Pádraic Pearse; Gaeilgeoir, Poet, Educator and President

Posted: April 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

To mark the ninety-seventh anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the éirígí website is running a series of short biographies of some of those who took part in that most important of insurrections. The series will run from today until May 12, the ninety-seventh anniversary of the executions of James Connolly and Seán Mac Diarmada.

Some of those featured in this series are familiar ‘leaders’ of the Rising, whilst others are activists whose stories are not so well known. The first biography is that of Pádraig Pearse who was executed on May 3, 1916.

Pádraig PearsePádraig Pearse

Pádraig Pearse is perhaps the most well-known of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. The image of Pearse, resplendent in his Volunteer uniform, sword by his side, reading the Proclamation of the Provisional Government beneath the colonnade of the GPO, has become an almost mythic symbol of the heroism and idealism of the republican insurgents.

Down the years many biographies have been written about Pearse; some good, some not so good. Some writers have allowed their own political loyalties and their distaste of all things nationalist to cloud their judgment of Pearse, and so they have written of a character that is narrow-minded, fanatic and bloodthirsty. Such biographies portray a complete lack of understanding of the man that was Pádraig Pearse.

It is true that everything Pearse did was with an almost obsessive single-mindedness and that there is an innocence and simplicity to his writings that would not be acceptable in our more cynical world today. But Pearse was more than some simple Irish rebel. He was an innovative educator, a renowned poet and writer, and one of the leading lights of the Gaelic League and the ‘Irish Ireland’ movement. In all areas of his life and in all the projects to which he devoted himself Pearse was motivated by a deeply-felt love of Ireland, her culture and her people, and a firm conviction in the right of the human individual to freedom and happiness. The historian Louis le Roux puts it well when he wrote that, ‘Pearse was more than a patriot, he was a virtuous man.’

The Gaelic League and Scoil Éanna

Pearse developed an interest in Gaelic in his teens and he set out to learn the language so that he might speak it like a native. He joined the Gaelic League at the age of fifteen, and within a few years was teaching and lecturing on the subject throughout the country. He became chief editor of the Gaelic League newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis. He wrote many beautiful poems and short stories, particularly of the people of the west, which are available from any good bookshop and well worth the read.

Pearse was particularly interested in reviving the language through reforming the Irish education system. The Murder Machine was Pearse’s famous polemic against the British system of education in Ireland. Through education the British robbed the Irish child of her identity, her culture and her feeling of self-worth. The mechanical system of education (used not only in Ireland but throughout Europe and beyond) treated the child as a mere cipher, crushing his or her character, rather than allowing the individual to blossom. Pearse regarded the proper role of the teacher as one who fosters the all-round development of the child, rather than one who simply imparts facts and figures. Pearse’s educational theories were in many ways a precursor to the liberationist theories championed by the likes of Paulo Freire decades later.

He was able to put his theories into practice when he established Scoil Éanna – a bilingual school for boys which first opened its doors in 1908 in Ranelagh, before moving to Rathfarnham in 1910. Scoil Éanna was to be ‘a school which shall aim at making good men rather than learned men, but learned men rather than persons qualified to pass examinations.’ Pearse was a wonderful teacher, much loved by his pupils, and the school, although always on the brink of bankruptcy, was deemed to be a success as a model of excellent education.

Arming the Gael

Pearse wished not merely to revive the Gaelic language but to roll back the effects of the English conquest, to end the old slavish mentalities and to instil in the Irish people a sense of self-worth and citizenship. While Irish people continued to look towards London for instruction or approval they could be neither truly free nor truly happy. His work with the Gaelic League led him to believe that political and revolutionary action was necessary for the reconstruction of a Gaelic polity. This was the train of thought that led Pearse into the newly formed Irish Volunteers. The shy poet was on the path to revolution.

Against the backdrop of seven hundred years of foreign oppression, suffering and slavish imitation, he believed that through physical force and self-sacrifice the Irish people could redeem themselves, breaking not only their physical chains but the chains that held their minds.

He was enrolled into the Irish Republican Brotherhood and within a short space of time was sitting on their Military Council. Pearse was also the Director of Organisation of the Irish Volunteers. The IRB intended to use the Volunteers for a national uprising and they secretly elected Pearse as Commandant in Chief of the Volunteers.

The Rising

Initially Pearse wished to have a rising in the countryside rather than Dublin so as to reduce the possibility of civilian casualties, but he was overruled by others on the council. After the decision was made to go ahead with the Rising despite the fateful countermanding order, Pearse and the other leaders hastily drew up the Proclamation of the Provisional Government. Pearse was elected President of the Provisional Government.

Throughout Easter Week he remained at the makeshift headquarters in the General Post Office. Throughout those long, hard days he continually roused the morale of the men and women with his fiery speeches and consoled the wounded with kind words. On Friday, with the GPO in flames, the headquarters was moved to No. 16 Moore Street. Here Pearse witnessed the gunning down of a family by the British machine guns. This, coupled with the failure to break through the British cordon, convinced him to agree to seek to negotiate surrender. The British would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender. Finally, with the agreement of the other members of government present, Pearse walked to the intersection of Moore Street and Henry Street and handed his sword to General Lowe. The Rising was over. In Pearse’s eyes it was enough: the first redemptive blow was struck; another day would come.

Along with the other leaders he was court marshalled and sentenced to death. One of the British officers wrote, ‘I have just done one of the hardest tasks I have ever had to do. I have had to condemn to death one of the finest characters I have ever come across. There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that a rebel.’

To the British court martial Pearse defiantly stated,

“When I was a child of ten, I went on my bare 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 the promise. I have helped to organise, 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; but 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 on its tradition to the future. I repudiate the assertion of the Prosecutor that I sought to aid and abet England’s enemy. Germany is no more to me than England is. I asked and accepted German aid in the shape of arms and an expeditionary force; we neither asked for nor accepted German gold, nor had any traffic with Germany but what I state. My object was to win Irish freedom.

We struck the first blow ourselves, but I should have been glad of an ally’s aid. I assume that I am speaking to Englishmen who value their 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 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.”

Pádraig Pearse was shot on May 3 along with Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh.


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