Patrick Henry Pearse was born at 27 Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), Dublin.His father, James Pearse, was an English artisan/stonemason who moved to Ireland from Birmingham to take advantage of the boom in church building during the second half of the 19th century. He converted to Catholicism in 1870, probably for business reasons, and held moderate home rule views. In 1877 he married his second wife, Margaret Brady. He had two children from his previous marriage, Emily and James (two other children from that marriage, Amy Kathleen and Agnes Maud, died in childbirth). Margaret was a native of Dublin, but her father's family were from County Meath and were native Irish speakers. The Irish-speaking influence of Pearse's great-aunt Margaret, together with his schooling at the CBS Westland Row, instilled in him an early love for the Irish language.
Pearse's earlier heroes were the ancient Gaelic folk heroes such as Cúchulainn, though in his 30s he began to take a strong interest in the leaders of past republican movements, such as the United Irishmen Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. Both were Protestant, but much of nationalist Ireland was Protestant in the eighteenth century. It was from these men that those such as the fervently Catholic Pearse drew inspiration for the rebellion of 1916.
With the aid of Thomas MacDonagh, Pearse's younger brother Willie Pearse and other (often transient) academics, it soon proved a successful experiment. He did all he planned, and even brought students on fieldtrips to the Gaeltacht in the west of Ireland. Pearse's restless idealism led him in search of an even more idyllic home for his school. He found it in the Hermitage, Rathfarnham, where he moved St. Enda's in 1910. Pearse was also involved in the foundation of St. Ita's school for girls, a school with similar aims to St. Enda's.
However, the new home, while splendidly located in an 18th-century house surrounded by a park and woodlands, caused financial difficulties that almost brought him to disaster. He strove continually to keep ahead of his debts while doing his best to maintain the school. In February 1914 he travelled to the USA to raise money for his ailing school where he met John Devoy and Joseph McGarrity both of whom were impressed by his fervour and supported him in raising sufficient money to secure the continued existence of the school.
Pearse moved from welcoming the Bill, asking all sides to support Redmond’s praiseworthy achievement to demanding a better Bill with the public warning Let the Gall understand that if we are cheated this time there will be red war in Ireland . Pearse was one of four speakers, including Redmond, Joseph Devlin MP. leader of the Northern Nationalists and Eoin MacNeill a prominent Gaelic Leaguer, who addressed a large Home Rule Rally in Dublin on a public platform at the end of March 1913. Speaking in Irish Pearse threatened revolution if the Bill were not enacted.
In November 1913 Pearse was invited to the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers, formed to enforce the implementation of the Third Home Rule Act passed by the House of Commons in the face of opposition from the Ulster Volunteers. In an article entitled “The Coming Revolution” (Nov. 1913) Pearse wrote
As to what your work as an Irish Nationalist is to be, I cannot conjecture; I know what mine is to be, and would have you know yours and buckle yourselves to it. And it may be (nay, it is) that your and mine will lead us to a common meeting-place, and that on a certain day we shall stand together, with many more beside us, ready for a greater adventure than any of us has yet had, a trial and a triumph to be endured and achieved in common.The bill just failed to pass the House of Lords, but the Lord’s diminished power under the Parliament Act meant that the bill could only be delayed and was finally placed on the statute books with Royal Assent in September 1914, but suspended for the duration of World War I, which context set the backdrop for events to follow. John Redmond leader of the IPP feared his “national authority” might be circumvented by the Volunteers and decided to control the new movement. Despite opposition from the I.R.B. members, the Volunteer Executive agreed to share leadership with Redmond and a joint committee was set up. Pearse was opposed to this and was to write:
The leaders in Ireland have nearly always left the people at the critical moment; they have sometimes sold them. The former Volunteer movement was abandoned by its leaders; O’Connell recoiled before the cannon at Clontarf; twice the hour of the Irish revolution struck during Young Ireland days and twice it struck in vain, for Meagher hesitated in Waterford, Duffy and McGee hesitated in Dublin. Stephens refused to give the word in ‘65; he never came in ‘66 or ‘67. I do not blame these men; you or I might have done the same. It is a terrible responsibility to be cast on a man, that of bidding the cannon speak and the grapeshot pour.
