In review: Joost Augusteijn on Patrick Pearse
Patrick Pearse has not been very well-served by biographies. Louis Le Roux’s life of Pearse in the 1930s was too weighed towards the hagiographic and Ruth Dudley Edwards’ 1977 effort was towards the revisionist hatchet-job end of the scale. Sean Farrell Moran’s attempt to look into Pearse’s mind was simply bizarre and told us more about the peculiar workings of Moran’s own mind than it did about the 1916 leader. Brian Murphy’s Patrick Pearse and the lost Republican Ideal (1991) is excellent, but not a biography.
Augusteijn’s book is the first new bio of Pearse in over 30 years and stands head and shoulders above Edwards despite her haughty – and, frankly, ridiculous – claim in the 2006 reprint of her hatchet job that no revision was needed because “little new material has appeared since 1977 and subsequent books and articles on Pearse have been tangential.” (Perhaps this sort of approach is what Roy Foster was talking about when he described the revisionists’ approach as “iconoclastic”.)
Augusteijn has utilised not only previously available wider sources than Edwards, including the very important Bureau of Military History archives which became available in 2003, but he has also followed up more recent contributions by the curators of the Pearse Museum. In addition, material on Pearse collected in the 1940s by judge Michael Lennon was put his way.
For decades now, Pearse has been a particular target of the professional anti-republicans. He has been portrayed as an ultra-Catholic nationalist and the inspirer of the confessional state in the south, a perverted personality driven by blood lust and even a child molester. The assault on Pearse by the well-rewarded prettifiers of the role of British imperialism in Ireland seemed to have no limits. Open season on Pearse allowed the most derogatory and lurid claims, usually unencumbered by evidence, to be made.
It always struck me that the sheer intensity of the venom directed at Pearse was about two things. The most venomous were those writers who seemed to hate having been born Irish and who not only wished they were English but even adopted fake-posh English mannerisms, accents and patterns of thought. They hated Pearse for being an Irish patriot and for dedicating his life to causes that, far from making a penny, cost him every penny he had and, eventually, his life. His life was an indictment of theirs. The other thing I thought the anti-Pearse venom was about was James Connolly. Connolly was a very hard target for the revisionists but any anti-republican project had to take him on, otherwise his participation in the Rising tended to legitimise the rebellion. If the Rising and Pearse could be discredited, then Connolly too would fall due to his association with them.
The assault on Pearse by the professional anti-republicans and pro-imperialists, along with Augusteijn’s past association with these revisionists meant that it was with some trepidation that I approached this book. What a surprise and what a pleasure, therefore, to find that this is revisionist only in the best sense of the word. It builds on significant new information and lines of inquiry ignored by the likes of Ms Edwards and thereby expands our knowledge and understanding of Mac Piarais the human being and Mac Piarais the revolutionary.
Augusteijn’s work, moreover, is not simply biography. It’s a political biography in the sense that it engages with the development of Pearse’s thought on cultural, educational and political questions. Pearse’s life lends itself particularly well to a series of thematic chapters – the cultural nationalist, the educationalist, the political figure, the revolutionary – because it actually moved fairly chronologically through these phases.
Augusteijn begins with Pearse the person. One of the most gratifying aspects of this section is the attention paid to Pearse’s father, James. I had been very surprised in the 1980s reading, I think it was in Le Roux, that James Pearse was not only English but also a free-thinker, since the anti-republican discourse gave the impression that Pearse’s familial influences were all devoutly Catholic from his maternal side. Reading in Le Roux about James Pearse, it struck me all those years ago that Patrick’s own progressive social thinking was closer to an English free-thinker in many ways than to conservative, rural, holy Catholic nationalist ideas. Moreover, Pearse the son was clearly an Irish republican, not a Catholic nationalist.
Augusteijn provides more detail on James Pearse, noting that he was a strong supporter of the radical English MP Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh was himself a republican in the English sense, advocated contraception, universal suffrage, the breaking up of landed estates and the end of the British empire. He had even helped draft the Fenians’ 1867 manifesto. In 1880, he was excluded from the British parliament for refusing to pledge allegiance to the monarch and the Christian god. James Pearse’s father and brother in Birmingham also supported Bradlaugh. Patrick Pearse visited his Birmingham relations and they Dublin. In Ireland, James Pearse was a supporter of Parnell, an admirer of Davitt and attempted at one point to help organise Protestant support for home rule. (Pearse the father appears to have been an atheist.)
The section on Pearse the person gives us, as Brian Crowley notes, “a figure who is more complex and ultimately more human.” I d, however, have one reservation about an otherwise very well-rounded picture of Pearse as a human being and that is Augusteijn’s treatment of whether Pearse was a child molester. Unlike the professional anti-republicans whose practice is to throw as much mud at Pearse as possible in the hope that some of it might not get washed off by better historians and political activists, Augusteijn’s position is more contradictory. On the one hand, he points out that there is no solid evidence for this claim and warns against making twenty-first century readings of some of Pearse’s rather naive writings and actions. So far, so good. But instead of leaving it there, he makes an odd leap saying that “it seems most probable” that Pearse was inclined to paedophilia, regardless of whether this proclivity was latent or active. Eh, where is the conclusive evidence? Even more oddly – to me anyway – Augusteijn, having wrapped up that discussion with a conclusion for which he has already admitted there is no real evidence, then calmly returns to the course of Pearse’s life!
