Patrick Pearse, by Ruan O’Donnell, O’Brien Press, 328 pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-1847172624
Over the past few years the O’Brien press has been producing biographies of the sixteen rebel leaders executed in the wake of the 1916 Rising, three of which I have had the pleasure of reviewing. The 1916 leaders pose a problem for the historian or biographer. On one side, individuals such as Ned Daly or Con Colbert do garner name recognition, but actually relatively little is known about them and they left few sources. Sean Mac Diarmada is another case in point. Mac Diarmada was a crucial figure in the planning of the rising and was instrumental in making sure it took place. But he was a secretive figure, and fearing information would fall into British hands rarely wrote things down. He was conspiratorial to the point of obsession. Neverthelesss, Brian Feeney created an admirable biography with the limited sources directly relating to his subject. Pearse, together with Connolly and Casement, poses a problem of a markedly different nature.
Pearse, Connolly and Casement are the heavyweights among the executed leaders. Casement was a humanitarian of international repute associated with leading figures in early twentieth century Britain such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Connolly, beyond his work for the labour movement in Scotland and America has influenced left-wing thinkers outside Ireland. Pearse was a well-known figure in Irish life before his execution for his work on the Irish language and educational policy as well as his political nationalism. All three have left an abundance of material for the historian and biographer to work with. Pearse has been the subject of two well-researched biographies and has figured heavily in most general histories of the rising. One would think that with the abundance of material on Pearse this new biography would highlight hithertho unexplored aspects or a new reading of his life but sadly Ruan O’Donnell brings very little new analysis to the table. He does not even engage with previous studies of his subject.
Pearse is, without question, the most interesting of the rebel leaders. Born in Dublin in 1879, to a free-thinking radical English father and a soft-spoken Irish mother, by the time of his death at the age of thirty-seven he was already responsible for the setting up a bilingual school in south Co Dublin, had briefly practised as a lawyer, had written poetry and plays in the Irish language and edited the Irish language newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis. In the last few years of his life his nationalist convictions transformed him into a revolutionary and he was a chief organiser of the 1916 Rising. He is still seen, by many, as the public face or perhaps defining personality of the rising.
Pearse was also a painfully shy man to the point of being intensely socially awkward, his sexuality is still a question of debate and the violence of his rhetoric has alienated many. Unfortunately, very little of Pearse’s personality comes out in this new book.
The book is 280 pages long, only forty of which are dedicated to Pearse’s life from 1879 to 1910. O’Donnell devotes considerable attention to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the events leading up to the Rising and the fighting during the Rising. However, little attention is paid to Pearse’s childhood, his college career, his work with the Gaelic League, or crucially the setting up of St Enda’s. O’Donnell is an expert on Irish republicanism, particularly the Irish republican diaspora in America and indeed further afield, and he brings a particular focus to bear on Pearse’s trip to America in 1914 for instance. Given this expertise he might perhaps have been better suited to write the biography of Tom Clarke. Clarke was involved in the Fenian dynamiting campaign in the 1880s in England and spent years in prison before going to America, where he worked with American Fenian organisation Clan na Gael. He was sent back to Ireland by the Clan to revitalise the IRB. His life was almost entirely devoted to the IRB so he might have been the perfect fit for O’Donnell.
The book serves as an introduction to Pearse and is a useful account of the actions of the various participants but it cannot be considered the “definitive biography” as the blurb would have us believe. The series itself is labelled as “informative, authoritative, accessible”. I am a strong believer in accessible history but this cannot be at the expense of recognition of other scholarly work on Pearse. Previous meticulously detailed biographies of Pearse by Ruth Dudley Edwards and Joost Augusteijn are only cited once. Other works on the events leading up to the rising and the cultural activities of those responsible for the rising by, among others, Roy Foster, Brian Crowley, Charles Townshend, Fearghal McGarry and Michael Laffan are not cited at all. Perhaps David Fitzpatrick’s biography of Harry Boland, in which the pre-1916 IRB features strongly, might have been of interest to O’Donnell. Elaine Sisson’s analysis of St Enda’s is also not mentioned; neither is JJ Lee’s fascinating analysis of Pearse’s written work. Instead O’Donnell relies heavily on oral testimony given to the Bureau of Military History Statements and other oral testimony, such as in Uinsean MacEoin’s Survivors. As a result there is little in the way of context and much of the book reads as republican veterans’ memories of events leading up to the rising and the rising itself. In O’Donnell’s account, Pearse does not even seem to have a central role: at times he struggles to even include him in the narrative. Indeed the book reads more as a history of the rising from the perspective of the rebels than as a biography of Pearse.
Much of the analysis leaves something to be desired. For instance in 1907 Pearse published Íosagán agus Sgéalta Eile which O’Donnell describes as “a compact book of ten stories in vernacular Irish regarding life in the west of Ireland” and leaves it at that. He is clearly drawn more to political history but this is sadly at the expense of Pearse’s considerable cultural output. Likewise, little attention is paid to the setting up and the truly unique nature of St Enda’s. It may simply be the case that, perhaps, the Pearse biography should have been written by a historian with the Irish language
In relation to Pearse’s personal life, O’Donnell writes that he was “not known” to have any romantic relationships. This is his last word on the subject and ignores the homoerotic aspect of some of his poetry – “Little lad of the tricks” comes to mind. Augusteijn and Dudley Edwards took on this aspect of Pearse’s life; why should O’Donnell not? The close relationship he had with his family, particularly his brother Willie, is also sadly not explored.
O’Donnell uses some language that perhaps should be re-examined. For instance, supporters of home rule are described as “Empire Loyalists”. Considering the time and effort put in by men like John Dillon to achieve some form of Irish autonomy this seems vindictive and narrow-minded. Individuals in the Volunteers who tried to prevent the rising such as Bulmer Hobson and Eoin MacNeill are vilified, despite the fact that Pearse himself accepted MacNeill’s position.
Unionist reaction to the home rule movement is described as being the product of “powerful elements” in Britain and Ireland rather than the mass movement it was. The “powerful elements”, meaning the Conservative Party, were certainly happy to see the emergence of Ulster unionism and were eager supporters and funders. Surely though if Ulster unionism was only the product of these “powerful elements” it would have gone away by now. The idea that unionism was an artificial creation of British Conservative duplicity is an old-fashioned nationalist myth that has no place in modern historiography. Later O’Donnell refers to “the bizarre option of partitioning an island nation”. Most people now, after thirty years of violence, recognise partition not as a “bizarre” option but a sad necessity or a simple fact of life. It seems unfortunate that in 2016 the validity of unionist opposition to a united Ireland or even the simple existence of Ulster unionism at all is not recognised by some.
Nonetheless, O’Donnell skilfully puts Dublin Metropolitan Police records on republican activists to good use, his account of the fighting in O’Connell Street is exciting and a particularly vivid account of the retreat by the GPO garrison into Moore Street is provided.
O’Donnell is a talented and a very passionate historian but it is sad that in 2016 a more comprehensive account of one of Irish history’s most important figures was not produced.
Thomas Fitzgerald is an Irish Research Council research fellow at Trinity College Dublin.