The Volunteers split one of the issues being support for the Allied and British war effort, a majority following Redmond in the National Volunteers in the belief that this would ensure Home Rule on their return. Pearse, exhilarated by the dramatic events of the European war wrote in an article written in December 1915 on patriotism:
It is patriotism that stirs the people. Belgium defending her soil is heroic, and so is Turkey . . . . . .
It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields.
Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.
"Our foes are strong and wise and wary; but, strong and wise and wary as they are, they cannot undo the miracles of God Who ripens in the hearts of young men the seeds sown by the young men of a former generation. And the seeds sown by the young men of '65 and '67 are coming to their miraculous ripening today. Rulers and Defenders of the Realm had need to be wary if they would guard against such processes. Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace." (Full text of Speech)
When the Easter Rising eventually erupted on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, there never was any plan for a military victory in the minds of the Leaders. It was Pearse who proclaimed a Republic from the steps of the General Post Office and headquarters of the insurgents. After six days fighting, heavy civilian casualties and great destruction of property, Pearse issued the order to surrender along with the remaining leaders.
Pearse and fourteen other leaders, including his brother Willie, were court-martialled and executed by firing squad. Sir Roger Casement, who had tried unsuccessfully to recruit an insurgent force among Irish-born prisoners of war from the Irish Brigade in Germany was hanged in London the following August. Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh and Pearse himself were the first of the rebels to be executed, on the morning of 3 May 1916. Pearse was 36 years old at the time of his death.
Sir John Maxwell, the General Officer commanding the British forces in Ireland, sent a telegram to Asquith, then Prime Minister, advising him not to return the bodies of Pádraig and Willie Pearse to their family saying: "Irish sentimentality will turn these graves into martyrs’ shrines to which annual processions will be made which would cause constant irritation in this country.
Maxwell also suppressed the letter from Pearse to his mother, and two poems dated 1 May 1916, he submitted copies of them also to the British Prime Minister saying that some of the content was "objectionable.
In the December 1918 general election held at the end of the war, as a result of the April 1918 Conscription Crisis and the 1916 executions, Sinn Féin , in a first past the post ballot won the majority of seats (73 out of 105, a third uncontested) and in January 1919 formed an unilaterally independent Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann. The first paragraph of the Democratic Programme, read out at the first meeting of the First Dáil, mentions "ár gceud Uachtarán Pádraig Mac Phiarais" ["our first President, Pádraig Mac Phiarais"], thus giving Pearse posthumously recognition as President.
However, the claim that Pearse was designated President of the Republic was widely disputed in the aftermath of the Rising. The Dáil-government described itself as 'provisional'. Clarke's wife stated in her autobiography that the Rising leaders understood that Clarke was to be president, hence his position as the first name on the list of signatories of the proclamation. Emmet Clarke, son of Tom Clarke, then a child, recounted meeting surviving figures of the Rising in the presence of his mother when they were released. One leading figure asked Mrs Clarke and her son "Who in the hell made Pearse president? Opponents of Pearse accused him of using his role as chief propagandist for the rebellion to draft statements referring to himself as president. The claim that Pearse held such a role featured only in a secondary document issued, one drafted by Pearse himself, not in the actual Proclamation.
In addition that document used the term "President of the Provisional Government", not "President of the Republic". A "President of a government" is akin to a prime minister, not a president of a state. Pearse and his colleagues also discussed proclaiming Prince Joachim (the Kaiser's youngest son) as an Irish constitutional monarch, if the Central Powers won the First World War, which suggests that their ideas for the political future of the country had to await the war's outcome.
Of Pearse and Connolly I admire the latter most. Connolly was a realist, Pearse the direct opposite . . . I would have followed [Connolly] through hell had such action been necessary. But I honestly doubt very much if I would have followed Pearse — not without some thought anyway.
