Pádraig Pearse: Preparing for the ‘end times’

Long a Gaelic revivalist, Pearse was a latecomer to politics and gunfire, his unfortunate brother an even later one



On December 25th, 1915

(his last Christmas), Pádraig Pearse signed off a pamphlet entitled Ghosts, hardly Yuletide fare. Though he acknowledged Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same title, one wonders if Pearse really had studied that remorseless drama of inherited syphilis and domestic breakdown. His ghosts were Wolfe Tone, Thomas Davis, James Fintan Lalor and John Mitchel. These are not accusing figures, but admonitory and advisory.

What the names signify is a tradition of Irish insurrection which had faltered; the opening sentence goes: “There has been nothing more terrible in Irish history than the failure of the last generation.”

The same theme recurs more positively in the Easter Proclamation of four months later: “Six times in the last 300 years” have the Irish risen in arms – supposedly for independence in each case. During the late autumn when Pearse composed Ghosts, he became increasingly aware of “the end times” in which the latest generation must act.

Dedicated editor, prolific bilingual writer in prose, verse and drama and successful orator, Pearse’s high vision of an independent Ireland, Gaelic and free, benefitted from an equally high degree of tunnel vision. Despite lengthy quotations from his ghostly heroes (three of four were Protestants), there is no frank acknowledgment of religious difference, even though the Ulster of his own day paraded a willingness to fight for that difference. Second, there is practically no reference to Robert Emmet, on most occasions Pearse’s favourite hero.

Ghosts had been written, or at least completed, at the Hermitage, Rathfarnham, just south of Dublin. Emmet’s beloved, Sarah Curran, had lived nearby; Emmet and she had walked its woodland paths, according to Pearse. If any of the patriots haunted Saint Enda’s School, it should have been Emmet. What was it that precluded him from the ghostly chorus that last Christmas?


A bifurcated family tree

The Londoner James Pearse (1839-1910) came to Dublin

in about 1860 and flourished as a monumental sculptor. An agnostic, he first married (in Birmingham) Emily Fox, a Protestant, some time after setting up in business. Two children were baptised in St Peter’s (Church of Ireland) in 1866 and 1867. Mrs Pearse died in 1876, aged 30. Her husband had converted to Catholicism for – in Ruth Dudley Edwards’s opinion – cerebral, that is, commercial, reasons.

His second and Irish wife, Margaret Brady, bore him four children, Pádraig Henry (1879-1916) being the elder son. James and Margaret also “adopted” two children, relatives of hers, one of whom married a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, in 1907.

James Pearse died suddenly in Birmingham on a family trip home, with Patrick in tow. William James Pearse, born in 1881, adopted a more varied curriculum for life, studied in Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art, then later in London, travelling to Paris in 1904 and 1905. His easier manner also encouraged semi-professional theatricals and cordial relations with his half-siblings.


The Gaelic League and the IRB

Pádraig Pearse’s devotion, throughout most of his adult years, was to the Gaelic League. The engagement with popular culture had begun with songs and stories related by his mother’s aunt Margaret and from Irish classes in the Christian Brothers School, Westland Row.

There the introspective boy threw everything into mastering the language for himself. He joined the Gaelic League in October 1896, aged 16. Like cultural nationalist movements elsewhere, its leaders saw the rural population as the nation’s soul incarnate; they idealised western native speakers, concomitantly espousing an anti-industrial, anti-modernist world view.

Theoretically, the league was non-political but inevitably its nationalism had political consequences. By the end of 1897, Pearse was a prime mover in popularising the league; the following year he was co-opted on to the Coiste Gnótha (executive) while at the same time studying for arts (Irish, English and French) and law degrees. His total commitment to revival of the language led him to play peacemaker on a divided and ill-tempered committee, although his expectations of other members were frequently naive and unrealistic.

Appointed secretary to a new Publications Committee in June 1900, he contributed much to its paper, An Claidheamh Soluis. Editor from 1906 to 1909, he expanded its literary content, publishing new writing in Irish, including his own. By now well experienced as a teacher of the language, his developing interest in educational policy led him eventually to found his own schools, St Enda’s (boys) and St Ita’s (girls).


Counter-Reformation rebels?

The premier journal of the day was The Irish Review, founded in 1911 by rationalist David Houston with Thomas MacDonagh’s support. In Songs of the Irish Rebels (August 1913-February 1914), Pearse matched 16th and 17th century Gaelic texts with his own translations. This bilingualism deviated from pure Gaelic League theory, while also presenting essentially Catholic Reformation culture under the guise of rebel songs. That culture had been ferociously embattled and its bitter resentment of “Clan Luther” is evident throughout the material.

Grim historical reality did not make Geoffrey Keating a rebel. Yet Bernadette Cunningham has clearly shown how Fr Keating excluded non-natives of Ireland and non-Catholics from his influential definition of the Éireannaigh. Only with the forceful new nationalism of Pearse and Plunkett was Ireland effectively identified with the Catholic populace, despite gestures towards Wolfe Tone, a deist.

Given Pearse snr’s English agnostic background, his famous son’s presentation of Keating exemplifies the drastic reorientations which the young man went through since his Home Rule days.

Simultaneously, young Pearse’s footnotes disclose a casually partisan use of theology; glossing Some Rebel Quatrains (his title) he recalled the early Irish love “of nature’s God” but regarded later hatred of the English as “a scarcely less holy passion”. As for nature’s God, in fact it derived from the US Declaration of Independence, via the Fenian proclamation of 1867. The zealot was an eclectic.

