By AIDAN O’SHEA.
Look carefully at this photograph. Here is a young man in his mid-thirties who was executed by firing squad at dawn on May 3rd, 1916. Patrick Pearse was condemned by court martial as commander of rebels in The Easter Rising, a rising which lasted less than a week, a rising that could never withstand the power of British military force in Ireland. His is a soulful, doleful appearance; his life was both heroic and ultimately tragic.
In this centenary year, we should review his life and his work. Patrick Pearse was born in November 1879 at 27 Great Brunswick Street Dublin to James Pearse (1839-1900), a widower and monumental sculptor from Birmingham, and Margaret Brady (1857-1932) of County Meath. James converted to the Catholic faith before this marriage in 1877. The second family comprised Margaret (b.1878), Patrick (b.1879), Willie (b.1881), and Mary Brigid (b.1884).
The family business thrived and they moved to the suburb of Sandymount when Patrick was five years old. He spent five years at a private school before entering the Christian Brothers School at Westland Row. By this time Irish national and cultural spirit was being actively promoted by teaching orders of brothers and nuns. He proved to be a diligent student, sensitive to being teased about having a Birmingham accent and having a slight squint. He excelled at the Irish language, which was taught outside the main curriculum. He was awarded a book prize entitled The Tongue of the Gael by Tomás Ó Flannghaile. This book inspired him to explore the half-forgotten treasures of the Irish language, poetry and heroic folklore. In his final school year, Patrick achieved second place in the island of Ireland in the Senior Certificate examinations.
Conradh na Gaeilge.
He was then employed at his school as an instructor in Irish and actively took part in Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League), a voluntary organisation dedicated to promoting the native language, campaigning for its recognition in schools and publishing new writing. His evident spirit and fluency impressed older Conradh members, and he was elected to the Ardchoiste (executive committee) within a year. He had found his métier.
It is widely acknowledged that the Conradh became a broad cultural movement which acted as a seedbed for political change.
James Pearse died in 1900. Thus Patrick and Willie (who had trained as an artist) took over the management of the family firm. However, the firm went into decline because of poor financial management and outstanding debts. Patrick managed to pay his way through an Arts degree in Irish, English and French at University College, Dublin. He also qualified as a barrister. In 1903 he was appointed editor of An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), the weekly bilingual paper of the Conradh. It soon became evident that he wrote very finely in Irish and English. His work included editorials, orations, short stories, short plays and poetry. In the following decade, he became the principal voice of resurgent nationalist thought.
Pearse worked tirelessly for the Conradh, travelling the country to promote new branches, visiting the Connemara Gaeltacht, not only to learn from native speakers of the language, but to train many of them to teach the language to others. In addition to this pioneering work, he founded Scoil Éanna in 1908, a bilingual high school for boys. Two years later, the school moved to Rathfarnham, and Pearse opened a high school for girls, Scoil Íde. His ambitions exceeded his financial skills, however, and both schools struggled with debts. Nevertheless, he offered a wide creative curriculum which emphasised patriotism and the Irish language. The schools became the family business, involving his mother, Willie and his sisters.
Patrick Pearse was a key speaker at the inaugural meeting in November 2013 of Óglaigh na h-Éireann (Irish Volunteers), a civilian militia. Many of this militia volunteered to serve in the British forces in World War I (1914-18). They did so in the hope of Home Rule for Ireland as a reward. A minority of the Óglaigh planned an armed uprising in the cause of Irish freedom. Arms and help were sought from German military sources, on the basis that England’s preoccupation with the War was Ireland’s opportunity. The rebels’ plans were mired in confusion, a German arms shipment was intercepted, yet the Dublin insurgents decided to attack on Easter Monday, 1916. Thus Patrick Pearse was chosen as Chairman of The Provisional Government of The Irish Republic (Poblacht na h-Éireann).
Turbulent years would follow in Ireland, involving the execution of the leaders of the rising, the imprisonment of hundreds of captives, the establishment of Dáil Éireann as provisional Irish Parliament in 1919, a violent war of Independence, a Truce, The Anglo-Irish Treaty and political independence in the form of an Irish Free State (December 6th 1922).
In remembering Patrick Pearse, the real and symbolic leader of an Irish Republic, we honour him in the name of all men and women who set the nation, or most of it, on the path to the freedom we enjoy today.