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Home Uncategorized Patrick Pearse Predicts the Future

Patrick Pearse Predicts the Future

Bryan Fanning

On August 4th, 1906, in An Claidheamh Soluis, which translates as the sword of light (or light sabre), Patrick Pearse wrote a piece in English imagining the Ireland of 2006. He was dozing one evening in his garden when the postman arrived, laid a bundle of letters and papers on the table and saluted him. “You have Irish?” Pearse replied. He had not known that any of the local post office staff spoke Irish. “To be sure I have, Sir,” the postman replied with a note of surprise in his voice. “If I hadn’t it’s a small chance I’d have of my present job.” This was the first sign that there was something was amiss, or all too right. Pearse took the postman’s remark as a piece of sarcasm but then he noticed the man’s uniform. It was a very neat dark green. On the collar in small letters of white metal was the cryptic inscription P na hE. It stood for Post na hÉireann, the postman explained with a note of surprise as he departed.

The narrator turned to his bundle of post. Every item was addressed in Irish. The familiar pencilled translation into English of Irish addresses was absent. The postmarks too were in Irish. Puzzled, he picked up a copy of An Claidheamh Soluis from the bundle. It was larger than usual. Every word was in Irish. Advertisements and all! An Claidheamh was now a daily broadsheet. The issue in his hand was dated August 4th, 2006. Fearing this was a dream he wasted no time in gleaning as much about twenty-first century Ireland as possible.

One article announced the opening of the Oireachtas (Parliament) by the Ard-Rí (High King) at a ceremony to be attended by the Emperor of the French and the President of the Russian Republic. There would be a royal procession from the Palace of the Nation ‑ dignitaries followed by detachments of the National Guard (Fianna Éireann in Irish) and the Boy-Corps of the Palace down Sráid Dhomhnaill Uí Chonnail (Daniel O’Connell Street) and across O’Connell Bridge. The ministries and other public buildings along the route would be decorated. There was no mention of the General Post Office. Dignitaries in the procession would include the president and officers of the Gaelic League, the adjudicator and officials of the Oireachtas, members of the Irish Academy and the Bards in their robes. When the procession reached the Hyde monument in Plas an Chraoibhín the Herald of Ireland would proclaim the Peace of the Gaels. The Bard of Ireland would invoke the spirit of Gaelic Thought and Imagination and the Ard Rí would declare Oireachtas in session. The National Hymn would be intoned.

Another article described dramatic changes in climate and to the environment:

It must be remembered that ‑ as a result of the draining of the bogs and the re-forestation of the country – the temperature of Ireland has risen several degrees within the last century; which explains why it is now possible for us to hold nearly all our gatherings, whether for business or for pleasure, in the open air. We who are used to a Baile Atha Cliath of shady boulevards and open-air cafes can hardly realise that our city had neither boulevards nor cafes in 1906. People then paraded sun-baked streets in summer and ploughed their way through sludge in winter; whilst they resorted for “refreshment” to evil-smelling dens known as “public-houses”, which no decent woman would enter.

Pearse then turned to the parliamentary column, which reported a debate about a Bill for the compulsory teaching of Japanese as a second language in seaport towns and cities. This reflected the growing importance of Japanese as a commercial world language. The Minister of Education opposed the Bill, recalling that it was once maintained that English would become the dominant world language when it was now only spoken by a few peasants in Somersetshire. How had this come about? The conquest of England by the Russian republic and the splitting up of the British Empire into independent kingdoms and republics soon destroyed the commercial value of English. It had never been a valuable language in intellectual terms. An Claidheamh Soluis described the language policy of the Irish state as based on two longstanding principles. Every child had a right to be taught its own mother tongue. Every child ought to learn in addition at least one other language:

Almost the first act of the Revolutionary Government of 19– (the figure was unfortunately blotted) had been to establish a national education system embodying the two principles he had referred to. Under that system Irish was regarded as the vernacular or “first language” over one-third of the total area of the country, English being regarded as the vernacular over the remaining two-thirds. In the first-named area English, French, or German was taught as a “second language”; in the other, Irish was the “second language” almost universally adopted, though a few schools, chiefly in the northeast, adhered to French or German for a few years. Irish, as they were aware, rapidly extended its vernacular area, with the result that, in a generation and a half, it completely ousted English as “first language”.

This collapse of Britain had provided the impetus for the abandonment of English as a second language in Ireland in all but three schools, two in Belfast and one in Rathmines. The parliamentary report recorded that there had been laughter as this was noted by the Minister of Education. Policy in 2006 was for the teaching of no compulsory second languages. The same imagined 2006 article also noted a review of a history of the National University: “founded by public subscription in 1911, ‑ before the War of revolution, in which, by the way, its students played a prominent part”.

