Any general analysis on the work of Pádraig Pearse almost invariably focuses on his political writings and speeches, and to some extent his poetry of a more nationalistic tenor. It is unmistakeably the most famous Pearse, the Pearse most vivid in collective Irish memory, the Pearse of Bodenstown and Glasnevin, the Pearse of Easter Week. But as an analysis, it is too singular, if not one-dimensional. Pearse was not merely an eloquent rebel with a few quatrains to his name.
From his earliest youth, Pearse was a prolific writer. In The Home Life of Pádraig Pearse, edited by his sister Mary Brigid, she recalls:
‘When Pat was only a mere lad he ran—or should I say edited?—a paper once a week, all of which was written by himself—articles, jokes, puzzles, sketches, and a serial story entitled ‘Pat Murphy’s Pig’—a humorous story, as its name implies. I used to look forward to the night when the Weekly came out. It was just an ordinary exercise book, closely filled with the author’s small neat writing.’
She also notes his great penchant for writing plays, beginning from the age of nine. Curiously, the themes of his childhood efforts dealt with romance, curious insofar as his later literary efforts were almost entirely absent of these themes. In one play, The Pride of Finisterre, of which only memorable fragments exist, there is a great line, ‘Come, lay us down beneath the shade/Which these old ivied trees have made.’
When barely a man, Pearse, now the President of a student society, the New Ireland Literary Society, would publish three lectures: ‘Gaelic Prose Literature,’ ‘The Intellectual Future of the Gael,’ and ‘The Folk Songs of Ireland’ as a volume entitled Three Lectures on Gaelic Topics.
It is in these lectures we first encounter Pearse’s lifelong fascination, if not obsession, with the national epic Táin Bo Cuailgne and its protagonist, Cúchulainn, but it also shows Pearse’s early inclinations towards the ‘great man’ theory of history.
‘What would the world be without its heroes? Greece without her Hercules and her Achilles, Rome without her Romulus and her Camillus, England without her Arthur and her Richard, Ireland without her Cúchulainn and her Fionn, Christianity without its Loyolas and its Xaviers?
There is a certain idealistic folly in Pearse’s adolescent writings, but a rosy idealism Pearse gloried in, and even as he grew older still and as his tone gradually mellowed, his faith held strong. In a 1912 lecture, Some Aspects of Irish Literature, Pearse maintained his belief that the story of Cúchulainn was ‘the finest epic stuff in the world.’
‘The theme is as great as Milton’s in ‘Paradise Lost’; Milton’s theme is a fall, but the Irish theme is a redemption. For the story of Cúchulainn symbolises the redemption of man by a sinless God. The curse of primal sin lies upon a people; new and personal sin brings doom to their doors; they are powerless to save themselves; a youth, free from the curse, akin with them through his mother but through his father divine, redeems them by his valour; and his own death comes from it. I do not mean that the Táin is a conscious allegory; but there is the story in its essence, and it is like a retelling (or is it a fore-telling?) of the story of Calvary.’
Pearse’s next calling was in the columns of An Claidheamh Soluis, the official organ of the Gaelic League, which he was appointed as editor of in 1903. For six years, Pearse as editor would outline a mode of action for the language revival. He advocated forcefully, informed by his extensive study of bilingualism in Belgium’s education system, for ‘an modh díreach’, or ‘the direct method’, a radical immersion-based style of language teaching to be adopted in Ireland, ideally of course under a national government. He argued that the re-development of an Irish-language literature had to be based upon contemporary and modern lines, that ‘it must draw its sap of its life from the soil of Ireland; but it must be open on every side to the free air of heaven.’ He subscribed to the belief that Irish was a living language, and categorically rejected the school of thought that sought to impose, in his view, archaic if not dead linguistic and literary forms on living speech. He articulated how all walks of social life, from the Church to the household, could do their part in working for the preservation and revival of the language, that ‘the success of every human cause must depend, under God, upon the men who work for it.’
More than almost anyone else, Pearse emphasized the importance of retaining the language, that the language was not merely to keep in communion with the past, but that the language was an essential part of the nation’s fundamental being.
