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.