Patrick Henry Pearse, educator, writer, poet, and revolutionary, was born on November 10, 1879 at 27 Great Brunswick Street, Dublin, Ireland. His English father, James Pearse, was a stone carver who had moved to Ireland hoping to find more work in his trade. His mother, Margaret Brady Pearse, was a native of County Meath, Ireland. Stonework was plentiful for James Pearse and the family, although not wealthy, managed to maintain a decent middle class life style. Patrick, named for American patriot Patrick Henry, was one of four children born to James and Margaret.
Patrick was educated at the Christian Brothers School in Westland Row, Dublin. He went on to study law at Royal University, graduating as a lawyer, but he soon abandoned the legal profession for a more satisfying career. Largely through the influence of his Irish aunt, Patrick was drawn to the history, myths and stories of ancient Ireland. He developed a deep interest in the Irish Language. He became a fluent Irish speaker. Pearse began teaching Irish at the Christian Brothers School and at the Jesuit University College in Dublin (one of his pupils for a time was a young James Joyce). Pearse joined Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill in the Gaelic League in 1895 and in 1903 he became the editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light), a position he held for six years. During these years Pearse began to take an interest in the education system of Ireland and he came to see the teaching of children as the way forward not only for the Irish Language but for the whole Irish cultural and political scene of his country. Pearse wrote the following regarding the Irish language, "When the position of Ireland's language as her greatest heritage is once fixed, all other matters will insensibly adjust themselves. As it develops, and because it develops, it will carry all kindred movements with it. When Ireland's language is established, her own distinct culture is assured. To preserve and spread the language, then, is the single idea of the Gaelic League."
In an essay entitled "The Murder Machine" Pearse denounced the Irish educational system as "devoid of understanding, of sympathy, of imagination...what it cannot refashion after the regulation pattern it ejects." In September 1908, using his life savings and some borrowed funds; Pearse founded St. Enda's School for boys (St. Enda is the patron saint of the Aran Islands). To advance his ideas of a free and Gaelic Ireland the school offered a bilingual education that placed heavy emphasis on Irish literature, Irish culture and Irish mythology. Painted on a mural at the school were the words of the mythological Irish hero Cuchulain, "I care not though I were to live but one day and one night if only my fame and my deeds live after me."
Pearse was an excellent teacher and was well respected by the pupils at St. Enda's. His younger brother Willie Pearse gave up a career as a stonemason to join the teaching staff at St. Enda's. Another great supporter of Pearse was Thomas MacDonagh, who was deputy headmaster of the school for the first three years. Also teaching at Saint Enda's for a time was Con Colbert who taught physical education and drill. These men, along with Pearse, were destined to play a larger role in the coming Easter Rebellion.
Pearse built a small cottage at Ros Muc in County Galway and spent his summers in that Irish speaking area in the west or Ireland. These trips into the Gaelteacht, as the Irish speaking areas are called, immersed Pearse even more in the Gaelic culture and language. Pearse also established St. Ita's, a school for girls in Dublin, but financial difficulties forced its closing after only a few years. He went on a fund raising trip for the school, traveling to the United States in February 1914.
Initially in his political career, Pearse was a moderate. He supported John Redmond and the Home Rule movement, but Pearse soon conceived the idea that a free and independent Ireland could only be achieved by force and sacrifice and that meant removing the rule and influence of England. In 1915, through the sponsorship of former Fenian Thomas J. Clarke, he joined the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood where he soon was named to membership on the Supreme Council. The IRB was committed to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland. Pearse joined the Irish Volunteers and was soon elected to the Provisional Committee of that organization and took over editing their newspaper The Irish Volunteer.
The Irish Volunteers were originally founded as a defensive group in response to the arming of the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force in the north of Ireland. Under the leadership of Pearse and other IRB members within the Volunteer's organization, the Volunteers split from their original purpose and took on a definite offensive capability. This fit perfectly with the IRB plans for the coming revolution.
