“There are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them”- Padraig Pearse
What would it take for a man to sacrifice his life for a cause that might not survive? To strike against an occupying power who has crushed all resistance time and time again? How sure of one’s own inner convictions does a man have to be, to take the most radical of measures?
These are just some of the questions one must ask when exploring the life of Irish Republican Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Before the rising, Pearse was an esteemed member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood; a radical, Irish nationalist, separatist organization.
On Monday, April 24th 1916, Pearse, along with James Connolly, Thomas Macdonaugh, Thomas Clarke, Eamon Ceant, Joseph Plunkett and Sean MacDiarmada, led an Irish Republican Militia onto the streets of Dublin. At the exact same time, Britain who had been occupying Ireland for seven centuries, was engaged in the most horrific war to date on the European continent.
In the wee morning hours, the Rebels stormed buildings across the city and set up their headquarters in the General Post Office on O’Connell street. A few minutes after noon, Pearse, the elected President of a new Irish Provisional government, stood on the steps of the General Post office and began reading from a document that is today known as the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. He began;
“In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.”
The Easter Rising had begun.
In six days of bloody street fighting, over 500 people were killed and another 2500 wounded. The Rebels were forced to surrender on the following Saturday to an overwhelming British force that had poured in from Britain as the week progressed. A couple days later, the British sentenced Pearse along with the other leaders of the insurrection, to death by firing squad.
In his final moments, Pearse whistled as he was led from his cell to the yard of Kilmainham Gaol, the notorious Dublin Prison where scores of rebels had been held and executed during Britain’s rule in Ireland. Pearse and his colleagues, were now about to bolster the symbol of the prison as a rallying for Irish Nationalism.
Pearse died instantly by a volley from a line of British soldiers. Tom Clarke, the most esteemed member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Supreme council and who had served fifteen years in a British prison in the 1880’s and 90’s, had to be finished off with a shot to the skull by a captain. James Connolly, who was wounded during the uprising and unable to walk, had to be strapped to a chair before being executed. Pearse’s brother Willy, despite not being a leader in the rebellion, was also blindfolded and shot.
Clearly from a military standpoint, the uprising had failed. Pearse, along with his fellow Irish Republican Brotherhood members were dead but these executions ignited a spark for a wider rebellion and resistance across the Irish nation.
Still, many in the wider world didnt understand what it was, that led Pearse to such extreme measures.
Inherit in Pearses’ and his fellow IRB council member’s doctrine, was that Ireland’s national spirit was fading. They feared that if Home rule, or self government, was granted by Britain, whilst still being under the helm of the British empire, that Ireland’s identity of a nation would wither away completely.
And perhaps Pearse more than the others, was strongly influenced by the idea of blood sacrifice. This was a philosophy that was shared by many Nationalists throughout Europe in the early twentieth century and it was essentially a belief that war would help cleanse and renew a nation.
Pearse wrote at the onset of World War 1, “When war comes to Ireland, she must welcome it as she would the angel of God, And she will.”
Before he adopted the more exclusively Gaelic name, ‘Padraig’, Patrick Pearse was born November 10, 1979 in Dublin. The son of an English sculptor and his Irish wife, Pearse inherited a love for Ireland from his mother and showed intellectual acuity from an early age. He obtained degrees in English, Irish and French from the University College Dublin and in 1897 founded the New Ireland Literary Society. He became impassioned with the need for education reform in Ireland and believed that the only way Ireland could come to know itself as a people and nation, was to be in touch with its native language; Gaelic.
He would later say that language was, “the largest and most important of all the elements that go up to make a nation.” Pearse wrote numerous papers and poems and ultimately became director of the Gaelic League and editor of its Newspaper called, ‘An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light).
He had a strong interest for Irish history and culture and as he grew more mature, became to be uncompromising in his views of the terrorizer of a nation that he saw as England. In 1912 he published ‘The Murder Machine,” which was a full on assault on the Irish education system and the British who created it. He wrote, “the education system here was designed by our masters in order to make us willing or at least manageable slaves.” (Pearse pg 7-8).
Pearse began to put his ideas into practice in 1909 when he opened his first Irish Gaelic inspired childrens school, ‘St Eannas.’ Within the school, he implanted his strongly held views that religion, patriotism, art, literature and science should all play a role in Irish children’s education and that each child be recognized as an individual, distinct and unique from every other human soul.
One could say Pearse was destined to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood and when he did in 1913, he quickly worked his way up the ranks of the organization. By 1914, he was an astute sitting member on the underground’s movement, Supreme Council. Though some other members in the IRB and the newly emerging nationalist political party, Sinn Fein, saw Pearse as too intense and uncontrollable. Though IRB headman Tom Clarke, saw greatness in the young Fenian.
Perhaps the ultimate prelude to Pearse’s impending fate, was revealed at the funeral of Jeramiah O’Donavan Rossa, in 1915. It was in this moment that Pearse’s passionate and fanatical heart went on full display. Jeramiah Rossa, was a prolific figure in Irish Republicanism. He was a tough as nails Fenian who had served time in British Prisons, was forced to emigrate to America and had a reputation of being undeterred in his mission to disrupt British rule in Ireland despite suffering an incomprehendable amount of adversity.
All of this however, was underscored by the speech that the fiery Pearse gave that day at his funeral.
In his eulogy at Rossa’s graveside in the exclusively Catholic Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin, Pearse said;
“The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have forseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools!—they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
It was an electric speech and many would say, Pearse put on a clinic in oratory and that the Gaelic Filis’, an ancient poet class of Pre-Christian Ireland, had reemerged. The number of recruits and incoming financial support that the IRB and Sinn Fein received in response was impressive, though the year of 1915 still saw thousands of young Irishman enlist in the British army.
Perhaps Pearse was a bit off kilter, but within seven years of his death, there had been a dirty guerilla war and the signing of a treaty that gave Ireland its first taste of freedom in seven hundred years.
He and his fellow Proclamation signees made the ultimate gamble and in the end it paid off. It was through a man with the fanatic’s heart that a revolution was born.