Pearse imagined this twenty-first century Ireland several years before he became a self-appointed prophet of revolutionary blood sacrifice nationalism. My aim here is to consider the kind of material future Pearse had imagined Ireland might have in isolation, insofar as this is feasible, from what his former pupil, secretary, 1916 Rising comrade and biographer Desmond Ryan described in his 1934 memoir Remembering Sion as the frequent harking on bloodshed that became monotonous in his speeches, “with an almost sinister frequency towards the end”. Pearse was born in 1879. He joined the Gaelic League when he was sixteen years old and moved quickly up its ranks. In 1903 he became the editor of An Claidheamh Soluis, its newspaper. In 1909 he founded St Enda’s, his school for boys. He came to political nationalism only in the last few years of his life.

In various Claidheamh editorials Pearse insisted on the primary importance of the Gaelic revival over all other kinds of “national work”. For example, on August 27th, 1904 he wrote:

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, Irish art, Irish dancing, Irish games and customs, Irish industries, Irish politics – all these are worthy objects. Not one of them, however can be said to be fundamental.
When Ireland’s language is established, her own distinctive culture is assured … All phases of a nation’s life will most assuredly adjust themselves on national lines as best suited to the national character is safeguarded by its strongest bulwark.

In his later writings Pearse played John the Baptist to what he envisaged as his own Christ-like martyrdom for the cause of Irish Freedom. But freedom to do what? Nationalists of Pearse’s generation pursued a Gaelic linguistic revival to make the case for Irish political autonomy and imagined that Home Rule would provide a means of securing the Gaelic revival: “To some it held out the delightful prospect of Orange boys and Orange girls being forced to learn Irish”, he wrote in his 1912 essay The Murder Machine: “To others it meant the dawn of an era of commonsense, the ushering in of the reign of a ‘sound modern education’ suitable to the needs of a progressive modern people.” If the former was “delightful” the latter appalled him.

The Murder Machine set out Pearse’s pedagogical vision, honed as the headmaster of St Enda’s, the experimental school he founded in 1909 after he stepped down as editor of An Claidhmeamh Soluis. He attacked Ireland’s “filthy” utilitarian education system, “a lifeless thing without a soul”, that aimed to turn men and women into “mere Things” for sale. Education had come to be conceived of as some sort of manufacturing process for turning out citizens according to certain approved patterns. The example he gave focused on the moulding of middle class Catholic children, for only a very small percentage of children attended secondary schools at the time:

Our children are the ‘raw material’; we desiderate for their education ‘modern methods’ which must be ‘efficient’ but ‘cheap’; we send them to Clongowes to be ‘Finished’; when ‘finished’ they are ‘turned out’; specialists ‘grind’ them for the English Civil Service and the so-called liberal professions, in each of our great colleges there is a department known as the ‘scrapheap,’ though officially called the Fourth Preparatory ‑ the limbo to which the debris ejected by the machine is relegated.

Pearse had never been sent to Clongowes, the elite Catholic school founded by the Jesuits to which Irish Party leaders sent their sons, though he was an external examiner in Irish history for the school. He attended the middle class Westland Row Christian Brothers school in Dublin. The “murder machine” Pearse railed against took its raw material and remoulded or ejected it “with all the likeness of its former self crushed from it”. The actual school he attended prepared him for formal examinations by sticking to the curriculum and pushing pupils to learn every subject by rote. But the machine, as his biographer Ruth Dudley Edwards put it, “did not eject Pearse. He was an intelligent, exceptionally industrious boy, who adapted successfully to the system, whatever his later reservations.” After he completed his Intermediate examinations at the age of sixteen, the school employed him as an Irish teacher.

What was being “murdered”, Pearse claimed in 1913, was the spirituality, as he saw it, of the Irish nation. The “murder machine” was at once an instrument of British policy and, even more pernicious, an instrument of progress. A section of the essay was headed “Against Modernism”. Never averse to hyperbole, Pearse claimed that the old Irish, “two thousand years ago”, had the best and noblest education system ever known among men. Here he meant the schools described in the legends of Cuchulainn. In his lectures and essays he was, as his friend Joseph Holloway put it, “indiscriminately eulogistic to absurdity” about the literary merits of the Gaelic sagas that he came to treat as history. As put by Ruth Dudley Edwards:

No modern historian would assert that these stories were other than fables, but pioneering Irish historians in the previous three centuries, including Keating, O’Donovan and O’Curry, believed them to be authentic. By 1900, the attentions of continental scholars had been turned on Irish literature and severe blows had been struck at the acceptance of stories of figures like Finn as historical fact. Pearse had read these modern scholars, but could not bring himself into line with their findings. He arraigned himself uncompromisingly alongside the ‘euhemeristic’ historians – those who treated supernatural beings as real historical characters.

