Strange Thing I Am

Patrick Pearse

Patrick Pearse 10 November 1879 – 3 May 1916 (Image Source: Wikipedia.com)

I have often wondered how it came to be that Irish Victorians, that is to say all people born in Ireland between the years of 1837 to 1901, considered themselves Irish. Many Irish people today will baulk at reading the words “Irish Victorian” in a sentence. But Ireland was still part of the British Empire, and all who were born in Ireland in those years were considered British subjects.

I understand that Catholics in Ireland would never consider themselves British due to religious persecution and political differences. But there were also Protestants in Ireland who wanted an Independent Ireland and considered themselves Irishmen. Men such as William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, to name but two, will always intrigue me because of their politics and opposing backgrounds.

What makes a wealthy Protestant landlord fight on behalf of his Catholic tenants and their lack of rights? They risked everything, their homes, families and lives, for Irish Nationalism. Is it a strange thing to want something so fanatically that you are willing to die for it? Especially when maintaining the status quo benefits you, though not necessarily the class beneath you? I think so. I think it is a strange thing. In fact it is an amazing thing.

Some may call it fanatical, and it very well might be, but it is intriguing to come across political figures who risked losing everything to challenge the powers that be and effect change for the common good of all, despite the fact that it meant the loss of wealth, or indeed their own lives in the process.

Author, educator, political activist and 1916 Easter Rising rebel, Patrick Pearse, saw himself as strange. According to author Joost Augusteijn, in his book Patrick Pearse:The Making of a Revolutionary, Pearse saw the union of his mother and father, though both “freedom loving” people, as opposite traditions which fused together and made him, “the strange thing I am.”

Birthplace of Patrick and William Pearse (Image Source: Wikipedia.com)

Birthplace of Patrick and William Pearse (Image Source: Wikipedia.com)

Pearse described his father James as an “English, puritan and mechanic.”James Pearse was a London stonemason who relocated to Dublin in or around 1861 according to the census of that year. James worked for John Hardman and Company, a Birmingham owned business as a sculptor. Hardman and Co. opened an office in Dublin around 1861.

James Pearse eventually established his own business, Pearse and Son’s, at 27 Great Brunswick Street, now known as Pearse Street.Though Patrick Pearse tried to find Irish connections on his father’s side, he discovered that as far back as 400 years the family were English. The family business in Dublin became a “leading supplier of architectural ornament and church fittings,” according to Christine Casey, author of Dublin: The City Within the Grand and Royal Canals and the Circular Road with the Phoenix Park.

Patrick Pearse described his mother, Margaret Brady, as “Gaelic, Catholic and peasant.” Margaret, upon the execution of both of her sons after the 1916 Rising pursued a career in politics and was elected to Dáil Éireann as a  Sinn Féin  TD, Teachta Dála, in 1921.

It would be easy to say that Pearse’s rebellious nature came from his mother’s side. They hailed from County Meath and spoke only in the native Irish language, which influenced the young Patrick Pearse greatly. But his father’s artistic side played into Patrick’s development as a rebel as well.

This “artistic streak,” as Patrick called it, meant that his father’s friends were “bohemian types,” whom the young Patrick Pearse liked because of their “quaint costumes, their sense of humor and their gentleness.” So, the union of a “puritan” and a “peasant” produced a “strange thing,”…….an Irish Nationalist.

The family business flourished and secured the Pearse family’s position comfortably as middle-class, affording Patrick and his brother William excellent educations.

William Pearse 15 November 1881 – 4 May 1916 (Image Source: Wikipedia.com)

William Pearse 15 November 1881 – 4 May 1916 (Image Source: Wikipedia.com)

Patrick Pearse became  an Irish language teacher and a barrister, and later a writer of essays, poems, plays, an editor for An Claidheamh Soluis, The Sword of Light, which was the journal of the Gaelic League.

William, or Willie Pearse was headed down the path that his own father had longed to travel. William became a noted sculptor and studied in Paris. His sculptures can be found in churches throughout Ireland. When he was set to inherit the family business he decided instead to help Patrick run Saint Edna’s secondary school for boys in Ranelagh, Co. Dublin. Willie, influenced greatly by his older brother’s political activities, joined the Irish Volunteers and became part of the Republican movement which resulted in the Easter Rising of 1916.

The yard in Kilmainham Jail Dublin where the 16 Rebels were executed. (Image Source: Loretto Leary 2009)

The yard in Kilmainham Jail Dublin where the 16 Rebels were executed. (Image Source: Loretto Leary 2009)

Both Patrick and William were executed in Kilmainham Jail for taking part in the Easter Rising of 1916. Patrick died first, aged 36, he was shot by firing squad for his part in the Irish Rebellion and the following day Willie was executed.

The “strange thing” about Patrick Pearse is that not everyone agrees that he is a hero. I’ll state the obvious first: many Unionists, most notably Conor Cruise O’Brien (a former Unionist), see Patrick Pearse as “dangerous, fanatical, psychologically unsound and ultra-religious.” O’Brien states that, “Pearse saw the Rising as a Passion Play with real blood.” Others, such as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, would defend Patrick Pearse and argue that his “fanatical” behavior was heroic. This is where Pearse becomes a complex personality, for what Pearse has left us with is a debate on what it means to be an Irish Nationalist. Does it mean being a fanatic or a hero? According to the Patrick Pearse article on Wikipedia.com, “his complex personality still remains a subject of controversy for those who wish to debate the evolving meaning of Irish nationalism.”

The only way to glean more about the mind of Patrick Pearse is to read what the man wrote. And I begin today by reading his essay, The Murder Machine. Stay tuned.

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