A different profile of Padraig Pearse

 

`That man Pearse," complained the Trinity provost, John Pentland Mahaffy, in exasperation about the one-time student activist. Prophetic words, given Pearse's later role in the tumult of the city. But, after years of dumping on the messianic revolutionary and his romantic rebel cohorts, perhaps it's time to look at "that man Pearse" again.

In Pearse - Fanatic Heart, to be broadcast this Monday in the Real Lives series on RTE, Steve Carson looks at the reputation of a man who once provoked strong passions, but whose complexity and mystery have often been ignored. Carson's company, Mint Productions, has put together an impressive documentary, fluid and pacy with an atmospheric and often ingenious (but not too busy) use of stills, archive material and interviews. It is also a fair assessment, which avoids both the easy denigration of agenda-driven revisionists and the derring-do of "rebel hearts" melodrama, with the craggy Abbey-actor narration and the "Mise Eire" score.

Even the programme's contributors seem curiously restrained. Ruth Dudley Edwards, his early biographer, offers a cool but affectionate picture, while Conor Cruise O'Brien gets almost misty-eyed as he describes Pearse's "warped genius". At one point, O'Brien's description of Pearse's glorification of armed revolt is inter-cut with the fond recollections of former republican prisoner Danny Morrison. They are speaking in the same terms.

In fact, as they speak, we see 1966 footage of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rising on O'Connell Street, an almost orgiastic display of militarism and hero-worship. In a mischievous segue, typical of the programme, a scene showing a line of Irish soldiers pouring commemorative fire from the top of the GPO suddenly blends into pictures of bombings in Belfast four years later. Of all the revolutionary sources, Pearse became one of the most quotable for the Provos. "We may make mistakes in the beginning," he wrote, "and shoot the wrong people . . ."

In this context, Kevin Myers denounces Pearse as cynical, dishonest and a "proto-fascist", phrases which are over the top but perhaps necessary as an illustration of Pearse's potent effect. The idea of interviewing mainstream unionists was resisted.

"It'd be too predictable, with one person saying this and then another saying that," argues Steve Carson, an awardwinning programme maker who worked with the BBC for 10 years, including stints on Panorama and Newsnight.

His own name suggests that he didn't grow up, like many of us, with pictures of P.H. Pearse in the school hall. For this reason, perhaps, Pearse remains an intriguing figure for him, and he is also fascinated by our swings in attitude towards him and other nationalist icons. "You have hagiography, followed by denigration. For us in Belfast, he was just a historical figure," he says.

Fanatic Heart sets the young Pearse very much in his own time, in a Victorian world fixated on childhood, revivalism and, in Ireland, thwarted self-government. The rebel's family were solidly lower middle-class, a background that has often been the crucible of revolution, although his own parents were quite apolitical. His father was English and a monumental sculptor with aspirations, which seems to have given the young Pearse "a chip on the shoulder", argues Prof Joe Lee without a trace of irony.

Pat Coole of the Pearse Museum and Elaine Sissons, who has specialised in researching the childhoods of Irish rebels, offer absorbing insights into a bourgeois but idealistic Irish society which now seems to have vanished. In evocatively shot recreations, we see Pearse's young companions sitting crosslegged among dusty beams and abandoned toys while the rebel prodigy takes them through his presentations on Irish mythology.

Initially, Pearse was preoccupied with Irish folklore and culture, but in a trajectory familiar from other nationalist figures of the time, he became involved in the Gaelic League and, soon, the Volunteer movement. It was a visit to Flanders which inspired him to language revivalism - he was taken by the compatibility of French and Flemish. This is ironic, given that it was Flanders that came to embody the "blood sacrifice" cult of the first World War, with which Pearse has become so associated but which was not mentioned in this programme.

Instead, the programme asserts that it was - surprise, surprise - an encounter with Irish America which truly radicalised him. "It is fair to say he left for the US a schoolteacher, and came back a revolutionary," says Edwards. Crucially, Pearse had already joined the secret IRB, it was at the graveside of the old Fenian, O'Donovan Rossa, that he gave his famous oration. "The funeral was wonderful," Pearse enthused afterwards, the way you would of a rock concert.

Pearse's voluminous letters are widely quoted and, in keeping with the tawny coloured Edwardian ambience of the programme, there are lots of camera panned montages of pamphlets, songsheets and a strange-looking volunteer doll.

Familiar archive footage is employed, but in unusual ways, with paused closeups of a steely-eyed Thomas Clarke or other shadowy figures. Equally stirring are the Ulster rallies against Home Rule in 1912, which, of course, were the key influence on Pearse in going for the armed option. Mercifully, the programme spares us the tortuous "is it on?/ is it off?" run-up to the Easter Rising, and after a few newsreel shots of toppling masonry, it goes on to the interesting effect of the Rising on Pearse's reputation.

Although he was not central to its conception, the revolt subsequently became completely identified with him, mainly because of his execution (and that of his brother), but also because of his writings, which flowed out both before and after the event. "It is as if he had created a whole body of literature for this purpose," says Lee.

This transformation was such that the members of Thomas Clarke's family were surprised at how their father had been supplanted. The programme features a contemporary interview with Clarke's son, Emmet, now in his 90s. There is also classic RTE footage from the 1960s, happily not wiped, including Bulmer Hobson and other less well-known fellows in neat suits, munching their toothless gums at the memories. One of them describes how, at a meeting of Volunteers, preparing for the big "manoeuvre" (wink, wink), Con Colbert piped up to inquire about the possibility of people losing their jobs. Pearse stared at the far wall and said slowly: "I don't think anyone should come out with us on Monday who is afraid of losing their job."

PEARSE the schoolteacher's views on education are also explored, notably those exemplified by St Enda's, his school in Rathfarnham, which he later transferred, despite his spiralling debts, to the scenic and more expensive Hermitage in Wicklow, where he could feel the ghost of Robert Emmet. Pearse's debts are mentioned frequently, suggesting that, in his growing tendency to "death wish" fantasies, he felt that these too could be taken care of by his demise.

There are extraordinary pictures of the school, with young boys dressed up as Celtic warriors and animals. Inevitably, this gave rise to concerns about Pearse's "bachelorhood", which the programme handles tastefully and fairly.

"Yes," shrugs Dudley Edwards "he probably did have homosexual tendencies. But he did nothing about it. He probably wouldn't know what to do about it. He was a pure man, preoccupied with ideas . . ."

When I put it to Carson that prurience about "lifestyles" is essentially a modern habit, he agrees, but says Pearse's sexuality was actually a subject of gossip in the Dublin of his time, so not to have addressed the matter at all would have been strange. He suspects that if the programme had been for Channel 4, however, this sort of speculation would have been top of the agenda. He has high praise for RTE, and says that on historical subjects like this, it has been nothing but helpful. The station's archive was, obviously, invaluable as well.

In 1979, Pearse's centenary was virtually ignored. Now, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, is confident that, in 2016, the centenary of the Rising will see things "come full circle".

In many ways, Pearse would be disappointed with the modern Republic, says Damien Kiberd, a publisher with strong nationalist views. For a moment, I fear a tirade on the North, but in keeping with the programme's reflective atmosphere, Kiberd makes the more telling point that despite the hopes of Pearse and others, the education system went unreformed and the civil service and legal system remained wedded to the English model.

"A rebel and a Victorian" was how Pearse was once described, but in the aftermath of rebellion, the bourgeois Victorian seems to have come up trumps.

"We were" as Kevin O'Higgins said, not without satisfaction, "the most conservative revolutionaries in Europe."

True Lives: Pearse - Fanatic Heart will be shown on Monday at 9.35 p.m. on RTE 1