‘The case is simply this, that Irish is the language of Ireland. It is because it is the language of Ireland, and not because it happens to be a rich and beautiful language, a strong and flexible language, a subtle and delicate language, that we would fain preserve it. If it were a sterile and unlovely speech, weak and unadaptable, rigid and colourless, it would equally be our duty to preserve it, for it is ours, it is the speech we have ourselves fashioned from our inner consciousness for the purpose of expressing our thought, and to disown it, for that it were unlovely, would be to disown ourselves.’
He was also a barrister during this time, although he served in just one case: the case of Niall Mac Ghiolla Bhrighde, of Creeslough, County Donegal, who had been fined for writing his name in Irish on his business cart, deemed to be ‘illegible writing’ by the authorities. Pearse, in his argument, made the point that by such logic, the Italian name of Giovanni Giacomo would also be illegible and thus his name should read John Joseph. The case was lost, and Pearse wrote bitterly afterwards in An Claidheamh that ‘it was in effect decided that Irish is a foreign language on the same level as Yiddish.’
His next foray into editorial journalism would be the short-lived yet critically understudied nationalist newspaper An Barr Buadh, in 1912. It was published solely in Irish, claiming as it did to express authentic Irish nationalism. Father Michael O.F.M., writing in the Capuchin Annual in 1942, wrote that there was a ‘stark marble-like strength in Pearse’s strong historic Irish.’
‘We need a company of Gaels who will defend the honour of our race in the battle that is before us, and especially in the peace-time after the battle, if in the battle the Gaels prove strongest. We would impose a threefold obligation on such a band, first to gather the Irish speakers to the help of the Gael in battle because the Irish speakers are the most faithful of the Clanna Gaedheal, and they are the highest-minded and keenest in intention of all our living race. Secondly, if a parliament is established in Ireland, to place there a band of Gaels unbought and that cannot be bought, a band who will stand for Gaelic right against the English and the English-Irish of the world. If we fail to win such a parliament now, to call on the Gaels to rise and to rouse them without ceasing till we have red war through Ireland.’1
During this period, Pearse also edited An Macaomh, a student journal for St. Enda’s School in Rathfarnham, of which he was headmaster. It is some of his more introspective literature, perhaps some of his finest from a purely literary perspective. In one such passage, his detestation of ‘respectable society’ and political economy leads him to counsel, ‘Ye men and peoples, burn your books on rent theories and land values and go back to your sagas.’
He also writes with an incredible foresight on martyrdom; on ‘that laughing gesture of a young man that is going into battle or climbing to a gibbet’, that gesture Pearse himself upheld as he whistled child-like to the Kilmainham yard where he was to die. In recalling a dream of his of a pupil marching proudly to the gibbet and dying in front of a silent, unsympathetic crowd, one cannot help but to notice the almost divine similarity with Easter Week, notably the instances of surrendering volunteers being pelted at with refuse by the unsympathetic crowds of Dublin.
‘When people say that Ireland will be happy when her mills throb and her harbours swarm with shipping, they are talking as foolishly as if one were to say of a lost saint or of an unhappy lover: ‘That man will be happy again when he has a comfortable income.’ I know that Ireland will not be happy again until she recollects that old proud gesture of hers, and that laughing gesture of a young man that is going into battle or climbing to a gibbet.’
There are several of his political speeches and articles still lesser-known, not included in the official anthology. In a 1911 lecture to Gaelic League activists in Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary, Pearse strikes a no less strident chord than in any of his other, and more popular, political writings:
‘You should remember that this country is Ireland, not England, and that you are Ireland’s sons and daughters owing devotion and duty to the motherland. In the great struggle that is coming, and which may come in our own time, we must all make up our minds to be on one side or the other. No man can serve two masters. We cannot serve Ireland and serve against her. We must now decide on which side we are to be… The near future is to decide whether this ancient nation is to perish after such a long and glorious struggle, or whether we are to rear for her a race of men and women that will stand, when the time to do so comes, for right against might, for truth against falsehood, for Ireland against the world.’
In a 1914 article for The Irish Volunteer:
‘We are young to-day as men were young when the boy Cúchulainn and the boy Fionn were their chosen champions; as men were young when they followed the sword of the young Red Hugh; as men were young when they thrilled to the eloquence of the young Grattan; as men were young when young Tone and young Lord Edward and young Emmet taught and led them; as men were young when young Davis and young Mitchel sang and spoke to them. We are young, and we have the wild folly and the deep wisdom of youth.’
