Patrick Pearse, one of Ireland’s greatest patriots, was of Puritan and perhaps Pilgrim background

By Patrick Rahill

We have known for a long time St Patrick did not start out Irish. Well, here is a surprise. Patrick Pearse, one of Ireland’s greatest patriots was of Puritan, and perhaps had Pilgrim antecedents.

Patrick Pearse, in his thirty – seven years was a man of many parts. He was founder and headmaster of St Enda’s, a novel and experimental school for boys. He was a barrister, although records show he took only one case. He was an editor, publisher, writer, orator and polemicist in two languages. And above all, he was an uncompromising leader of Ireland’s struggle for independence, who drafted the nation’s founding document – The Proclamation of the Irish Republic, was one of its seven signatories; led the forces in the GPO during Easter Week along with James Connolly and Thomas McDonagh. Finally, he walked blindfolded between his gaolers, in the Stonebreakers Yard to the white line whistling* before dawn on May 3, 1916. *This detail was recorded in a diary by Serjeant Henry Lomas who had been tasked with assembling the several firing squad teams for that day. (16 Lives  Patrick Pearse, page 274. A second source stated that Lomas misidentified Thomas McDonagh for Patrick Pearse. (16  Lives – Patrick Pearse).

Surprisingly, this extraordinary man, idolized by many in Ireland, but also vilified and mocked by many others was of Puritan background. Perhaps there might even be Pilgrims numbered among his antecedents.

Patrick’s father, James Pearse, stone carver and sculptor, and a Puritan, relocated from Birmingham to Dublin in 1876 upon the death of his first wife, Emily. He did so to make a new start and to take advantage of the increase in church building and furnishing after Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

He married nineteen-year-old Margaret Brady in Dublin in 1877, and together they had four children, two boys and two girls. He could never have imagined that from his new family begotten there, two sons, Patrick and William would become Irish patriots and be executed after the Easter Rising of 1916. One of them, Patrick, would make the shortest lists of one of the greatest Irishmen of all time. {The two daughters and would keep St. Enda’s, the school dedicated to an experimental ethos which Patrick had founded and served as headmaster until Easter Week 1916.}

Patrick Pearse must have been influenced by the attitude of his father to Empire and Crown. James Pearse had been a devotee of William Bradlaugh, the anti – monarchist and republican minded MP for Northampton. James wrote an article advocating Home Rule for Ireland.  What appears to be counter intuitive in Pearse’s challenge of the Empire, given his origin, becomes understandable when it is clarified as to the singular English background he emerged from – his Unitarian and Puritan origin. There is no known history as to whether any of his antecedents were Pilgrims. There was a Pierce on the log of the Mayflower, an Abraham Pearse on the list of the Anne and Little James of 1623. Anthony Pearse settled on St Christopher in 1633. Pearse gave some consideration that the Puritan blood in his veins swayed him toward the struggle for Independence as surely as his Gaelic blood.

Patrick Pearse’s, maternal grandfather was a Fenian having been sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Pearse alluded to his: “freedom loving parents from two traditions who worked in me and fused together by a certain fire proper to myself made me the strange thing I am.” (Page 19, 16 Lives Patrick Pearse ).

It can be regarded as a paradox for those unfamiliar with Irish history from 1798 through 1916, that many of the most fervent, brilliant and bravest exponents of separation from England, and the struggle for Irish sovereignty came from Anglo Irish,  English, and in the case of Wolfe Tone, French Huegenout  background. The founder of the republican movement was Theobald Wolfe Tone and the next brilliant actor and leader of a short lived rebellion was the brilliant and brave twenty- five  year old, Robert Emmett, whose father as Surgeon General of Ireland held his position at the pleasure of the Crown. Yeats referred to Tone and Emmett in his poem September 1913: “that delirium of the brave.” Tone and Emmett, especially had connections with America. Later In 1812 – 1813, Robert’s older brother Thomas Addis Emmett served as Attorney General for New York State.  Tone left Ireland for America in 1795 under duress, and spent three years there planning the ill – fated invasion from France.

The last sentences of Robert Emmett’s speech from the dock are iconic: “I have but one request to ask at my departure from this world: it is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph; for as no man who knows my motives dares now vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them……… When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done.”

In addition to these men,   Pearse  regarded John Mitchell an Ulster Protestant and sworn United Irishman deported  to Van Diemen’s Land, and Thomas Davis a Dublin Protestant, and fervent nationalist who wrote the ballad, A Nation Once Again, as men who had expressed in word and action the republican creed. It was these men, and also Charles Stewart Parnell , Pearse  believed, who  articulated both coherently and with inspiration, Ireland’s claim to Nationhood.

“No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a Nation. No man has the right to say to his country ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’,” Parnell declaimed. Parnell implied Home Rule could be a step on the way toward Irish Independence. It was the dream of all these men that Ireland the Nation would comprise all of the island of Ireland.

