The following intensely interesting little contribution is from the facile pen of Mr F O’Nolan, Chilham House, Rathfarnham. Mr O’Nolan was once a master in St Enda’s College, under the headship of my brother himself. I read this article with the utmost attention, and would have liked it to be six times as long, I found it so absorbing in every detail.
It is the last—but by no means the least—of the many contributions which I have received from kindly and sympathetic friends. Writing to me on this matter Mr O’Nolan says:
‘I understand that what you require is simply an appreciation of the personality of the extraordinary man who affected his generation so profoundly. This undoubtedly I can give.
‘I was introduced to the late President, Patrick Henry Pearse, in the portico of the Royal University, by a mutual friend, about the year 1914. Although no words passed between us beyond those which convention dictated, I had the distinct impression that I had been summed up and catalogued.
‘I afterwards asked my friend (I was then a stranger in Dublin) who this remarkable person was, and he replied: “He’s an extraordinary fellow. He’ll make his mark—that goes without saying. But no one knows how he’ll do it!”
‘From that time I followed Patrick Pearse’s career with intense interest. I went to hear him speak at a Gaelic League meeting in Belfast in the early ’nineties, and brought away an intensified conviction that here was a mighty moral force.
‘Afterwards I came into personal contact with the future President while he was editor of An Claidheamh Soluis and I a clerk in the Secretariat of the Gaelic League. During that period I never heard him speak a single word that was not necessary. To say that he was working—working—working all the time, conveys but a faint idea of his concentrated energy.
‘The next time I saw him was at Cullenswood, Oakley Road. On the way there I met Thomas MacDonagh, who told me that An Piarsach was awaiting me, and had practically decided to admit me to St Enda’s as a master.
‘During the interview that followed, Pearse sat half reclining in an easy chair, his hands clasped behind his head. Yet in that posture the impression he conveyed of tremendous reserves of energy was, if anything, greater than ever. He spoke in abrupt, nervous phrases. He referred kindly to what he called our colleagueship in Gaelic League work. The fire of the prophet and martyr blazed out unmistakably when he spoke of the great venture that the transfer of the school to Rathfarnham involved. It is perhaps not to my credit that what moved me most was not what he said—his personality was too overwhelming; it was the man himself one felt and thought of, not his words.
‘As to the time I spent under his headmastership in Rathfarnham, I cannot speak freely. I have never ceased to regret that I was not with him up to Easter Week, 1916; but he himself agreed that I ought not to stay.
‘My most vivid recollection of him there was in the refectory during the dinner hour, when he sat at the head of the table to which only boys who were fluent speakers of Irish were admitted. It was then one had the best opportunity of observing the headmaster’s fatherly tenderness, his deep insight into boys’ hearts and characters, his astounding power of realising naturally and serenely the noblest ideals of conduct and operations the most humdrum and commonplace.
‘As I was passing out one afternoon he stopped me. There was a gently humorous expression on his face. “Would you have any objection,” said he (in Irish, of course) “if I served you a summons?” “Even a summons,” I replied, “would at your hands be an honour.” “Here it is then,” he said. And he handed me a summons to appear at Green Street police court to answer a charge of riding a bicycle after dark without a light.
‘That day, while I was in class, a police sergeant had called at St Enda’s and sent for me to serve the summons on me. I refused to leave the class for this purpose. He sent for me three times, and then asked to see the headmaster. The President looked at the summons presented for his inspection, and said affably to the sergeant: “I am an officer of the High Court” (he was, of course, a barrister-at-law), “and will see that this summons is served in due form.” The sergeant saluted respectfully and retired.
‘How sorry I am that I did not preserve that summons—served on me by the President of the Irish Republic.
‘Public order is the first essential, and must be preserved at all costs. The sergeant represented the only machinery then in existence for its preservation. The President, therefore, was acting appropriately to his character and office when he condescended to endorse authoritatively the ministration of an humble instrument of that public order of which he himself was then the real custodian and figurehead.’
I can easily imagine how my brother must have chuckled over the serving of that summons, and how thoroughly he must have enjoyed the unusual episode. He would enjoy helping a policeman out of a difficulty just as much as he enjoyed masquerading as ‘a man of the road’!
Alfred once told me a diverting little tale about Pat and a well-known boxer of that time.
‘During the period when Tommy Burns was in Dublin to meet Jim Roche for the world’s championship,’ he said, ‘Pat took a keen interest in boxing. He began to study this sport comparatively seriously, and became a fairly fast and heavy hitter, as I know to my cost. He expected me to practise with him and stand up against him; yet he was four stone heavier than I.
‘He was proud of the fact that on one occasion, in the Dolphin Hotel, he was mistaken for Tommy Burns, and cheered by a crowd who were waiting to see the champion.’
But although my brother would enter heartily into the sport of boxing, and could learn, in all seriousness, to shoot straight and sure, it was not merely brute force that attracted him. Fine things—infinitely higher and nobler—were his constant ideals. He believed that the regenerating of Ireland—the uplifting of the Gael—would come by purely intellectual means: art, literature, music, religion.
The following beautiful passages, taken almost at random from lectures entitled ‘Gaelic Prose Literature’ and ‘The Intellectual Future of the Gael,’ both of which he delivered when still quite a boy, will exemplify what I mean: —
‘Centuries ago, when the European civilisation and literature of today were unknown, Éire had her day of empire; but hers was the empire, not of brute force, but of intellectuality. Time was when this land of ours was the literary centre of Christendom, when the learned of the world found their chief reading in these very prose tales that we have been considering.
‘Gaelic literature, like the Gaelic race, has long been dying, but it is “fated not to die.” When we remember the past, and when we look into the future, we are driven to admit, laying all enthusiasm aside, or, at least, avoiding extravagance in our enthusiasm, that in centuries yet to come these self-same epics, these self-same old scéalta, with their simple and beautiful imagery, with their grand and sonorous descriptive passages, with their strange old-world Celtic eloquence, may still be inspiring and rejuvenating the heart of man, and lifting him to higher and nobler ideals …
‘The mission of the Gael, however, will not be confined to the propagation of this literature. The Gael is, in the fullest sense of the word, an idealist; he is, in fact, the idealist amongst the nations. All that is beautiful, noble, true, or grand will always find in him a devotee.
‘Another thousand years will have rolled over the earth, and the bard, and the seanchaidhe, and the teacher of the Gael, will once more be held in honour.
‘Men’s gods will no longer be empire, ambition and gold; but the homage that is paid to those things today will be paid in that happy age as it was in the days of yore, on the hills and in the valleys of Éire, to the mysterious potencies of nature, the beauty and virtue of women, the heroic dignity of man, the awful and incomprehensible majesty of the Divinity.
‘This will be the gospel of the future; and to preach this gospel—world-old, yet new, so true, yet so little realised, so beautiful and so ennobling—will be the mission of the children of the Gael.’