Patrick Henry Pearse (also known as Pádraig Pearse; Irish: Pádraig Anraí Mac Piarais; An Piarsach; 10 November 1879 – 3 May 1916) was an Irish teacher, barrister, poet, writer, nationalist and political activist who was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. He was declared “President of the Provisional Government” of the Irish Republic in one of the bulletins issued by the Rising’s leaders, a status that was however disputed by others associated with the rebellion both then and later. Following the collapse of the Rising and the execution of Pearse, his brother (Willie Pearse), and fourteen other leaders, Pearse came to be seen by many as the embodiment of the rebellion.
Patrick Pearse and his brother Willie were born at 27 Great Brunswick Street, the street that is named after them today. It was here that their father, James Pearse, established a stonemasonry business in the 1850s, a business which flourished and provided the Pearses with a comfortable middle-class upbringing. Pearse’s father was a mason and monumental sculptor, and originally a Unitarian from Birmingham in England.
The home life of Patrick Pearse was one where he was surrounded by books. His father had very little formal education, but he was a self-educated man. He had two children from his first marriage, Emily and James (two other children died in infancy). His second wife, Margaret Brady, 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.
In 1896, at the age of sixteen, he joined the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge), and in 1903 at the age of 23, he became editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (“The Sword of Light”).
Pearse’s earlier heroes were the ancient Gaelic folk heroes such as Cúchulainn, though in his 30’s 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 had been Protestant, but it was from such men as these that the fervently Catholic Pearse drew inspiration for the rebellion of 1916.
In 1900, Pearse was awarded a BA in Modern Languages (Irish, English and French) by the Royal University of Ireland. He had studied for two years privately and for one at University College Dublin. In 1900 he was also awarded the degree of Barrister-at-Law from the King’s Inns, and was called to the bar in 1901.
As a cultural nationalist educated by the Irish Christian Brothers, like his younger brother Willie, Pearse believed that language was intrinsic to the identity of a nation. The Irish school system, he believed, raised Ireland’s youth to be good Englishmen or obedient Irishmen, and an alternative was needed. Thus for him and other language revivalists, saving the Irish language from extinction was a cultural priority of the utmost importance. The key to saving the language, he felt, would be a sympathetic education system. To show the way, he started his own bilingual school, St. Enda’s School (Scoil Éanna) in Rathfarnham, County Dublin, in 1908. Here, the pupils were taught in both the Irish and English languages.
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 field trips 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.
The Volunteers and Home Rule
In April 1912, the prospect of self-government for Ireland under a new Home Rule for Ireland Bill became reality, as John Redmond leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who held the balance of power in the House of Commons committed the government of the United Kingdom to introduce the Bill. Pearse’s attitude towards the Bill was remarkably ambivalent.
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” (November 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 1911 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, whose 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 Irish Republican Brotherhood 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.”
The IRB and the Irish Republic
In December 1913, Bulmer Hobson swore Pearse into the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), an organisation dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and its replacement with an Irish Republic. He was soon co-opted onto the IRB’s Supreme Council by Tom Clarke. Pearse was then one of many people who were members of both the IRB and the Volunteers. When he became the Volunteers’ Director of Military Organisation in 1914, he was the highest ranking Volunteer in the IRB membership, and instrumental in the latter’s commandeering of the remaining minority of the Volunteers for the purpose of rebellion. By 1915 he was on the IRB’s Supreme Council, and its secret Military Council, the core group that began planning for a rising while war raged on the European Western Front.
On 1 August 1915, Pearse gave a now-famous graveside oration at the funeral of the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. It closed with the words:
“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.”
Easter Rising and Death
Pearse, given his speaking and writing skills, was chosen by the leading IRB man Tom Clarke to be the spokesman for the Rising. It was Pearse who, on behalf of the IRB shortly before Easter in 1916, issued the orders to all Volunteer units throughout the country for three days of manoeuvres beginning Easter Sunday, which was the signal for a general uprising. When Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Volunteers, learned what was being planned without the promised arms from Germany, he countermanded the orders via newspaper, causing the IRB to issue a last minute order to go through with the plan the following day, greatly limiting the numbers who turned out for the rising.
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 revolutionaries. 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 H.H. 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 a letter from Pearse to his mother, and two poems dated 1 May 1916. He submitted copies of them also to Prime Minister Asquith, saying that some of the content was “objectionable.” 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.
Pearse wrote stories and poems in both Irish and English. His best-known English poems include “The Mother”, “The Fool” and “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,”An Gadaí” Na Bóithre (“The Roads”), and An Bhean Chaointe (“The Keening Woman”). These are translated into English by Joseph Campbell (in the Collected Works of 1917).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”. Pearse is closely associated with the song, “Oró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile”, for which he composed additional lyrics.
Largely, as a result of a series of political pamphlets Pearse wrote in the months leading up to the 1916 Rising, he soon became recognised as the voice of the 1916 Rising. In the middle decades of the 20th century, Pearse was idolised by Irish nationalists as the supreme idealist of their cause. However, with the outbreak of conflict in Northern Ireland in 1969, Pearse’s legacy was used by 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.”
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.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described Pearse as one of his heroes and displayed a picture of Pearse over his desk in the Department of the Taoiseach.
His former school, St. Enda’s, Rathfarnham, on the south side of Dublin, is now the Pearse Museum dedicated to his memory. Cullenswood House, the old Pearse family house in Ranelagh, where Padraig first founded St. Enda’s, today houses a primary Gaelscoil (school for education through the Irish language) called Lios na nÓg, part of a community-based effort to revive the Irish language. In Ballymun the Patrick Pearse Tower was named after him. It was the first of Ballymun’s tower blocks to be demolished in 2004.