Ruth Dudley Edwards a noted revisionist historian and Unionist made the following conclusions about Pearse and the Rising: Pearse and his colleagues had no mandate, merely a belief that because their judgement was superior to those of the population at large, they were entitled to use violence. Eoin Neeson, has described such opinions as having “no mandate” as inapt, pointing to the fact that the leaders repeatedly stated aim was to revive a sense of separate national identity in the people as a whole.
Pearse in his address to his court martial and his prediction of future events in history would no doubt contrast Edwards assertion:
When I was a child of ten I went down on my knees by my bedside one night and promised God that I should devote my life to an effort to free my country. I have kept that promise. First among all earthly things, as a boy and as a man, I have worked for Irish freedom. I have helped to organize, to arm, to train, and to discipline my fellow countrymen to the sole end that, when the time came, they might fight for Irish freedom. The time, as it seemed to me, did come and we went into the fight. I am glad that we did, we seem to have lost, we have not lost. To refuse to fight would have been to lose, to fight is to win, we have kept faith with the past, and handed a tradition to the future… I assume I am speaking to Englishmen who value their own freedom, and who profess to be fighting for the freedom of Belgium and Serbia. Believe that we too love freedom and desire it. To us it is more desirable than anything else in the world. If you strike us down now we shall rise again and renew the fight. You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom; if our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom then our children will win it by a better deed.
This point she herself conceded when in her biography of Pearse quoted the words of the poet AE (George Russell) who himself would have been a critic of Pearse:
Their dream had left me numb and cold.
But yet my spirit rose in pride.
Refashioning in burnished gold
The images of those who died
Or were shut in the penal cell.
Here’s to you. Pearse, your dream not mine,
But yet the thought for this you fell
Has turned life’s waters into wine.
In addition, Edwards in her introduction to her biography of Pearse, and as to how his actions would be viewed by later generations quoted a verse from W. B. Yeats' Three songs to the one burden,:
Some had no thought of victory
But had gone out to die
That Ireland s mind be greater,
Her heart mount up on high;
And yet who knows what’s yet to come?
For Patrick Pearse had said
That in every generation
Must Ireland’s blood be shed.
Seán MacBride, in his Foreword to Quotations from P. H. Pearse said:
As Pearse had foreseen, some who considered themselves ‘wise’ have proclaimed that Pearse’s cause was a failure. Others, whose own standards of nationality and freedom do not measure up to those of Pearse, have sought to denigrate him. Still others have tried to depict him as a narrow-minded insular nationalist. Others again have portrayed him as an impractical idealist. Pearse’s writings, poems, short stories, plays and political essays provide the answer to all those who speak in ‘dispraise’ of him.
Pearse wrote stories and poems in both Irish and English, his best-known English poem being "The Wayfarer". He also penned several allegorical plays in the (Irish language, including The King, The Master, and The Singer. His short stories in Irish include Eoghainín na nÉan ("Eoineen of the Birds"), Íosagán, Na Bóithre ("The Roads"), and An Bhean Chaointe ("The Keening Woman"). Most of his ideas on education are contained in his famous essay The Murder Machine. He also authored many essays on politics and language, notably "The Coming Revolution" and "Ghosts".
His apparent lack of any romantic involvement with women, has led to the suggestion by revisionist Unionist historian Ruth Dudley Edwards that Pearse was an “unconscious homosexual". Edwards rejects the suggestion that Pearse was romantically involved with a young lady by the name of Eveleen Nicholls. Despite Eveleen’s brother saying that Pearse had proposed to her, and that Eveleen had declined as “she did not want to abandon her mother to the problems…in her home.”
Eveleen was a young girl, recently elected to the Coiste Gnotha, who had a reputation in Gaelic League for her academic achievements and devotion to the Irish language. She died in tragic circumstances, while swimming in the seas off the Blasket Islands. Edwards, in her biography of Pearse, says that Pearse “was marred by a personal blow,” referring to the death of Eveleen, whom she described as his "admired friend," and that “the only basis for marriage with Eveleen would have been mutual respect, not sexual attraction.”
