27 Pearse Street, as it looked in May 1999

Our hero was born November 10th, 1879 in a room above the workshop of his stonemason father at 27 Great Brunswick Street, Dublin. Don't look for it on a map. The street is now called Pearse Street. Number 27 is at the moment, sadly, a derelict building, empty for the past three years, since the Allied Carpet business ceased trading in the premises. Many people in Dublin regret that the birthplace of two of its most famous sons - marked not merely by as blue plaque as elsewhere, but a beautifully carved plaque depicting both of the Pearse brothers - is allowed to go to ruin in such a way. There have been calls for the Government to buy the building and make it into a small museum or historical centre. Unfortunately, this isn't likely to happen. Financial considerations and a general lack of interest in the revolutionary history of Ireland mean there is precious little room for another museum of that sort in Dublin. The best we can hope, given the nature of much of the rest of the neighbourhood, is that it won't end up as a dirty book shop.

When Pat was born, however, Great Brunswick Street was the centre of a thriving stonemasonry trade, and at no. 27, James Pearse, his father, made a decent living; enough to send Pat and his younger brother William to a respectable school, the Christian Brothers' in Westland Row, which as it happened, was just around the corner from Great Brunswick Street. By all accounts, it was a happy, loving family, with four children, Pat and Willie and their two sisters, Margaret and Mary-Brigid. The family photograph taken in 1888, is a useful indicator of the lifestyle of the family. The fact that they could have afforded a set of family photographs at all (this is one of a set taken on the same day) is the most obvious indication of some disposable income. The children are very well dressed, and healthy looking. Life seems to have been good for the Pearse family, at a time when there was desperate poverty in Ireland, and especially in Dublin.

The Pearse Children: Patrick, Willie, Margaret, Mary-Brigid.

Pat as a Student about 1899

After good secondary school exam results, Pat went on to study Law and Modern Languages at the new National University in Dublin, (Now University College Dublin, part of the National University of Ireland. Again this was largely thanks to his father's hard work and dedication to his family, since it was in no way usual for the son of a 'tradesman' to go into higher education in those days. Just after Pat finished his degree studies, however, (he got a double 'B.A. B.L' honours) his father died. (1900)

James Pearse 1839-1900)

From then on, Pat was the head of the family, with his widowed mother, brother and two sisters to support, financially and morally, a heavy burden for a young man of twenty years of age, and one which he carried all his life from then one, since the sisters neither married nor worked for their own living. William, although the younger son, was the natural heir to the Stonemasonry business, as he was the one who inherited the artistic talents, and took over the workshops. Pat, meanwhile, was beginning to carve out a career for himself as an academic

Pat as a Lawyer. A Rare Picture!

His career as a lawyer was very short-lived. He only had one case and he lost that. Law was too dishonest a business for an idealist such as he was even from an early age, and he quickly abandoned that career for other, less profitable, but more satisfying avenues. Fortunately, there were several open to him. Even before he had finished university, he was already on several committees of the Gaelic League, the Irish Language organization founded in 1893 to revive the failing language and culture of Ireland. Pat spoke Irish nearly as good as a native speaker, having learnt his first words of the language from a native-speaking aunt as a child, and spent many of his student summers in the Connemara Gaeltacht fine tuning his dialect and stretching his vocabulary. He had already begun to teach Irish in his former school at Westland Row and in some of the night classes that the Gaelic League ran to encourage people to learn the language. He was on the publications committee of the Gaelic League, which produced books and pamphlets in Irish.

In 1903, Pat was given the job of editor of the Gaelic League newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis, a remarkable achievement, given that he was only twenty-four years old, and this was a high profile position. In his six years in the position, despite some setbacks and disappointments, largely caused by his own over-ambition that continually made him reach for impossible goals, he was instrumental in making what had been a rather dull and pedestrian weekly journal into something readable and appealing to all sections and classes of Irish society (except, presumably, Ulster loyalists.) During these years, he also wrote poetry and prose, much of which was published in An Claidheamh (under assumed names, to prevent accusations of self-interest.)