The purpose of Pearse’s mash-up of myth and history, of mythic ancient Ireland, of the uncertain history of early Christian Ireland, of a sentimentalised pre-seventeenth century Gaelic aristocratic Ireland and of chauvinistic accounts of post-1798 patriot movements, was to provide a pantheon of Irish heroes to inspire the youth of twentieth century Ireland to patriotic sacrifice:

If our schools would set themselves that task, the task of fostering once again knightly courage and strength and truth – that type of efficiency rather than the peculiar type of efficiency demanded by the English Civil Service ‑ we should have the beginnings of an educational system. And what an appeal an Irish school system might have! What a rallying cry an Irish Minister of Education might give to young Ireland! When we were starting St. Enda’s I said to my boys: We must re-create and perpetuate in Ireland the knightly tradition of Cuchulainn, ‘better is a short life with honour than a long life with dishonour.’; ‘I care not if I were to live my life but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me’; the noble tradition of the Fianna, ‘we the Fianna, never told a lie, falsehood was never imputed to us’; ‘strength in our hands, truth on our lips, and cleanness in our hearts’; the Christ-like tradition of Colmcille ‘if I die it shall be from the excess of love I bear the Gael.’ And to that antique evangel should be added the evangels of later days: the stories of Red Hugh and Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet and John Mitchel and O’Donovan Rossa and Eoghan O’Growney. I have seen Irish boys and girls moved inexpressibly by the story of Emmet or the story of Anne Devlin, and I have always felt it to be legitimate to make use for educational purposes of an exaltation so produced.

Colmcille’s love for the Gael, The Murder Machine had approvingly declared a few pages earlier, had been “so excessive as to annihilate all thought of self, a recognition that one must give all, must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice”. Teachers had to be capable of so inspiring their pupils. For “so priest-like an office” nothing less than “the highest souls and noblest intellects of the race” would do. In The Murder Machine he likened his ideal schoolmasters to Christ, their pupils to Christ’s disciples.

Pearse described his ideal school as a “child republic” but the kind of freedom he proposed for teachers suggested an authoritarian system where they determined what their pupils needed to learn. St Enda’s had boy officials elected by the pupils themselves but these seem to have been invested with less responsibility than was usual in the prefect system operated by British public schools. James Larkin sent his three sons there. Pearse took them in following the Dublin Lockout in 1913. Larkin’s son Jim, in his memoir In the Footsteps of Big Jim (1995), recalled the regime in the school as strict, living conditions as spartan, the food as scarce and the heating as deliberately minimal during winter. The belief was that the boys should keep themselves warm through exercise. None of this is to suggest that St Enda’s operated an especially harsh regime by the standards of the time.

As an essay, The Murder Machine operated on two registers. Beneath the thicket of Pearse’s overstated, exaggerated, extravagant and hyperbolic prose (this barrage of synonyms is warranted) there was some consideration about what might be feasible. The case he made for educational reform, he declared, was no more than “a plea for freedom within the law”. Teachers ought to be free to decide what their pupils needed to learn and not be required to submit to the stultifying uniformity of a state examination system. In a future independent Ireland, under an Irish Minister for Education the education system would be drawn into “a homogenous whole” that included Ulster. Pearse advocated a bilingual school system. Ireland was six-sevenths English-speaking, with an Irish-speaking seventh. Irish nationalists would restore Irish as a vernacular to the English-speaking six-sevenths and would establish Irish as the national language of a free Ireland. Irish would be language of instruction in the Irish speaking one-seventh with English taught as a second language. But where English was the home language it must of necessity be the “first language in schools”. In such cases Irish would be a compulsory “second language” but it would be used as a medium of instruction from the outset.

Pearse called for an Ireland, “not merely free but Gaelic as well”. By those criteria, Conor Cruise O’Brien pithily observed in “The Embers of Easter”, an April 7th, 1966 Irish Times essay on the legacies of the 1916 Rising, it came to be 75 per cent free and 0.6 per cent Gaelic, well down from the one-seventh Pearse estimated it to be in 1912. The Irish state that fell short of the republic Pearse proclaimed in 1916 banished him to the margins of its own national pageants, even as his image came to be commemorated on postage stamps and street names. The 1916 Proclamation declared the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and poignantly declared that all children of the nation would be cherished equally. Pearse never presented convincing arguments as to how the revolution he advocated might realise such social goals.

