Driven Patrick Pearse’s singular vision
A poet, playwright, journalist and teacher, Pearse had gained a degree of public prominence years before entering the GPO
Patrick Pearse portrait by Mick O’Dea
In his 36 years Patrick Pearse contributed more to Irish society than might be conventionally sufficient to warrant him long-term posthumous attention.
Often assessed by those primarily motivated to attack the credentials of his later day political admirers, the Pearse of his times was a multi-faceted individual who gained a degree of public prominence years before entering the General Post Office at Easter 1916.
A hard working polymath, he laboured in many fields, excelling in several.
An accomplished poet and playwright in both Irish and English, he also penned short stories, songs, journal articles and political pamphlets. Having joined the Gaelic League aged 16 in 1896 he rose rapidly by acumen and energy to edit its flagship title An Claidheamh Soluis.
He gained national prominence as an advocate of Irish language revival with his views tracked in the mainstream print media, a major achievement for a non-native speaker from Dublin instructed by the Christian Brothers in Westland Row.
Although called to the Bar in 1901, Pearse had no career ambitions appearing on just two occasions to defend Gaelic League members imperilled by their language activism. The best-known case concerned Domhnall Ua Buachalla, who fought in the 1916 Rising and was appointed Ireland’s last “Governor-General” by his friend Eamon de Valera.
In 1906 Ua Buachalla was prosecuted for using his Irish surname on his Maynooth shop front and dray. Moral victory was claimed by Pearse who alleged British cultural oppression had been laid bare following all but inevitable defeat on a point of law in the High Court.
A barrister’s life was eminently possible and his fleeting legal engagements were conducted with an élan that elicited praise from the lord chief justice. It was not to be.
Committed from an early age to fashioning a modern form of “Irish Ireland”, Pearse had no time for or faith in incremental processes of legal reform as a means to deliver profound social transformation.
His 1908 adaptation of the continental “direct method” of teaching for the pedagogy of a new secondary school, St Enda’s College, marked him as an educational pioneer. This role was enhanced by high-level lobbying of politicians and churchmen and more general advocacy of Irish language and culture.
The boys of St Enda’s performed to acclaim in the Abbey Theatre, earning Pearse’s vicarious credit. The youths, often selectively recruited from families with Gaelic League, GAA and republican associations, comprised an elite instructed by highly qualified teachers. They learned geography, mathematics and literature but also, if they desired, boxing, shooting, field sports and orienteering within a distinctly Celtic Revival milieu in which the heroic Ossianic Cycle loomed large.
The common denominator in virtually all Pearse’s adult endeavours was the cultivation of a robust sense of nationality rooted in cherished native attributes.
Graduates of St Enda’s were expected to be capable of infusing their personal, professional and aesthetic lives with distinctive and rounded Irish accomplishments.
He hoped they would be in the vanguard of a generation enjoying the benefits of a non-anglo-centric sovereign democracy.
Those who wished to bring such a society into being were encouraged to join the republican scouting organisation Na Fianna Éireann which had a close connection to the IRB. Con Colbert was a frequent visitor to St Enda’s on NFE business.
It was the sphere of radical politics, however, where Pearse excelled and imprinted himself indelibly into the narrative of modern Irish history.
As one of the principal authors of the 1916 Proclamation and president of the provisional government, he was accorded the honour of declaring the Irish Republic on April 24th outside the GPO.
He was concurrently director of military operation of the Irish Volunteers and a member of the Military Committee of the IRB. Such prominence was the culmination of years of assiduous often-secret activity. An admirer from his early days of Wolfe Tone’s republican philosophy and Robert Emmet’s irrepressible commitment to revolutionary action, the muscular social radicalism of Michael Davitt and James Fintan Lalor were extolled in his later pamphlets.
Although prepared to countenance Home Rule as a step in the right direction, Pearse was not a constitutionalist. When addressing a massive crowd assembled by the Irish Parliamentary Party in O’Connell Street in April 1912, he warned that “red war” would be triggered by any further Westminster betrayals of Irish democratic aspirations. Few could have misconstrued his comments as indicative of a satisfaction with a franchise from which the majority of the population were excluded by a sectarian government located in London.
From August 1913 he supported the Dublin workers during the prolonged and violent Lockout spearheaded by Jim Larkin and James Connolly. In November 1913 the IRB and their allies seized the golden opportunity presented by the prior foundation of the pro-Act of Union Ulster Volunteer Force to create the much larger Irish Volunteers (Oglaigh na hÉireann).
Pressurising Westminster by paramilitary mobilisation appealed to both sides of the Home Rule debate. Pearse spoke at the inaugural Irish Volunteer rally at the Rotunda and had helped secure the services of long-term Gaelic League acquaintance Prof Eoin MacNeill as the movement’s figurehead chief of staff. MacNeill, however, never enjoyed the full confidence of the conspiring IRB leadership which co-opted the very willing and able Pearse.
Pearse helped spread the Volunteers to Limerick, Wexford, Galway, Waterford and elsewhere and championed their objectives in the columns of IRB organ Irish Freedom.