Pearse, in his early days, had viewed the concept of Home Rule with partial favor. Parnell had died in 1882 at the age of 45, and Parliamentarians since then such as Redmond regarded Home Rule as Ireland’s final destination. Jurisdiction over waging of war and taxation would remain with Britain in the case of Home Rule, and this was anathema to nationalists and republicans.

Pearse was harsh in his evaluation of these men. He translated an Irish proverb: ‘Woe to him that doeth evil and is poor after it.’ “The men who have led Ireland for twenty – five years have done evil, and they are bankrupt. (The Coming Revolution, Patrick Pearse, page 177.)

Perhaps because he held for a time a similar view as Parnell had held, that Home Rule could serve as a way station to a sovereign Irish Nation, Pearse was not trusted by Thomas Clarke and other IRB members at first. Later Pearse abandoned this notion or device of incrementalism, and became totally committed to the creation of an Irish Republic by armed force.

Jeremiah O’ Donovan Rossa was the sole survivor of the Famine from his family. He trained as a dynamitard, blew up Scotland Yard, served fifteen years of penal servitude, and lived his life in total rebellion, was a man whom Pearse idealized. From his death and Wake in Staten Island in June 1915, transportation to Cork and thence to the Pro – Cathedral for Requiem Mass, onto  Dublin City Hall to lie in State for three days, and on to Glasnevin cemetery, IRB leaders  MacDiarmada, Clarke, Pearse and others  choreographed a massive display of nationalism joined to a huge public acclamation for this dead  republican warrior. Thomas Clarke, the de facto leader of the IRB assigned Pearse the task of giving the graveside oration with the instruction: “make it as hot as hell.” Pearse finished his speech: “Our enemies are strong and wise and wary …The defenders of this realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think they have pacified Ireland. They think they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything. They 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.” In the next several days thousands, even school boys and girls knew the text of the speech by heart. You tube has several minutes of film from British Pathe news and also from an Irish American team from New York of the funeral procession and graveside scene in which Pearse, Clarke and Mc Bride (husband of Maud Gonne) can be identified.

Pearse is credited with drafting the Proclamation, although it is reasonable to assume that McDonagh, a Professor of English literature at UCD, or even Joseph Mary Plunkett, a published poet, played a part in the wording. All seven signatories would have reviewed the document and given their assent. It is Ireland’s founding document and it begins:


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 Rising began at noon Easter Monday, April 24, 1916 and lasted until Saturday April 29. The days before the rising saw an enormous setback. The Aud, a German vessel with 20,000 rifles was intercepted off the coast of Kerry by the British Navy, and Captain Karl Spindler scuttled the vessel with the loss of his own life and that of his crew. Sir Roger Casement, who had come ashore earlier, was captured within several hours. This setback was a great blow to the movement. It likely influenced a key figure and led to another action which was very damaging.

Gatherings and exercises of the thousands of men and women set for Easter Sunday April 23, 1916, which were to serve as the mobilization for the Rising, were countermanded by Eoin MacNeil, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. They numbered over 10,000 in different parts of Ireland.( One hundred and ten thousand ( 110,000 ) Irish Volunteers had been persuaded by Redmond and other parliamentarians to join the British Army and fight in France and Belgium. Redmond believed that this would ensure the passage of Home Rule which had been cancelled in 1914 at the outbreak of war). Many of the rank and file viewed MacNeill’s order as authentic.  Pearse, Connolly, Clarke and the other key figures discussed MacNeill’s misgivings about a Rising a number of times and they thought he finally favored it. He changed his mind. Pearse, and the others were determined to proceed despite these setbacks. Countess Markiewicz * was so enraged, she sought to have MacNeil brought to Liberty Hall where she expressed the desire to shoot him herself. (* She was sentenced to death after the Rising, but her sentence was commuted despite Gen. Maxwells desire she be executed. “She has lost all rights to be treated as a woman,” Maxwell stated). Pearse, Clarke and the others did not consider McNeil’s action treacherous. The day before his execution, on a visit from his wife, Kathleen, Clarke told her not to allow MacNeill to have any future role in the fight for Independence, especially as a leader. “He is a weak man,”Clarke said to his wife. The countermand sowed incredible confusion, and resulted in hundreds less taking the field on Easter Monday in Dublin. It led to the collapse of efforts in the provinces.

Some noted that the date, April 24th, marked the one thousand and second anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf, except that day was a Good Friday 1014, and this was Easter Monday. British officers were among thousands of racegoers at Fairyhouse, twenty miles north – west of the city. Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett, MacDiarmada left Liberty Hall before noon with their contingents and arrived shortly at the General Post Office which they made their headquarters. At 12:30pm, Pearse and Connolly walked outside and Pearse read the Proclamation of an Irish Republic to a small and curious crowd. The tricolor was placed atop the building. James Connolly shook hands with Pearse and said according to an onlooker: “Thank God, Pearse, we have lived to see this day.” ( A Man Called Pearse, p. 129).

