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Patrick Pearse

Patrick Henry Pearse (known as Pádraig Pearse or, in the Irish language, as Pádraig Anraí Mac Piarais) (November 10, 1879May 3, 1916) was a teacher, poet, writer and political activist who led the Irish Easter Rising in 1916. Following the collapse of the Rising, Pearse — along with his brother and fourteen other leaders of it — were executed.


Radical nationalism

Patrick Henry Pearse was born in Dublin. His father was an English artisan/stonemason, who held moderate home rule views and his mother, Margaret, was from an Irish-speaking family in County Meath. The Irish-speaking influence of his aunt Margaret instilled in him an early love for the Irish language. At the age of only sixteen, he joined the Gaelic League (Conradh na nGaeilge) in 1896, and soon became editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis ("The Sword of Light").

Pearse's earlier heroes were the ancient Gaelic folk heroes such as Cuchulainn, though over time he grew obsessed with the leaders of the previous centuries' republican movement, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet; it was these men he sought to emulate, leading to his own martyrdom.

St Enda's

As a cultural nationalist, 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, 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 Eanna) in Ranelagh, Dublin in 1908. Here, the pupils were taught in both the Irish and English languages.

With the aid of Thomas MacDonagh and Pearse's younger brother Willie, the school 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. However, the new home, while splendidly located in an eighteenth century house surrounded by park and woodlands, soon proved a financial disaster. It was partly the stresses and anxieties of constantly striving to save the school from bankruptcy that led Pearse to take a more radical view of Irish politics.

The Volunteers, the IRB, and the Easter Rising

Easter Proclamation, read by Pádraig Pearse outside the GPO at the start of the Easter Rising, 1916.
Easter Proclamation, read by Pádraig Pearse outside the GPO at the start of the Easter Rising, 1916.

In 1913 Pearse was invited to the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers, formed to enforce the implementation of the Home Rule Act. The bill had just failed to pass the House of Lords at the third effort, but the diminished power of Lords meant that the bill was only to be delayed. Early in 1914, Pearse became a member of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood(IRB), an offshoot of the Fenians dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and its replacement with a republic. Pearse was 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 Volunteers for the purpose of rebellion. By 1915 he was on the IRB's Supreme Council, and its secret Military Committee, the core group that began planning for a rising while the Great War raged on the European mainland.

Following a stirring speech he gave at the Funeral of the Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa on 1 August, 1915, Pearse was chosen by the leading IRB man Thomas Clarke to be the spokesman for the Rising that he hoped would soon occur. It was Pearse who, shortly before Easter in 1916, issued the orders to all Volunteers units throughout the country for three days of maneuvers beginning Easter Sunday, which was actually the signal for a general uprising. When Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Volunteers, learned what was being planned, he countermanded the orders, causing Pearse 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. Without MacNeill on board as their figurehead, the Military Committee needed someone else to take the title of President of the Irish Republic and Commander in Chief. Pearse was chosen over Clarke, as Clarke was a convicted felon and eschewed any such role, while Pearse was respected throughout the country, and a natural leader.

When eventually the Rising did erupt on Easter Monday, 24 April, 1916, it was Pearse, as President, who proclaimed a Republic from the steps of the General Post Office, headquarters of the insurgents. When, after several days fighting, it became apparent that victory was impossible, he surrendered, along with most of the other leaders. Pearse and fourteen other leaders, including his brother Willie, were court-martialled and executed by firing squad. Pearse himself was one of the first to be shot on 3 May, 1916.

Pearse's Writings

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. Most of his ideas on education are contained in his famous essay "The Murder Machine: An Essay on Education". He also authored many essays on politics and language, notably "The Coming Revolution".

Largely because 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 twentieth 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 soon became associated with the campaign of terror being run by the Provisional IRA. Pearse's reputation and writings wers subject to vigorous criticism by historians who saw him as a dangerous and fanatical influence. Others defended Pearse, arguing that to blame him for all that 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.

Last updated: 02-10-2005 22:17:31
Last updated: 02-28-2005 11:21:10