In December 1913 he hailed the Fenians who had risen in arms in 1867 and claimed that those who rescued two leaders from a Manchester prison van that year had created “the most memorable moment in recent Irish history: and that the ring of Irishmen spitting fire from revolver barrels, which an English mob cowered out of range, might well serve as a symbol of the Ireland that should be; of the Ireland that shall be”.
In March 1914 his prowess as an orator in New York City, where he regaled audiences with upbeat reports of the Irish Volunteers, did much to convince the Clan na Gael leadership to furnish substantial resources.
The Gaelic American hailed his efforts to procure firearms and promoted the work of St Enda’s. Tom Clarke’s mentor John Devoy provided Pearse with the use of his offices in lower Manhattan.
Introduced to Joe McGarrity in Philadelphia and reunited with Judge Daniel Cohalan whom he had last met in Dublin, Pearse received the imprimatur of the militant Irish-American leadership. When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, one of the optimum conditions set by trans-Atlantic revolutionaries to foment a unilateral uprising in Ireland was met.
By May 1915 Pearse was appointed to the ultra-secret Military Committee of the Supreme Council of the IRB.
Within months the seven men who comprised the Provisional Government had coalesced to plan a revolt using the manpower of the Irish Volunteers.
While John Redmond’s attempt to bring the open organisation under the influence of the Irish Parliamentary Party had succeeded to a large degree, the 10,000 plus hardcore who rejected his call to enlist remained at the disposal of the hidden IRB.
The detachment of the Redmondites into the National Volunteers and the trenches of the Dardanelles and Flanders did not deter the militants. On August 1st 1915 Clarke deputed Pearse to deliver the main oration at the grave of Fenian hero Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa where his electrifying performance was filmed by Pathe news. The Dubliner was then the de facto public relations officer of the IRB.
Detectives based in Dublin Castle watched Clarke’s shop in Parnell Street night and day but apparently did not devote commensurate resources to rural St Enda’s beyond Rathfarnham.
In the summer of 1914 the IRB debated using the cover of national route marches to overwhelm rural barracks of the Royal Irish Constabulary and carry off their weapons. This highly provocative plan was only voted down by Clarke’s casting vote.
The Military Council, following an impressive dry run in Dublin City on March 17th 1916, settled on Easter Sunday (April 23rd) to rise with stockpiled armaments boosted by German military aid. In the early months of the year Pearse personally briefed county level commanders of the Irish Volunteers on regional strategy and tactics. Codes were agreed that enabled Pearse to apprise acolytes when to strike.
To maintain surprise and evade pre-emption under the draconian Defence of the Realm Act, it was arranged that innocuous instructions on “manoeuvres” from headquarters would be followed by messages from Pearse which signalled that the moment of truth had arrived.
Such preparations proved critical when MacNeill, learning of the ambition of the Military Council, issued countermanding orders that limited the scale of the Rising.
The Pearse reflected by inner circle contemporaries is an even more complicated individual than that detailed in the many narratives of later historians.
Typically shy and reserved in public, acquaintances often found him austere and preoccupied. It has been speculated that a congenital squint in one eye may have contributed to social anxiety, a factor which probably promoted the self-consciousness visible in family photographs.
Rivals within the Gaelic League, Irish Volunteers and IRB were at times unkind in their pronouncements on his alleged personality defects years after British bullets had consigned their quarry to a quicklime pit in Arbour Hill.
Tyrone writer James Mullin acknowledged that his partially unfavourable first impressions were based on misconceptions. In private, Pearse was far more genial. Kitty O’Doherty, an early member of Cumann na mBan, regarded their friendship in the Gaelic League as “intimate”.
Political opponents, not least ex-IRB organiser Bulmer Hobson, blackened Pearse with canards and half-truths into the 1940s by which time partition, the Civil War and the IRA’s “S-Plan” bombing campaign in England had further agitated partisans.
Hobson’s disdain provided ammunition cited by subsequent detractors seemingly aggrieved by the potency of Pearse’s legacy in a divided country where the exclusion of Six Counties from the national jurisdiction stimulated periodic violence.
Winifred Carney’s account of Pearse’s alleged inactivity in the GPO was also harsh, and as with Hobson’s most extreme viewpoints, was belied by the great preponderance of other eyewitnesses.
Early published counterpoints by Des Ryan, ex-student, Irish Volunteer and literary executor of Pearse, appear rose-tinted to the modern eye but were endorsed in their essence by the majority of his close associates.
Invaluable source material of this kind has only reached the wider population in recent years due to the timely funding of the Military Archives/ National Archives “Bureau of Military History” digitization collaboration.
In the interim, the ferocity of the “Long War” (1968-1998), following so close to the enthusiastic State-led celebrations of the Rising in 1966, evidently prompted new critics embarrassed by Ireland’s revolutionary heritage.
Fortunately, a more nuanced and informed assessment of Pearse is eminently achievable owing to the wealth of the extant archive and printed primary library holdings.
Dr Ruan O’Donnell is senior lecturer in History at the University of Limerick