Patrick Henry Pearse


Patrick Henry Pearse (1879-1916), republican and writer; was born on 10 November 1879 at Great Brunswick Street, Dublin. His father James was English and worked as a sculptor. Pearse’s mother was a native of Co. Meath. Pearse received his early education at a local private school and was then enrolled at Westland Row Christian Brothers School. He won a scholarship to the Royal University (University College Dublin) where he studied law and was later called to the bar. Pearse never actually practised law. From his early school days he was deeply interested in Irish language and culture. He joined the Gaelic League in 1895 and became editor of its paper, An Claidheamh Soluis (‘sword of light’). He lectured in Irish at University College Dublin. To advance his ideal of a free and Gaelic Ireland he founded a bilingual school for boys, St. Enda’s, at Cullenswood House, Ranelagh, in September 1908. The school was so successful that Pearse had to move to a larger building at Rathfarnham in 1910. The curriculum of St Enda’s was based around Irish traditions and culture. Pearse built a cottage at Rosmuc in the Connemara Gaeltacht, where he spent his summer holidays.

Pearse wrote a great deal of prose and poetry in Irish and English, much of which was published after his death. He is often described as a cultural nationalist. He supported Sinn Fein and contributed to the United Irishman which was edited by Arthur Griffith. Pearse edited Macaiomh at St. Enda’s (1909-1913), and An Buarr Buadh (1912). He founded an unsuccessful society, Cumann na Saoru in 1912. Initially, Pearse was a supporter of Home Rule but his outlook on Irish freedom was to become more radical. He became convinced that Britain would never voluntarily grant Ireland independence when faced with unionist opposition. He, therefore, increasingly supported physical force republicanism. When the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, he was elected a member of the provisional committee and later the Director of Organisation. The Irish Volunteers had been organised in response to the setting up of the Ulster Volunteers in Northern Ireland. They were arming in an effort to resist Irish Home Rule.

Pearse visited the US in February 1914 to raise money for the financially ailing school and for the Volunteers. He lectured in New York on ‘Robert Emmet and the Ireland of Today’. He contributed to Irish Freedom, an advanced nationalist newspaper, which was edited by Bulmer Hobson and financed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He made contact with Joseph McGarrity and the former fenian and Clan na Gael leader, John Devoy. They convinced Pearse that a rebellion for Irish independence was necessary to combat British oppression. On the advent of the First World War, Pearse realised that England’s difficulty would be Ireland’s opportunity. In July 1914, Pearse was involved in the smuggling of weapons and ammunition through Howth in Co. Dublin. These were stored at St. Enda’s school. The organisation now had the weapons and the financial support it needed to take military action. Pearse wrote ‘there were many things more horrible than bloodshed and slavery is one of them’. The Irish Volunteers split in September when Redmond called on Irish people to support the British War effort. Pearse became leader of the breakaway group of Volunteers. In 1915 he joined the IRB. He was co-opted onto their Supreme Council and the Secret Military Council. Pearse’s graveside oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s (fenian) funeral in 1915, ended with the much quoted words, ‘Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’, and was influential in the build up to the Easter Rising.

Pearse played an active role in the subsequent preparations for the Rising: arranging for the landing of German arms on the Aud; negotiating with Connolly; instructing and sending despatches to the volunteers; lulling the British authorities and deceiving Eoin O’Neill. He also wrote at length to justify and to explain the reasons for an insurrection. He committed the Gaelic League to action. His declaration that the Gaelic League was a political body led to the resignation of Dr. Douglas Hyde. On the 23 April, the Military Council appointed him Commandant-General of the Army of the Irish Republic and President of the Provisional Government, which was to be proclaimed the next day.

During Easter week Pearse served at the rebellion headquarters, the General Post Office (GPO), Dublin. He along with six other signatories signed the ‘Proclamation of the Irish Republic’, which he as Chairman of the Provisional Government read to the public on the 24 April, 1916. This signalled the beginning of the Easter Rising. Lacking any military experience, Pearse attempted to defend the heart of Dublin not only from British reinforcements but also from its own slum dwellers, who began to loot the high-class shops of Sackville Street (now O’Connell St.). As fire swept through the GPO on the 28 April, he helped organise its evacuation. As a consequence of the fighting between the rebels and the British army about 250 uninvolved civilians were killed. At noon the next day, he accepted the majority view of the leadership that they would have to negotiate with the British troops to prevent further slaughter of civilians and save the lives of their followers. At 3.30pm on 29 April 1916 he surrendered unconditionally on behalf of the Volunteers to Brigadier-General W. H. M. Lowe in Parnell Street.