What makes him an important anthologist is not scholarship – he cheerfully admits many debts – nor excellence as a poetic translator – most are prose renderings – but the confluence in his mind of historic and contemporary influences.

One instance may serve. Pierce Ferriter wrote of humiliation under the Cromwellian knout, instancing symptoms of tenderness, weakness more fitting of women after childbirth, etc. (Of this couvade, Joyce’s Bloom in 1904 had happier experiences.)

For Pearse the translator it was “a disease that hath no cure, a terrible unmanning [sic]”. As a controversialist, he inveighed against the repeated failure of Ireland’s manhood to beget a generation of rebels. The Coming Revolution echoed Ferriter’s complaint: “We of this generation are not in any real sense men, for we suffer things that men do not suffer.” What, if anything, does this tell us about Pearse’s sexuality?


The IRB or the Irish Volunteers?

Long a Gaelic revivalist, Pearse was a latecomer to politics and gunfire, his unfortunate brother an even later one. JJ Lee points out that the future president of the Republic (virtually established) would at times have accepted Home Rule. As late as February 1916, he conceded in The Spiritual Nation a willingness to have taken that step in the right direction and worked from it.

By then he was already an inducted member of the IRB (December 1913) and a founder member of the Irish Volunteers (November 1913). The IRB was impressed by Pearse’s linguistic genius, bothered by his Home Rule sentiments. His induction was the first of four – with Plunkett’s (August 1914), Connolly’s (January 1916, a questionable case) and MacDonagh’s (April 1916) – in which the organisation took control of talents which otherwise might prove wayward. Internal resistance to Pearse was prolonged. Once sworn in, he rose rapidly through the organisation.

Chronologically he was first a Volunteer and then a neo-Fenian, but instrumentally the reverse order prevailed. Within the Volunteers, he conspired with JJ McGarrity to sideline Eoin MacNeill after the Howth and Kilcoole gun-running. His appointment in 1915 as director of military organisation was not a tribute to his substantial Gaelic League achievements. The oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral (August 1st, 1915) effectively or performatively substituted blood sacrifice propaganda for dynamitard terror. By nightfall, he sat on the IRB’s Supreme Council.

The attendance at Glasnevin was colossal, thanks in no small part to MacDonagh’s organisational skills. Even before the event, the Pearsean objective had gained a vital supporter. James Connolly who, like O’Donovan, had spent years in the United States, issued Why the Citizen Army Honours Rossa in which the workers got three mentions, the nation 10, the soul 11 and the trade unions none.

At the other end of the ideological returns, the IRB could content themselves with echoes of Pearse’s speech, detected for us by the late Liam de Paor, in the Proclamation of Easter Monday. After August 1st, 1915, Pearse was more instrument than mover or shaker.


‘The Murder Machine’ and Saint Enda’s

In January 1916, he issued a substantial pamphlet, collecting his thoughts on education. The Murder Machine is rightly celebrated for its emphasis on freedom for pupil, teacher and school – especially freedom from State prescription. Few readers now recall a notable concession.

Responding to Bishop Edward Dwyer of Limerick’s insistence on religious management (ie control) against John Redmond’s vague projections, Pearse declared that he was willing to leave that matter “untouched, or practically so”. And so it has been for almost a century.

The legacy of his schools endures, partly due to their drive towards intellectual independence, to the brilliance of some teachers and pupils, and the cultural impact on pre-war Dublin. Saint Enda’s was prominent in Gaelic games and with parades through the streets in antique revival dress. Pupils staged seven works in the Abbey Theatre.

The school mounted pageants and other performances on its own premises, attended by leading literary figures of the day, including Ethna Carbery, Padraic Colum, Edward Martyn, Standish O’Grady, WB Yeats and many others. Pearse’s schools provided working examples in Ireland of a new education movement abroad.

Though struggling, Saint Enda’s did not close until 1935. Several former pupils had become teachers in the Free State system and, as Elaine Sisson points out, many Department of Education civil servants were devoted admirers of Pearse’s educational writings. However, in the straitened circumstances of overcrowded classrooms and a shortage of textbooks and equipment, his liberal conception of pedagogy became simplified to a narrowly focused religious and nationalist orthodoxy.

Two questions which were raised earlier deserve some renewed attention. Why did Emmet not feature among the ghosts at Saint Enda’s? Unlike Tone, Davis, Lalor and Mitchel, the leader of 1803 wrote practically nothing and was forced into premature action by an accidental explosion in the rebel storehouse. In contrast Pearse was a voluminous writer, with oratory adding a public dimension that pamphlets and poems could not reach. Action existed in a quite different realm.

And the question of sexuality, which has buzzed round Pearse’s reputation since revelations of youthful transvestism emerged in his sister’s innocent account of the family’s home life, may also involve the distinction between desire and action.

The conclusion endorsed by Joost Augusteijn – that he was an unconscious homosexual who sublimated his desires into his work – has been widely if reluctantly accepted. There was, however, behaviour outside poetry and drama. Pearse kissed his male pupils and, according to Séamus O’Sullivan, he was “under a cloud”. Among reflections on the Great War, increased attention to its sexual aura may throw light on the infinitely smaller but more compact theatre of IRB insurrection.

Bill McCormack’s Enigmas of Sacrifice: A Critique of Joseph M Plunkett will be published early next year by Michigan State University Press

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.