A picture taken in his office at An Claidheamh Soluis

During these years, he also began to take an increasing interest in the education system of Ireland and came to see the teaching of children as the way forward not only for the Irish Language but for the whole Irish Separatist movement, cultural and political. In 1908, he gave up the very well paid editorship of the Claidheamh, risking his whole life-savings and whatever money he could borrow, to open up a school of his own, which would show the Irish nation how to educate its children. St. Enda's was never a financial success, and several times nearly drove him to bankruptcy (along with those of his friends who had lent him money) but it was a moral triumph. Pat was a wonderful teacher and educationalist and was well-loved by his pupils, who found at his school a place where education was a pleasure, not a torture, as it so often was in other schools, especially those run by the Christian Brothers' and other religious organizations in Ireland. (Anyone who has read James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will know what I mean.)

St. Enda's, Rathfarnham, in 1999

iam James Pearse

In his educational adventure, Pat had two people without whose help he would surely have driven himself into an early grave. The first was his brother Willie, who sold the family business to help fund the school project, and gave up most of his own ambitions as an artist in order to teach art to Pat's 'boys' and to be his chief supporter in good times and bad. One cannot help wondering if he ever resented giving up so much of his own ideas and ambitions for his brother, and the answer seems to be a resounding NO. Willie seems to have been quite happy to make any sacrifice for his brother, even, ultimately, the sacrifice of his very life. Nor did Pat seem to have taken advantage of his brother in a cynical or exploitative way. It was simply an extension of the symbiotic relationship which had existed between them since childhood.

Thomas MacDonagh

The other of his chief supporters, was Thomas MacDonagh, who was a year older than him, and a completely different personality, laughing, joking, talkative in any company, while Pat was reserved and silent except among his pupils or with his beloved brother. MacDonagh was deputy headmaster of the school for the first three years, and helped to spread the general feeling of loving kindness that existed in the school. MacDonagh reluctantly left Saint Enda's for a position in the National University because it offered better security for him and his family when, in January 1912, he married Muriel Gifford, with whom he had two children before he, along with Pat and Willie, gave up everything for their political ideals.

Another teacher at Saint Enda's, for a time, was Con Colbert, who taught P.E. and drill, and was instrumental in bringing the Irish Nationalist boy scout movement, Fianna Eireann, to the attention of the boys, an organisation which had strong links with the IRB and later the Irish Volunteers, and was a route through which many of the Enda boys, without any prompting from Pat, despite his own strong political beliefs, moved into revolutionary politics for themselves in later years. Colbert was also executed in 1916, the fourth member of the Saint Enda's staff to die in that fateful week.

Con Colbert (on extreme left of picture) Teaching drill to Enda boys, circa 1911

Events were moving quickly in these years, and happy as Pat was as a teacher, he was becoming increasingly caught up in the militant nationalist movement. In the years from 1912 onwards, he moved from a more or less constitutional position, although he was never a follower of the constitutional Irish Parliamentary Party and gave only qualified support to the Home Rule Bill, regarding it as a half measure that was better than nothing but far from the final solution of Ireland's woes, to fully fledged left-wing militant republican prepared to plan and lead an armed rebellion against the British enemy. That route is a complex one, though predictable enough, perhaps, in the context of the times. Pat's meteoric rise in revolutionary politics coincides with the general disillusionment with constitutionalism and trend towards militarism that saw, in the single year, 1913, the rise of three separate armed movements in Ireland; the Unionists Ulster Volunteers, pledged to resist Home Rule and preserve the Union even if it meant committing treason against the empire they were loyal too, the Irish Volunteers, whose aims and loyalties were the very opposite, and the Irish Citizen Army of labour men pledged to the cause of the working classes of Ireland. Pat was a founder member of the Irish Volunteers, and an enthusiastic and powerful worker for that cause, and, since he became a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood at the end of 1913, a prime figure in the gradual mutation of the Volunteer mission from one of defence of constitutional Home rule to the vanguard of an offense for the more complete measure of an independent Irish Republic. His position as the, at least nominal, leader of that movement was assured in August 1915, with his oration over the grave of O'Donovan Rossa, ending with the defiant promise that "Ireland unfree shall never be at peace!" If that event was not the point of no return for him and for many others party to the same secrets as he was by that stage, then it certainly came early in 1916, when Easter Sunday was settled on as the day that a countrywide uprising would begin and a Republic of Ireland established.