Pearse in an editorial, “…showed his distress,” on her death :
There are times when journalists and public men experience a trial more cruel than others can easily imagine. It is when they are called upon in the course of their duty to write or to speak in public of things that touch the inmost fibres of their hearts, things that to them are intimate and sacred, entwined, it may be, with their dearest friendships and affections, awakening to vibration old chords of joy or of sorrow. The present is such an occasion for the writer of these paragraphs... It is not in human nature to write a glib newspaper article on a dead friend. One dare not utter all that is in one’s heart, and in the effort at self- restraint one is apt to pen only cold and formal things.”
Desmond Ryan, Pearse’s young protégé, was convinced of Pearse’s emotional involvement by his tears at Eveleen’s funeral but Edwards comments that "there were many others crying," and in addition Edwards contends "Pearse’s grief for Eveleen was not great enough to affect his work in any way."
Pearse was later to write a lament, entitled "A Chinn Aluinn," (O Lovely Head):
O lovely head of the woman that I loved,
In the middle of the night I remember thee:
But reality returns with the sun’s whitening,
Alas, that the slender worm gnaws thee to-night.
Beloved voice, that wast low and beautiful,
Is it true that I heard thee in my slumbers?
Or is the knowledge true that tortures me?
My grief, the tomb hath no sound or voice!
Edwards again rejects this as proof of Pearse’s love for Eveleen, saying "It was apparently not written until nearly five years after her death, and Pearse, where his poetry dealt with specific episodes…wrote during or immediately after the occasion concerned… the poem was an exercise in a common romantic convention, by which the death of the beloved provided a vehicle for morbid reflections."
"As Mary Hayden’s evidence suggested," writes Edwards, "he tended to put women on a pedestal. He knew nothing of homosexuality." Edwards writes "it is inconceivable that a man of Pearse’s conventional mores and high code of chivalry could have lived with conscious homosexual inclinations. Certainly, with such knowledge, he could not have gone on writing as he did…" "Pearse was an innocent," she suggests "but there can be little doubt about his unconscious inclinations."
Mary Hayden, who described Pearse’s writing, said "when he wrote of beauty, he was inspired by the descriptions, so frequent and so elaborate, of characters in the old Irish sagas… of course, any respectable man would have been careful not to write too eloquently of the female form…," and Edwards says Pearse did not speak from "personal experience of the kisses of a little boy being sweeter than the kisses of women," or the "honey of their bodies," and no more can it be supposed that "when he wrote of his love in the tomb he was thinking of a particular woman," again alluding to Eveleen.
In 1909 Pearse published a poem entitled "A Mhic Bhig na gCleas" (Little Lad of the Tricks), in the second edition of Macaomh. It was well received at the time and was later republished in Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light). When it was published in the English language, it caused some alarm among more worldly people. Pearse’s friends Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Mary Plunkett, when they explained to him the construction which might be placed on it, Pearse was both "bewildered and hurt." Though Edwards again suggested that his "lifetime quest for purity, chastity, and perfection had blinded him to the instincts reflected in his poetry…" and concludes "he never again offered such ammunition as in "Little Lad of the Tricks."
However, with the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969, Pearse's legacy soon became associated with the Provisional IRA. Pearse's reputation and writings were subject to criticism by some historians who saw him as a dangerous, fanatical, psychologically unsound individual under ultra-religious influences. As Conor Cruise O'Brien, onetime Labour TD and former unionist politician, put it in writing: "Pearse saw the Rising as a Passion Play with real blood." In his 1972 book States of Ireland Cruise O Brien was to reveal a deeper, more personal reason for his opposition to Pearse and indeed the Easter Rising. The Rising, he said, resulted in his family's "rightful" position, as leading members of the Irish Parliamentary Party in Irish society being denied them.
Others defended Pearse, suggesting that to blame him for what was happening in Northern Ireland was unhistorical and a distortion of the real spirit of his writings. Though the passion of those arguments has waned with the continuing peace in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, his complex personality still remains a subject of controversy for those who wish to debate the evolving meaning of Irish nationalism.
His former school, St. Enda's, Rathfarnham, on the south side of Dublin, is now the Pearse Museum dedicated to his memory. In Ballymun the Patrick Pearse Tower was named after him. it was the first of Ballymun's tower blocks to be demolished in 2004.
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