Patrick Henry Pearse, teacher, barrister, poet, writer, nationalist, and political activist who is one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, is born in Dublin on November 10, 1879. Pearse’s father, James, is a stone worker who works on church buildings in Dublin and his mother, Margaret, comes from a family that has endured the Great Famine in 1846 and has left County Meath for Dublin. Here she brings up four children, Patrick being the second. Pearse has a comfortable childhood as his father is in constant work.
It is at school that Pearse first develops a love of Irish history. He is also taught the Irish language for the first time and while still a teenager, Patrick joins the Gaelic League, an organisation that wants to promote the Irish language and Irish literature. Pearse graduates with a law degree from the King’s Inns and, in 1901, he starts a BA course in modern languages but is called to the Bar in Dublin.
Regardless of his law training, Pearse is more interested in what he is learning about Ireland as a nation. All his knowledge about law has been based around the English language and he wants to know more about what he considers to be the rightful language of Ireland. This is not the Gaelic used in Dublin. Pearse has convinced himself that the real Irish language is based in Connaught and he teaches himself the dialect of the area. Connaught is also a region that has been severely affected by the Great Famine. Therefore, the number of people who speak what Pearse considers to be proper Gaelic have been greatly reduced. From 1903 to 1909, Pearse develops his involvement in the Gaelic League’s An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light) which seeks to expand the use of Gaelic in Irish life, and, in particular, literature.
By 1909, Pearse has developed some political leanings. He can not accept the impact England and all things English have on Ireland and the Irish people, but his concern is more for Irish culture rather than Irish politics. Pearse wants Irish history and culture taught as compulsory subjects in both Irish schools and colleges. He breaks with the Roman Catholic Church when its national college, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, demotes courses in Irish history/culture to topics for trainee priests. He is keen for Maynooth to have compulsory Irish courses simply because priests then have a major influence in the areas where they work. However, all of Pearse’s protests fall on deaf ears. As a result, he founds his own school in Dublin, an “Irish-Ireland” school called St. Enda’s School.
Between 1909 and 1912, Pearse becomes more interested and involved in politics. Despite a limited income and the problems of keeping St. Edna’s on an even financial keel, Pearse launches his own newspaper called An Barr Buadh (The Trumpet of Victory). At this time the Home Rule issue has reared its head again. Sinn Féin and other republican movements have far more impact than Pearse, who seems to many to be no more than a political maverick. Many feel that Pearse is out of his depths in politics and that his input into Irish politics is no more than romanticism with an Irish slant.
By 1913, Pearse has become more depressed about the way Ireland is going under the rule of London. Those who know him, describe him as becoming more and more melancholy as the year progresses. Others believe that he is becoming more fanatical. He helps to organise the Irish Volunteers, the public face of the outlawed Irish Republican Brotherhood, before the outbreak of World War I. In 1914, he is sent on a fund-raising tour of America by Clan na Gael, an organisation that aids the Irish Republican Brotherhood. While the tour is a reasonable success financially, not many Americans are swayed by Pearse’s speeches.
By the time World War I starts, Pearse has taken an extreme political stance. He wants full Irish independence – not what the suspended Home Rule Bill of 1912 offers. He does not support the part Ireland plays in the war effort. He also splits the Irish Volunteers. He takes a small number of these men with him when John Redmond gives his agreement to suspend the Home Rule Bill until the war is over. By now, Pearse has become extreme. He publishes a pamphlet called The Murder Machine which is a severe condemnation of the Irish educational system. He also realises that with London totally focused on the war in Europe, the time is ripe to overthrow British rule in Ireland.
However, in this respect, Pearse is totally wrong. The young men who have volunteered to fight in the war have done so because they want to. Pearse has no mass support in Ireland whereas John Redmond has far more public support in the south. He also assumes incorrectly that all those in southern Ireland are completely against British rule. What Pearse fails to recognise, is that many people in Dublin itself rely on the British for work. They may not like this, but work brings in money regardless of where or who it comes from.
Those who participate in the Easter Uprising of 1916 are in the minority. Pearse decides to take command of the rebellion and he reads aloud the declaration of independence at the General Post Office. Pearse also is one of the signatories of “Poblacht na hÉireann” (To the People Of Ireland).
If Pearse expects the actions of the rebels in Dublin to spark off other uprisings in other Irish cities and towns, he is mistaken. In Dublin, the people of the city fail to offer the rebels any support. In fact, some Dubliners take the opportunity of the rebellion to loot the shops in Sackville Street. The Uprising is doomed from the start.
During the rebellion, Pearse says, “When we are all wiped out, people will blame us for everything, condemn us…..(but) in a few years they will see the meaning of what we tried to do.” Ironically, he is correct in this assessment.
On Friday, April 28, 1916, Pearse surrenders to the British army. By the following day all the rebels have surrendered. As they are paraded through the streets of Dublin before going to Kilmainham Gaol, they are jeered and verbally abused by Dubliners who have seen parts of their city destroyed. They blame Pearse and his followers rather than the British.
At Kilmainham Gaol, Pearse is charged with treason by a military court and sentenced to death. On May 16, Pearse is shot by firing squad. Eventually fourteen other rebel leaders are also executed by firing squad. Pearse’s body, and those of the other leaders, are thrown into a pit without a coffin or a burial service. Ironically, it is in death that Pearse finds real fame.
No one knows the fate of the rebel leaders until after the executions. Many in Ireland are horrified at the way they have been treated. If Pearse had not received national support during his life, his movement certainly received it after his death. Pearse had written that he wanted his fame and deeds to “live after me.” In death, Patrick Pearse is known as the “First President of Ireland” and Irish history and culture become part of the educational system after 1922.