Patrick Pearse, the Edwardian

Patrick Pearse is remembered and revered in Ireland as the most famous signatory of the 1916 proclamation and perhaps the best known martyr for Irish republicanism. However, Pearse’s formative years were spent pursuing less political goals that have long been overshadowed by the more dramatic role he played in the 1916 Easter Rising. During the Edwardian period, Pearse dedicated himself to two ideals that in his mind were closely interlinked, advocacy for the Irish language and the cause of education. Even if Pearse had never become involved in radical nationalist politics (which he embraced very late in life), his devotion to these two causes would still be noteworthy. It is interesting to consider what kind of future might have awaited him had he opted to abstain from the revolutionary activity for which he is chiefly remembered  in Ireland today.

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Pearse in barrister’s robes c. 1901 © OPW

Pearse demonstrated a precocious interest in the Irish language from childhood and his heavy involvement in the Gaelic League culminated in his appointment as editor of its newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis, in 1903 at the young age of 24. In spite of garnering a posthumous reputation as a rather unpractical man, he proved to be an innovative editor who was keen to embrace modernising ideas. He was also a tireless and prodigious worker and ended up writing a great deal of the newspaper himself. His writing skills flourished greatly during the Edwardian period and while not notable for his originality, the breathe and rhetorical power of his writing evince the confidence and erudition of a talented journalist. Like many Edwardian writers, Pearse found much to celebrate and engage him in the enterprising age in which he lived. It’s a pity he never really expanded his horizons enough to finesse this journalistic talent.

The other cause in which Pearse immersed himself was that of education. While he himself achieved great success under the Victorian education system in Ireland at the time (graduating simultaneously with a B.A. from the Royal University and a law degree from the Kings Inns), Pearse retained a loathing for this rote learning based system and became a pioneer of a student centred and reflective approach to teaching and learning. This prompted a trip to Belgium in 1905 to research continental teaching methods and led him to found his own bilingual school for boys, St. Enda’s in 1908. Revisionist historians have made much of Pearse’s perceived obsession with glorifying the innocence of childhood as well as his record of rather fanciful masculine hero worship as if to cast aspersions on the values he may have imparted to his students. Much of this is unfair. The era in which he grew up contextualises these attitudes. Popular literature during the Edwardian period (which the literary Pearse would no doubt have read) include Barrie’s Peter Pan and Kipling’s The Jungle Book among many other works that idealise the both the child and masculine bravery. Nevertheless. these purist, uncompromising inclinations were to cause him a great deal of trouble throughout the political upheaval of his latter years.

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© Kilmainham Gaol / OPW

By the end of the Edwardian period, Pearse was coming under immense pressure personally. The school in which he had invested so much of his hopes, efforts and family money, was failing. In the absence of  any kind of systematic support or adequate financial recompense for the kind of work he was dedicating his life to, Pearse was building up serious and unsustainable debts. The middle class comfortability that his father’s business success had afforded his family was eroding fast and it was becoming ever more difficult for him to fulfil his substantial responsibilities. In response to this pressure, there seems to have taken place a retreat into the fantasies of bravery and sacrifice that had preoccupied him throughout his life. He came to align his rhetorical talents more closely to the emerging radical nationalism that had begun to take hold in Ireland. A successful and lucrative U.S. speaking tour undertaken in 1913 to an audience hugely sympathetic to an independent Ireland perhaps crucially convinced him that the issues he cared most about were tied up inextricably with the cause for an independent Ireland.

Pearse was more a victim of his time than is often allowed. A homeruler until at least 1912, his Edwardian formation shows him as a moderate man of practical convictions and compassionate (if idiosyncratic) sensibilities. This character starts to recede in the hyper-nationalist, warmongering atmosphere of the post Edwardian period. His circumstances may have made him feel that he had little to lose and perhaps much to gain by following the beat of this new drum.

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