A very characteristic letter of my brother was that which he wrote to his beloved boys in St Enda’s, when he himself was in the midst of a lecturing campaign many hundreds of miles away from them, during his visit to America.
It has already been published in The Story of Success by Desmond Ryan; but for the sake of those who have not read that little volume, I am reproducing the letter here. After all, a good thing cannot be repeated too often; and this letter is an inspiration to any boy or girl in any school throughout the length and breadth of Ireland.
‘It conveys,’ writes Desmond Ryan, ‘a fine sense of the personality behind Pearse’s words. In a similar spirit were his religious instructions, his daily comments upon discipline from his rostrum in the Study Hall morning and evening before prayers, his appeals to individual boys in his study.
‘There was a strength in his every gesture, a quiet authority in his tone, a keen knowledge of every one of his students. He made no idle boast when he claimed to know each boy’s character as well as he knew the Gaelic-speaking West and the literature of Gaelic chivalry. He could be severe upon occasion, but he rarely had necessity. Someone has written of Pearse that he had a power. This message is eloquent of the power he had in Sgoil Éanna. Here it is:—
To Sgoil Éanna: Greeting.
You are all, I have no doubt, reassembled after the Easter vacation and working hard. So many invitations poured in upon me to lecture and to tell the Americans what fine fellows you are, that I was unable to get home, as I had hoped, in time to be in my place to welcome you back from your holidays. However, I shall be on the sea in a very few days from the time this reaches you, and in a week or so thereafter you will again my sonorous voice saying: ‘Amach libh,’ ‘Iompodh timpheall,’ ‘in bhur dtost,’ ‘Céard é so?’ etc., etc.
I have already promised to give you a special holiday in commemoration of my safe return and happy escape from sea-sharks and land-sharks. In the meantime, I want to appeal to you, and I do so most earnestly, to put all your heart into the work that remains to be done during the short month or six weeks that are left of the school year. Let every boy do his best. Let every boy do his best at his weak subjects especially. Do a six weeks’ work that it will be a pleasure to yourselves to look back upon, whatever the results of the examination may be.
Show what Sgoil Éanna can do. Remember, you have a great reputation. You have a great reputation now even in America. You must live up to that reputation. It would be disgraceful to have an undeserved reputation.
Let every boy start right now, and not slacken until the word is given for ‘home’ some fine day during the third week of June.
I do hope, finally, that you are making some effort to speak Irish. Remember that that rifle is still unwon. I want to give it away this summer, but it can only be given on condition that some boy wins it by a genuine effort to speak Irish.
‘Beannacht chugaibh anois go bhfeicidh me sibh. Beir buaidh chatha agus cosgartha, a Sgoil Éanna!’
‘Pádraig Mac Piarais.’
Personally, I think that it would be a good thing if every Irish boy and Irish girl knew that letter by heart, and a still better thing if each and every one of them were to strive with all their might to put into practice what the gentle schoolmaster has told them so beautifully.
Pádraig himself always loved school, and he succeeded in making school a place that other boys could love.
My brother—himself a poet—was passionately fond of the songs of the Gael, and had a profound knowledge of this wide and fascinating subject. The folk songs of Ireland, especially, made a strong appeal to his artistic and ascetic temperament. The inspirations for his own fine poems and ‘silver songs’ came to him, I fancy, from his innate love for all things beautiful and fine, and from the world of nature which he loved and reverenced.
In one of his lectures, when he was President of the New Ireland Literary Society, his subject was ‘The Folk Songs of Ireland,’ and he sums up in one short paragraph just exactly what these wonderful songs are: ‘The song, then, was originally man’s hymn of praise to nature, and, through nature, to God.’
He ends this lecture with a fine eulogy of these lovely songs, composed as they were by simple Irish peasants: ‘Pure they are and spotless as the driven snow, like the souls and lives of those who sing them; sweet they are as the scent of the wild mountain flowers which grow in their native homes; musical they are as the ripple of the streamlet, as the note of the blackbird, as the laugh of a happy and innocent girl; grand they are and time-honoured as the Gaelic race itself. May they never die away on the hillside and in the valley; may they continue to be sung by the hearth-sides of our people for many a day to come … May our language, and our literature, and our folklore live; and if they live, then, too, will our race live. Go bruinne an bhrátha.’
How well I remember the night my brother rushed home to tell his ‘Little Mother’ that he had been appointed editor of An Claidheamh Soluis, the official journal of the Gaelic League. She had been hoping and praying for this recognition of her boy’s services, and Pat wanted her to be the first to share his triumph. His intense eagerness to tell her his brave news and her sudden joy when she heard it were both very touching.
My brother, although somewhat of ‘a dreamer of dreams,’ could show his appreciation of the things he idealised in a very practical and kindly manner. When I was quite small I heard the concert harp played in the Round Room, Rotunda; and from that moment I loved its exquisite and unique music passionately. After that, I was always longing for a harp of my own; but at the time there was no way of satisfying my desire. But my brother was quietly watching out for an opportunity to purchase a harp for me, and he at length found a dear little Irish harp and presented me with it.
I still remember the intense rapture with which I at last held the long-wished-for treasure in my trembling arms. I just loved my harp; and I am proud to say that, despite many vicissitudes, the same precious little instrument can sing today as sweetly as it sang in those far-off happy days so long gone by! Not content with generously giving me one harp, Pat procured, some years later, an Irish-made harp for me; and it was on this stout little Northern that I used to give all the harp lessons to the boys up at St Enda’s.