McDonagh, de Valera, Markiewicz  and others held various positions on the south side of the city to block the access of the British troops arriving from Kildare, and the large force  expected to disembark  from Britain at Dun Laoghaire.  It went on for six days. On Wednesday, the gunboat Helga, made its way up the Liffey and shelled the GPO and Liberty Hall. By Thursday British forces arriving from Liverpool and Holy head in Wales brought the total to 20,000 men. Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army men and women  numbered  1250. Fires raged in the GPO, and on Friday the roof collapsed, and the building was evacuated.   On Saturday, despite the reluctance of Clarke to cease short of his own death, and Pearse’s desire for one further sally before opening negotiations for surrender, others, most likely McDiarmada, Plunkett, and Connolly disagreed.  Many younger men looked mutinous at the prospect, and they were counselled by McDiarmada.  Michael Collins, a twenty – six year old Corkman, was present. He was not later assessed by General Maxwell to be a threat sufficient for execution, and was arrested as one occupying a more benign tier of responsibility just above the rank and file. Three years later he would lead the struggle using a completely different methodology which would reduce geometrically the huge gap between Irish and British fighting capacity.

Pearse asked for conditions of surrender from Gen Maxwell. Unconditional surrender was the demand.

Meantime, accompanied by Nurse O’Farrell, who had freedom of movement, Pearse met with General Lowe and formally surrendered. He handed over his sword, his revolver to General Lowe’s officer. He then provided the General with the written terms of surrender. Pearse had asked that.. but the General would only accept an unconditional surrender.

In his letter to his mother, Margaret Pearse, he wrote. “this is the death I should ask for if God had given me the choice of all deaths, to die a soldier’s death for Ireland and for freedom. We have done right. People will say hard things of us now, but later on they will praise us. Do not grieve for all of this but think of it as a sacrifice which God asked of me and of you. ….I shall call your name at the last moment.” (16 Lives  Patrick Pearse page 275).

In that last letter he told his mother he had written a poem for her and it was at Arbour Hill or in the care of the Capuchins. In the last verse, she says:

Lord, Thou art hard on mothers.
We suffer in their coming and their going;
And  tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary
Of the long sorrow – And yet I have my joy:
My sons were faithful, and they fought.     

It is frequently remarked upon that Pearse and his fellow signatories demonstrated a colossal absence of prudence and common sense. They lost their lives, and 492 citizens were killed.  In the world at large, however, they were not alone in practicing imprudence. Gallipoli ended in January 1916 with 44,000 British deaths, this included 4000 Irishmen. The Somme was horrendous. Twenty – thousand British killed on the first day July 1, 1916. Two thousand Ulstermen killed and four hundred from other provinces in Ireland, were dead by 11.00 am in all likelihood. The Ulstermen went over the top at 7:30, and the Royal Dublins at 9.00am. And it would go on into September. Twelve hundred Irishmen were killed in a few days in September. The totals for WW1 were one million British deaths, and Ireland owned 40,000 deaths of that total.

A few commentators have referred to Pearse’ s predilection for a blood sacrifice. At O’ Donovan Rossa’s grave, he referred to the cycle of life and death.  At his brief trial he did not trouble to defend himself identifying himself as the Commandant of the  Forces of the Irish Republic, and President of the Provisional Government, and that ‘ he stood over all acts and words done or spoken in these capacities.’ He went on: “ I fully understand now, as then, that my own life is forfeit to British Law, and I shall die cheerfully if I can think that the British Government as it has already shown itself strong, will now show itself magnanimous enough to accept my single life in forfeiture and to give a general  amnesty  to the brave men and boys who have fought at my bidding. (16 lives Patrick Pearse page 271)

Some of the more imaginative analyses of Pearse’s character liken him to Peter Pan, which apparently he knew by heart. To live to old age was abhorrent to him, is the reasoning, and hence a cause such Ireland’s struggle for independence, afforded him a magnificent vehicle to achieve immortality, and still stand straight and tall up to  the moment of death.  Collins, too, quoted liberally from Peter Pan, but the novel he had an affinity for was The Mill on the Floss. He likened himself and his peers in the struggle to Mr Tulliver. The opinions about men such as Pearse imply that the responsibility for their death rested solely with their own irrational thinking and extravagant vision of a self – governing Ireland.

Patrick Rahill is a catholic priest and psychotherapist living in Florida. He was a nineteen-year-old seminarian in Dublin, Ireland when the news broke on the evening of Friday Nov. 22, 1963.

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