Introduction’Yet William Pearse has been sometimes pronounced a victim of circumstance rather than a victim of destiny or a victim of conviction. It has been taken for granted too readily that he followed his brother […] but there the matter ends. The matter neither ends nor begins there.’
Willie Pearse led a rich and varied life in the years before his execution by firing squad on 4 May 1916. He helped run the family stone-carving firm and was a language activist, a sculptor, an actor, the chairman of a Students’ Union, and a teacher before becoming a revolutionary. Yet if Willie is mentioned at all it is usually in relation to his brother Patrick, whose key role in the 1916 Rising made him one of the best-known and most contested figures in Irish history. Willie is seen as having played only a minor role in the Rising as his brother’s right-hand man; his execution was particularly controversial and has in some ways become the defining moment of his life. Often portrayed as having drifted into revolution in Patrick’s trail, and dying, if not for his brother, then under his influence, Willie has become an afterthought; a shy, gentle shadow of his dynamic sibling.
In addition to the common perception that Willie’s story was a peripheral one, a lack of obvious source material may also have been an obstacle for potential biographers. Although there have been a number of short biographical accounts of the younger Pearse brother, his story has never been documented or discussed in detail. Almost a century after his death, this is the first attempt at a substantial biography of Willie Pearse.
Ironically, it is perhaps the relative neglect of Willie and his achievements that offers the most compelling invitation to investigate his life. Willie Pearse’s life is not overshadowed by the hagiography or moralising that has so often skewed discussion of the motivations and achievements of Patrick and his fellow signatories to the 1916 Proclamation.
A detailed examination of Willie’s life can allow us to revisit an exciting and turbulent period of Irish history from a different angle, on a more intimate canvas. Willie’s cultural and political journey is in itself a fascinating one, more nuanced than is commonly acknowledged. An exploration of his life also takes us on a path less trodden into the rich cultural world of Dublin at the beginning of the twentieth century. Such an examination offers a fresh perspective on the artistic and political movements of Willie’s time, and on some of the major and minor players in a crucial period of Irish history. Professor John Turpin has noted the (relative) critical neglect of the influence of the art world on aspects of Irish nationalism. It is hoped that this book will encourage others to examine this topic further, to reflect on the responses of art and artists to the Gaelic Revival, and to revisit other lesser known strands of cultural life in the pre-revolutionary period. It may also provide impetus for a comprehensive assessment of Willie’s sculptural work.