In the event, a chapter of accidents, principally the loss of the arms shipment from Germany that would have given the rising a fair chance of success and the subsequent countermanding of the Easter Sunday Volunteer mobilisation which was meant to be the cover for the uprising, ruined the chance of that nationwide uprising. Instead, those whose boats had already been burned and who were about to be arrested on Easter monday morning anyway on suspicion of treason and fomenting rebellion, decided to go ahead and start a limited rising in Dublin a day later. Thus, at noon on Easter Monday, April 24th, 1916,the rising began and the Republic was established provisionally. Pat, as its nominal President, read the Proclamation of Ireland to a dumb-founded audience outside the General Post Office in Sackville Street.

Facsimile copy of Proclamation of Ireland, Easter 1916

The GPO after Easter Week, 1916, a burnt out shell in the centre of a ruined street, bombarded for half the week by British artillery.

The rebels hoped, and perhaps not unreasonably, that the country would see their action and rise in support. For various reasons, including the lack of arms and the confusion of the countermand, this did not happen. The Dublin rebels, although having some initial success, taking the authorities completely by surprise and capturing most of their pre-arranged positions and holding out much longer than anyone could have expected, finally succumbed to overwhelming odds. At about two o'clock on Saturday, 29th April, six days after the Republic was established in arms, Pat, on whom, as President of the Irish Republic and Commander in chief of the Army of the Irish Republic, the terrible weight of responsibility for all that had happened in those six days ultimately rested, surrendered unconditionally in order, in his own words, 'to prevent the further slaughter of unarmed people and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers."

The GPO, O'Connell Street (Sackville Street), with the flag of the Irish Republic flying over it, to prove that all was not in vain.

The political motives that drove him to that end have been debated for eighty years, but his courage can never be doubted. Pat knew that giving himself up to his enemies would mean a swift death, and he pleaded at his court-martial that his execution should be sufficient. However, it was not. Not only were all seven of the provisional government of the Republic, the signatories of the Proclamation, executed, but so were seven other men who surrendered in Dublin, including Willie Pearse, Pat's beloved brother, and many others whose executions were on very flimsy grounds. There is evidence to suggest that many more than fourteen (plus one man, Thomas Kent, shot in Cork in the same week and Roger Casement, hung in London in August, 1916) might have been executed if it were not for the immediate public outcry and protests in Parliament.

The Stone breakers' Yard At Kilmainham Gaol.
The cross marks the place where thirteen of the men were executed. James Connolly was shot tied to a chair at the other end of the yard, by the door.

It was too late for the Pearse bothers and the others who were shot between May 3rd and May 12th after court-martial trials that were travesties of 'justice.' General Maxwell, the British Officer in command of the military in Ireland refused to allow any of the bodies of the fourteen men shot in Dublin to be returned to their families for burial, despite anguished requests, because he did not want martyrs graves that the Irish would glorify and make political pilgrimages to. He wanted, he said, to erase their names and their memory, and to that end he had them buried in a quicklime pit at Arbour Hill military cemetery. He should have realised, however, that it takes more than a limepit to erase the name of a man like Pádraic Pearse, let alone any of his comrades who died with him. I don't know where General Maxwell is buried. But when the battle was finally won and Arbour hill cemetery became property of the Irish Free State, a monument was erected over the limepit, and the names, far from erased, are etched in stone, in Irish and English, and the government of the day, who above all other Irishmen and Irishwomen owe their status to the men of the first Irish Republican Government buried there, still come to Arbour hill every Easter to pay homage at the martyr's grave and lay a wreath, and on a quieter day, after they've all gone, I always bring my own bunch of red roses for Pat, and lilies for poor, innocent Willie.

So much for erasing the memory!

The Martyr's Grave at Arbour Hill Cemetery
last resting place of fourteen men who fought and died for Ireland.

Whatever your political views, just come and walk along by that patch of green in the middle, and read the names in the stone slabs that edge it, marking the spot where each man was buried, and think about why they did what they did. Even if you doubt their cause, you cannot doubt their courage.

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