Following a court martial at Richmond Barracks for his part in the Easter Rising, Pearse exclaimed:

‘You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion of freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed’.

Pearse was only thirty-six years old when he was sentenced to death. He was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail on the 3 May 1916. Fourteen other prominent members of the Rising were also executed including his brother William, who was shot the day after. Pearse was buried in quick lime at Arbour Hill. During his short life, he translated much Irish poetry and wrote plays, poetry and short stories. His play, The Singer, was staged at the Abbey Theatre in 1942. His last writings were collected in Scribhinni (1919). His works were collected and edited from 1971 to 1922 by his former pupil Desmond Ryan. Pearse became the most famous of the fifteen executed rebels, and as the author of memorable verse and prose in which militarism was equated with heroic self-sacrifice, he became the centre of a powerful mythology. His uncompromising words have been much quoted by generations of republican followers.

Writings, Biography & Studies. Padraig Henry Pearse, Collected works of Padraig H. Pearse: Plays, stories, poems (Dublin & London 1917). Desmond Ryan, Remembering Sion: a chronicle of storm and quiet (London 1934). J. J. Horgan, Parnell to Pearse: some recollections and reflections (Dublin 1948) Padraig Henry Pearse (edited by Proinsias MacAonghusa and Liam Ó Réagáin), The best of Pearse (Cork 1967). Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: the triumph of failure (London 1977). Padraig Henry Pearse, Quotations from P. H. Pearse (Cork 1979). Séamus Ó Buachalla, A significant Irish educationalist: the educational writings of P. H. Pearse (Dublin & Cork 1980). Séamus Ó Buachalla (ed), The Letters of P. H. Pearse (Dublin 1980). Jeanne A. Flood, ‘James Joyce, Patrick Pearse and the theme of execution’, in Irish Studies 1 (1980) 101-124. Priscilla Metscher, ‘Padraic Pearse and the Irish cultural revolution’ [The significance of Pearse as an Irish educationalist], in Heinz Kosok (ed), Studies in Anglo-Irish literature (Bonn 1982), 137-147. John Coakley, ‘Patrick Pearse and the ‘noble lie’ of Irish nationalism’, in Studies; an Irish quarterly review 72 (1983) 119-136. Brian P. Murphy, Patrick Pearse and the lost republican ideal (Dublin 1991). J. J. Lee, ‘In search of Patrick Pearse’, in Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, Theo Dorgan (ed), Revising the Rising (Derry 1991) 122-38. Seán Oliver, ‘Irish revolutionary nationalism: Tone to Pearse’, in Maurice R. O’Connell (ed.), People power: proceedings of the third annual Daniel O’Connell Workshop (Dublin 1993) 94-111. Seán Farrell Moran, Patrick Pearse and the politics of redemption: the mind of the Easter Rising, 1916 (Washington (DC) 1994). John Marsden, ‘Religion and the nationalist cause in the thought of Patrick Pearse’, in Studies; an Irish quarterly review 84 (1995) 28-37. Máire ní Fhlathúin, ‘The anti-colonial modernism of Patrick Pearse’, in Howard J. Booth; Nigel Rigby (ed.), Modernism and empire (Manchester & New York 2000) 156-74. Michael Böss, ‘Country of light: the personal nation of Patrick Pearse’, in Irish University Review 30:2 (2000) 272-288. Vincent Quinn, ‘Fostering the nation: Patrick Pearse and pedagogy’, in New Formations 42 (2001) 71-84. Thomas J. Donnelly, ‘Patrick Pearse, myth, and the Irish Revolution, 1912-16: a case study of myth as motivator in the political realm’, in The History Review: journal of the UCD History Society 12 (2001) 83-92. Elaine Sisson, St Enda’s and the cult of boyhood (Cork 2003). A selection of his writings and poetry are available on the website of our sister project CELT:

Tomás O’Riordan