When the remains of former Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa were brought back to Ireland from America for burial, Pearse was selected to deliver an oration at the graveside. On August 1, 1915, at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, Rossa was laid in his grave after a huge funeral procession through the streets of Dublin. Pearse, wearing the uniform of the Irish Volunteers, rose to speak. He praised Rossa and his fellow Fenians who lie buried in the ground of Ireland. The following are the famous closing words from that great speech:
"Our foes are strong and wise and wary; but, strong and wise and wary as they are, they cannot undo the miracles of God who ripens in the hearts of young men the seeds sown by the young men of a former generation. And the seeds sown by the young men of '65 and '67 are coming to their miraculous ripening today. Rulers and Defenders of the Realms had need to be wary if they would guard against such processes. Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen 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."
Pearse and the Volunteers began planning in earnest for the revolution. Arms were smuggled into Dublin from Germany aboard Erskine Childers yacht. Some of the guns were actually stored in the basement of St. Enda's. Roger Casement was sent to Germany to seek additional arms and German military intervention for a general rising to be held around Easter of 1916. Pearse encouraged the Socialist and labor organizer, James Connolly to join in the coming rebellion. Connolly's Irish Transport and General Workers Union had its own, armed defensive force, the Irish Citizen Army. Vowing, "We Serve Neither King nor Kaiser" and drilling under the flag of the Plough and Stars, Connolly and the Citizen Army joined with the Volunteers and the IRB as they prepared for military action.
Due to disorganization within the Volunteer's command structure the nationwide rising planned for Easter Sunday did not fully materialize. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, what has become known as the Easter Rising, began. The Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army joined forces in Dublin to occupy key buildings throughout the city. Pearse served as Commander-in-Chief of the Irish forces and President of the newly declared Provisional Irish Republic.
The headquarters of the Republican forces was the General Post Office (GPO) in Dublin. Soon after occupying the building, Pearse, Connolly and the other officers emerged from the GPO and from the front steps they read aloud the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Pearse was the primary author and first signatory of the Proclamation, which formally declared Ireland to be a republic and separate from Britain.
The rebels hoped that the rest of Ireland would see their action and rise in their support. For various reasons, including the failure of Roger Casement's mission to gain German assistance and the last minute countermanding of Pearse's general orders to assemble, their hopes would not be realized. With a few exceptions in the countryside, the 1916 Easter Rising was fought primarily in Dublin.
The Rising took the Dublin authorities completely by surprise and the rebel force was able to capture and occupy most of the prearranged positions around the city. The British military forces bombarded the city indiscriminately with artillery fire. The rebels held out much longer than anyone could have expected and Pearse finally was forced to surrender to overwhelming odds. At about two o'clock on April 29, 1916 Patrick Pearse, surrendered unconditionally to the British military authorities. Pearse surrendered, in his own works, "To prevent the further slaughter of unarmed people and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers."
Pearse was arrested along with the other officers of the Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army. They were quickly tried by a military tribunal and found guilty of treason and rebellion against the Crown. All were sentenced to death by firing squad. Pearse and the others were imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail to await execution. On May 3, 1916, Patrick Pearse was taken from his cell and was executed by firing squad. His body was thrown into a lime pit and mass grave along with the other executed leaders.
Following Pearse, fifteen other leaders of the Rising were also executed throughout the following week, including James Connolly, Thomas J. Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh, Con Colbert, and Pearse's younger brother Willie. The long and brutal executions turned what had been initially an unpopular rebellion into a popular republican cause.
A memorial to those who were executed in the Easter Rising has been erected over the mass grave holding Patrick Pearse and the executed leaders of 1916 behind Arbour Hill Military Barracks in Dublin. In the lobby of the General Post Office in Dublin stands a stature of the Irish hero Cuchulain in commemoration of the valiant fight of Patrick Pearse and the Irish rebels of 1916.
By: J. Michael Finn, Ohio State Historian