In a 1914 statement to the New York Evening Journal:
‘The national movement aims at nothing less than the undoing of the English conquest of Ireland, and it has as many phases as there are phases to a national civilization. The movement has ebbed and flowed with the decades, but it has always been here; no generation has entirely lost the tradition of Irish resistance to English domination which is not merely political, but is the domination of an alien civilization over a native one, of an inferior civilization over a superior one.’
Finally, in his final political testament before Easter Week in 1916:
‘I am ready. For years I have waited and prayed for this day. We have the most glorious opportunity that has ever presented itself of really asserting ourselves. Such an opportunity may never come again. We have Ireland’s liberty in our hands. Will we be freemen, or are we content to remain as slaves and idly watch the final extermination of the Gael?’
It is worth briefly touching on his lesser-known fiction also, described rather fittingly as an ‘idealist’s credo’. The Wandering Hawk, an unfinished 1915 novel about an eccentric headmaster and his pupils during the times of the Fenians, semi-autobiographical in essence, is described by Liam Mellows as ‘one of the best things in lighter vein written by the first President of the Irish Republic.’
The boy protagonist of An Choill, a short story of Pearse’s written for The Irish Review in 1914, is the archetypal noble savage, uncorrupted by civilisation and its offspring in Anglicisation.
‘Ní bhionn cuibhreach ar an tuinn uisge, ná ceangal ar an ngaoith, ná cuing ar an míol mong-ruadh,’ ar Mac an Chuill, ‘agus dar déithibh adhartha mo mhuinntire,’ ar sé, ‘ní rachaidh cuibhreach ná ceangal ná cuing orm-sa.’2
As a poet, Pearse was heavily influenced by the Gaelic tradition, and produced translations in works such as Specimens From an Irish Anthology and Songs of the Irish Rebels. Here is his translation of Aonghus Uí Dhalaigh’s Dia Libh, A Laochradh Ghaoidheal (God with You, Heroes of the Gael.)
‘Fearr bheith i mbarraibh fuairbheann
I bhfeatheamh shuainghearr ghrinnmhear,
Ag seilg troda ar fhéinn eachtrann
‘Gá bhfuil fearann bhur sinnsear.’
‘Tis better to watch on the tops of the cold bens,
‘Though short of sleep, yet gladsome,
Urging fight against foreign soldiery
Who hold your fathers’ land!’
Here is his translation of the Pádraig Ó hÉigeartaigh poem Óchón, a Dhonnchadha (A Father Keens his Drowned Child).
‘Och, mo chaithis é! is beag do cheapas-sa i dtráth mo dhóchais
Ná beadh an leanbh so ‘n-a laoch mhear chalma i lár na fóirne,
A ghníomhartha gaisge is a smaointe meanman ar son na Fódla,—
Acht an Té do dhealbhuigh de chré ar an talamh sinn, ní mar sin d’órduigh!
‘Ah, desolate! I little thought in the time of my hope
That this child would not be a swift valiant hero in the midst of the band,
Doing deeds of daring and planning wisely for the sake of Fódla,
But He who fashioned us of clay on earth not so has ordered.
These influences are noticeable in Pearse’s own original poetry, for instance in Bean tSléibhe ag Caoineadh a Mic (A Woman of the Mountain Keens Her Son):
‘Brón ar an mbás, ní féidir a shéanadh,
Leagann sé úr is críon le chéile,—
‘S a mhaicín mhánla, is é mo chéasadh
Do cholainn chaomh ‘bheith ag déanamh créafóig’!
‘Grief on the death, it cannot be denied,
It lays low, green and withered together,—
And O gentle little son, what tortures me is
That your fair body should be making clay!’
Pearse was an immense influence on Irish life, not merely an influence on the development of Irish nationalism, but of modern Irish literature and poetry, a pioneering thinker when it came to Irish education and the language revival.
It is somewhat cliché that Pearse is introduced by his many titles, teacher, barrister, poet, writer, playwright and finally nationalist. We hope that by anthologising his work, the largest of its kind anywhere online, that a more complete understanding of his works and thought may be engendered.
1 Translation of a speech at a Home Rule rally in Belfast, March 1912, from ‘Twilight and Dawn’, Father Michael O.F.M., Capuchin Annual, 1942.
2 ‘There is no bond upon the wave of water, nor fetter upon the wind, nor yoke upon the russet hare, and I swear by my people’s gods, that bond or fetter or yoke shall not go upon me.’