams.
Many of the places that bear Patrick Pearse’s name commemorate his executed younger brother Willie, too, as the ginideach iolra in the Irish versions, na bPiarsach, makes clear. Best known as an ecclesiastical sculptor, following his father’s lead, Willie Pearse features in this book too, as designer, set-builder, producer and actor: when he played Pilate in the Passion Play he wore a toga, and Mary Bulfin, who played Mary, remembered “the astonishing variety of his frowns”.
Angela Bourke’s latest book is Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker. She is working on a new, bilingual edition of Patrick Pearse’s short stories.