In his October 1913 “From a Hermitage”essay, the Hermitage being the estate where St Enda’s was situated, he pondered the prevalence of poverty and hunger in Dublin. He described himself as not smarting under any burning personal wrong (other than belonging to an enslaved nation). He calculated that one-third of the people of Dublin were underfed; that half the children attending Irish primary schools were undernourished, that twenty thousand Dublin families lived in one-room tenements, yet he could not quite bring himself to agree with James Larkin’s “unwise” methods of addressing such hideous wrongs. The root of the problem he insisted in October 1913 lay in foreign domination, not ruthless capitalism.

His response to such inequalities was to assert that Ireland was capable of feeding twenty million, that a free Ireland would drain the bogs, would harness the rivers, nationalise the railways and would promote commerce. This echoed his sketch of twenty-first century Ireland set out in 1906 in An Claidheamh Soluis where all social problems had evidently disappeared by 2006, where everyone spoke Irish, where the Irish had stopped drinking and where even the climate had improved, all because Ireland had become free.

The widespread view was that Pearse was “a spinner of phrases without a practical spark in him”, an accusation that Desmond Ryan tried with difficulty to defend him from in his 1924 book The Man Called Pearse. Ryan was the editor of Pearse’s works, including his political writings and an account of his work at St Enda’s, The Story of A Success. This was comprised of a series of articles from An Machoamh (The Youth), the school magazine edited by Pearse. Parts of The Story of a Success – various phrases, sentences and arguments ‑ were reworked into in The Murder Machine, although the tone of both texts was, for the most part, quite different. Where The Murder Machine mostly denounced what he was against, “The Story of a Success” described what Pearse hoped to achieve at St Enda’s. He took pride in the pedigree of pupils that the school attracted.

I admit that our opportunities were unique. In no other school in Ireland can there be, in proportion to its size, so much of the stuff out of which men and nations are made. There is hardly a boy of all our seventy who does not come from a home which has traditions of literary, scholarly or political service.

Denis Gwynn, son of the Irish Party MP Stephen Gwynn, was described by Pearse as gallant and noble in the Cuchulainn pageant put on by the school in 1909. Pearse hoped the boys would remain under Cuchulainn’s spell, but Gwynn served in the British army on the Western Front rather than in the GPO and became a notable academic critic of the physical force nationalism professed by Pearse. Other past-pupils went on be part of independent Ireland’s great and good and a number, like Kenneth Reddin, who became a judge in 1922, took the side of the Free State in the Civil War against those uncompromising republicans who saw themselves as Pearse’s sucessors. Joseph Sweeney, a Donegal pupil, who was elected as a Sinn Féin TD there in 1920, was one of a number of what Pearse styled the Boy-Corps of St Enda’s, who joined the 1916 Rising as runners. He later became a major-general in the Army. Pearse sought to produce a new elite filled, as he put it in the Christmas 1910 issue of An Machaomh, with the spirit that sent Robert Emmet with a smiling face to the gibbet. In this he was only partly successful.

His target in The Murder Machine was the state, with its emphasis on exams and standardised curriculum. He argued that monopoly control of public examinations in secondary schools, exercised since the Intermediate Education Act of 1898, gave the state virtual control of the secondary curriculum. But the schools themselves were overwhelmingly Church-owned and run. Pearse for the most part ignored the elephant in the room that was the denominational school system, though he referred twice to the complicity of the Church “in running the murder machine”. There was the already mentioned reference to the Jesuit-run secondary school Clongowes and a passing one to the role of the Catholic Church in maintaining “a portion of the machinery”. An intense battle for the control of education for Catholics had been decisively won by the Church during the second half of the nineteenth century. The mass expansion of the primary school system had been organised by dedicated teaching orders such as the Christian Brothers. There were few private schools ‑ what in England were called public schools ‑ where pedagogical innovation might take place at the discretion of a head teacher. Pearse’s educational vision floundered to some extent for the want of a more English school system and to a greater extent in the face of Catholic educational ideals which were no less intensely pursued in Church-run schools than those of Pearse at St Enda’s.

During his years as editor of An Claidheamh Soluis Pearse clashed with the Catholic Church over what he saw was inadequate support for the Irish language from the hierarchy, who did not support making Gaelic mandatory in seminaries. Pearse being Pearse, his criticism was intemperate. He was a cultural nationalist first and a Catholic only in far second place. His personal mythic structure incorporated Christ alongside Cuchulainn into an idea of sacrifice for nation. His 1906 vision of Ireland’s future in An Claidheamh Soluis cut the Church out of the picture. The culmination of Pearse’s imaginary 2006 procession of poets in priestly robes was the invocation of the “spirit of Gaelic Thought and Imagination” ‑ a Geist not Christ ‑ of a nation in worship of itself.