Undoubtedly there was music in Pádraig’s soul; music which manifested itself not only in his poems, but also in his prose writings. Yet, although the last of his ‘silver songs’ is indeed sung, his ‘fledgling dreams’ have not been quite dashed. One dream at least came true—St Enda’s!
I feel that I cannot conclude this part of my memoirs in a more fitting manner than by quoting a few passages from some of my brother’s lectures which were delivered between 1906 and 1908:—
‘The intellectual life and atmosphere of the present day are,’ he said, ‘nothing if not unnatural. The Gael, on the other hand, like all the Celts, is distinguished by an intense and passionate love for nature. The Gael is the high-priest of nature. He loves nature, not merely as something grand and beautiful and wonderful but as something possessing a mystic connection with and influence over man.
‘In the cry of the seagull as he winged his solitary flight over the Atlantic waves; in the shriek of the eagle as he wheeled around the heights of the Kerry mountains; in the note of the throstle as he sang his evening lay in the woods of Slieve Grot; in the roar of the cataract as it foamed and splashed down the rocky ravine; in the sob of the ocean as it beat unceasingly against the cliffs of Achill; in the sigh of the wind as it moved, ghost-like, through the oaks of Derrybawn—in all these sounds the ancient Gael heard a music unheard by other men. All these sounds spoke to his inmost heart in whispers mysterious and but half understood; they spoke to him as the voices of his ancestors, urging him to be noble and true—as the voices of the glorious dead calling to him across the waters from Tir-na-nOg …
‘Nothing seems to me so certain, nothing seems to me so logical a consequence of our temperament, of our history, of our present circumstances, as that, if we are to have any future, it must be an intellectual future.
‘And if there anyone who would not prefer such a future? It is, no doubt, a glorious thing to rule over many subject peoples, to dictate laws to far-off countries, to receive every day cargoes of rich merchandise from every clime beneath the sun: but if to do these things we must become a soulless, Godless race—and it seems that one is the natural and necessary consequence of the other—then let us have none of them!
‘Do the millions that make up the population of modern nations—the millions that toil and sweat, from year’s end to year’s end, in the mines and the factories of England, the Continent and the United States—live the life intended for man? Have they intellect? Have they soul? Are they conscious of man’s dignity, of man’s greatness? Do they understand the grandeur of living, and breathing, and working out one’s destiny on this beautiful old earth? The sea, with its mighty thunderings, and its mysterious whisperings; the blue sky of day; the dark and solemn canopy of night spangled with myriad stars; the mountains and hills steeped in the magic of poetry and romance—what are these things to them? What are the hero-memories of the past to them? Are they one whit the better because great men have lived, and wrought and died? …
‘Were the destiny of the Gael no higher than theirs, better for him would it have been had he disappeared from the earth centuries ago.
‘Intellect and soul, a capacity for loving the beautiful things of nature, a capacity for worshipping what is grand and noble in man—these things we have yet. Let us not cast them from us in the mad rush of modern life! Let us cherish them, let us cling to them; they have come down to use through the storms of centuries—the bequest of our hero-sires of old.
‘And when we are a power on earth again, we shall owe that power, not to fame in war, in statesmanship, or in commerce, but to those two precious inheritances, intellect and soul.
‘“The Intellectual Future of the Gael” is a subject which must, from its very nature, be of the deepest interest to us, a subject which must be fascinating to all who take an interest in the intellectual life of mankind—and this is, after all, the true life, for life without intellect is death.
‘To all these, then, but especially to us—to us Irishmen, young, ardent, enthusiastic, trying to grope amid the darkness for a path to higher things—no question can be of more absorbing interest than this: What has destiny in store for this ancient race of ours? Is our noon-day of glory gone by for ever? Or have we still a future before us more glorious than we have dreamt of in our moments of wildest enthusiasm? …
‘Others have been struck before now by the fact that hundreds of noble men and true have fought and bled for the emancipation of the Gaelic race, and yet have failed.
‘Surely, if ever cause was worthy of success, it was the cause for which Laurence prayed, for which Hugh of Dungannon planned, for which Hugh Roe and Owen Roe fought, for which Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward and Robert Emmet gave their lives, for which Grattan pleaded, for which Moore and Davis sang, for which O’Connell wore himself with toil!
‘Yet these men prayed and planned, and fought and bled, and pleaded and wrote, and toiled in vain!
‘We have struggled as no other nation has struggled; we have bled as no other nation has bled; we have endured an agony compared with which the agonies of other nations have been as child’s play.
‘Time after time we have lifted the chalice of victory to our lips; time after time we have essayed to quaff its delicious contents; yet time after time has it been dashed to the ground!
‘Today, after a continuous fight lasting for eight long centuries, we are, heaven knows, farther off than ever from the goal towards which we have struggled!
‘Who can look at our political and national life at the present moment, and continue to hope? The men whom we call leaders* are engaged in tearing out each other’s vitals, and there is no prospect that they will ever stop! The people are listlessly looking on—for the first time in Irish history they seem to be sunk in apathy. We are tempted to cry aloud in our despair, “O God! will the morning never come?”
‘Yes, the morning will come, and its dawn is not far off. But it will be a morning different from the morning we have looked for.
‘The Gael is not like other men; the spade, and the loom, and the sword are not for him.
‘But a destiny more glorious than that of Rome, more glorious than that of Britain, awaits him. To become the saviour of idealism in modern intellectual and social life, the regenerator and rejuvenator of the literature of the world, the instructor of the nations, the preacher of the gospel of nature-worship, hero-worship, God-worship!—such is the destiny of the Gael!’
* The allusion is to dissensions existing at that time amongst leading politicians of the Irish Parliamentary Party.