Such thinking was anathema to many Irish Catholic intellectuals of his time and the Catholic clergy who dominated education after his death. For example, a number of articles in the Jesuit periodical Studies in 1915 attacked the German equivalent of what Pearse advocated in The Murder Machine: a Kultur of state, nation and Volk idolisation manufactured in school and camp. The Church was clear that the duty of schools was “to train children to love and fear God”. Seminaries and Catholic secondary schools of the time described themselves as in the business of recruiting soldiers for Christ. Pearse had no monopoly in martial language. But other Irish schools did not put Cuchulainn on a par with Christ.

After independence the government sought to gaelicise education, along the lines advocated by Pearse in the few passages of The Murder Machine that made specific policy proposals, but there was no impetus to follow Pearse’s pedagogical programme. Pearse had made a serious study of educational innovations in other European countries, especially Belgium, which had developed a bilingual school system. He disapproved of corporal punishment and of learning by rote. The Christian Brothers might have venerated Pearse but the main pedagogical tool of many poorly-educated Brothers was the leather strap. Their schools were variously aimed at building the Catholic professional middle class, recruiting more Christian Brothers, ordering the lives of the poorer classes and warehousing unwanted and vulnerable children on behalf of the state.

Pearse idealised the surviving remnants of the Irish-speaking peasantry of Connacht, where he went to learn and practise his Irish but had little understanding of the poverty that forced many to learn English in order to be able to find employment in Ireland or emigrate. The folk tales they recounted to visiting writers and Gaelic students made them conduits to Ireland’s mythic past. As Ruth Dudley Edwards put it, after giving a number of examples of his incomprehension of the difficulties of their everyday lives: “To him they were the repository of the noble tradition of the Gael, and it bewildered him that they did not find complete satisfaction in the fulfilment of this sacred duty.” The economic pressures upon Irish-speaking communities continued in the generations following Pearse’s death despite government assistance for Gaeltacht areas.

For most of the hundreds of thousands of Irish children obliged to study Irish all though their primary and secondary education, the language did not take. It had no utilitarian purpose except to secure state jobs and positions in teacher training colleges. The majority of pupils did not use Irish in their homes. The teaching of Irish was often bad and was hampered intellectually by the small range and volume of available literature compared to thriving European languages such as English, French or German. Simply put there was not just enough great stuff to read. Eighteen-year-old James Joyce briefly attended Irish classes given by the twenty-year-old Pearse at University College but seems to have been put off by the experience. Joyce gave up his Irish lessons, according to his biographer Richard Ellman, because Pearse found it necessary to exalt Irish by denigrating the English language. The Irish literature upon which Pearse heaped hyperbole was mostly mediaeval and while there was nothing wrong with that it was hardly made for twentieth century audiences. In a 1913 essay, “Some Aspects of Irish Literature”, published in Studies, Pearse asserted (a key word in his lexicon) that the Táin was greater than the Iliad, that the story of Diarmuid and Grainne was more psychologically acute than Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler, but found few if any takers for such claims. Pearse and other revivalists wrote stories, plays and poems for modern audiences. Irish-language literature found its niche, but a recurring feature of debates about the future of the language after independence was that these, of necessity, took place in English. The free Irish people mostly chose to read novels and newspapers in English. Writers as different as Canon Sheehan, Frank O’Connor, James Joyce, John McGahern and Maeve Binchy all wrote about what it was to be Irish in English. People went to the cinema where English became, once the talkies arrived, the language of romance and adventure. The great-grandchildren of the revolution are most likely to know more about The Lord of the Rings than The Táin.


Quotations from The Murder Machine, Desmond Ryan (ed.) Collected Works of Pádraic H. Pearse: Political Writings and Speeches, (Phoenix Publishing Company, 1917 facimile) pp 7-10, p. 16, p 23, p 25, p 39, pp 45-7, Quotations from “From a Hermitage”, ibid, p 178-81. Also see Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure ( Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006), p 13, p 29, p 38, p 53, Desmond Ryan and The Man Called Pearse by Desmond Ryan) (Dublin: Phoenix, 1924),p 132.

Professor Bryan Fanning is the Head of the School of Applied Social Science at UCD. His books include “The Quest for Modern Ireland: The Battle of Ideas 1912-1986″ and “Racism and Social Change in the Republic of Ireland”.




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