The following section of the book is an examination of Pearse the cultural nationalist. It begins with a Pearse quote that Gaelicism is the birthright of all people in Ireland, regardless of their religious or political identity. It’s a useful reminder of how Pearse, while personally devoutly Catholic, was not a Catholic nationalist but was devoutly non-sectarian right from the start. Augusteijn notes that Pearse was never involved in Catholic Church activities and never brotherly much about religious obligation; rather he felt a deeper spirituality more akin to that found in pagan legends.
Pearse was also sympathetic to the pan-Celtic movement, which was vigorously opposed by Catholic nationalists within the Gaelic League. The Catholic nationalists actually wanted Pearse expelled and An Claidheamh Soluis, the League’s paper, which Pearse became the editor of in 1903, replaced by D.P. Moran’s Catholic weekly (they failed on both accounts).
Pearse, Augusteijn shows, was never a dabbler. When he decided to learn Irish he spent a substantial amount of time in Galway developing his knowledge of and ability to speak the language. He threw himself into the Gaelic League and was co-opted onto the executive in October 1898, when he was still only 19; and five years later he was the editor of ACS. When he won the editorship it was partly with the strong backing of women in the League. In turn, when the new National University was set up, Pearse strongly criticised the lack of women on its board, argued there should be a large number of women on the board, that women be eligible for professional chairs and that “some of the male deadheads” make way for “female brains and educational achievement” (Pearse cited by Augusteijn, p116). Pearse even made some approaches to try to establish an Irish journalists’ union (p111).
Moreover, although you certainly wouldn’t know it from the professional anti-republicans’ picture of Pearse, both he and the League were advocates of bilingualism, not of replacing the English language in Ireland with Irish.
While Pearse initially tended to elevate old Irish literature without too many concerns about quality, one of the most valuable contributions of Augusteijn’s book is to show how cosmopolitan Pearse was. Thus his literary views shifted; whereas early on he had attacked people like Yeats for attempting to create a modern Irish literature in English, he reappraised their work and came to rate it highly. (Indeed, even when he first embraced old Irish literature at age 17, Pearse still liberally recited Shakespeare, regarded Kipling as a fine poet, and supported bilingualism.) Over time differences opened up between Pearse and old Irish literature purists. Augusteijn notes, “By 1904 Patrick still celebrated old Irish literature and prose like the nativists did, but unlike them he now also believed it was necessary to develop a modern literature in Irish which would use contemporary forms and thus lead Ireland away from what he saw as the Anglicised backwaters into the European mainstream” (p84). He also cites Pearse saying, “We would love the problems of today fearlessly dealt with in Irish: the loves and hates and desires and doubts of modern men and women” (p93). Pearse also “promoted the learning of European languages and wanted to re-establish connections with Europe and its writings” (p84).
This is fascinating, not least because the professional anti-Pearse brigade simplistically (and, frequently, downright mischievously) interpret anything critical of English culture by Pearse as a sign of hostility to modernity, as if England was the sole model of modernity. What is revealed here, thanks to Augusteijn, is their tendency to solipsism and Pearse’s tendency to embrace modernity. (Indeed, J.J. Lee rightly pointed out many years ago that the young IRB element in the 1916 leadership were modernising intellectuals and not backward-looking Catholic nationalists.)
Moreover, as editor, Pearse developed the English-language side of ACS, stood up to the bishops and defended J.O. Hannay, a Protestant clergyman and Gaelic League executive member who had come under attack for several books deemed by his critics to be anti-clerical.
Pearse gave up the editorship at the end of 1909 due to the demands of running St Enda’s. His politics continued to develop in a progressive direction. By May 1912 he was criticising the whole way the Gaelic League had been organised from the start and, subsequently, he wrote increasingly in English. By November 1913 he declared the time of the Gaelic League was past and there was new vital work to be done. In the period between 1908 and 1913, however, in the absence of organisations to do the new work, Pearse had devoted himself to St Enda’s.
In his approach to the school, and to education more generally, Pearse again showed what an innovative modernist and humanist he was. Augusteijn notes, for example, how Pearse drew on the work of the New Education Movement which rejected rote learning by passive pupils. “The pupils (at St Enda’s – PF),” Augusteijn reports, “were also actively involved in the development of the curriculum and the administration of the school” in line with Pearse’s view that a school should be like a “child-republic” (p166). He also explicitly describes Pearse as “a radical democrat and a modernist” and notes how Pearse “also imbued his pupils with socially subversive attitudes” (p169).
While recording that St Enda’s was permeated with traditional Gaelic heroic models, Augusteijn goes beyond the simplistic anti-Pearse brigade’s view of this, noting how this was linked to modernity. Pearse wasn’t training youth to resurrect an ancient Gaelic society, he was helping prepare them for a future free Ireland. Interestingly, Augusteijn also notes that whereas Cuchulainn had been the ideal promoted when the school was based in Cullenswood House, the move to the Hermitage in 1910 saw him replaced by Robert Emmet. Pearse was clearly becoming more explicitly a modernising republican. And, unlike his professional anti-republican critics, he made considerable personal sacrifices for his educational vision and work. He rarely spent money on himself and didn’t draw a salary – “Everything he made was put towards furthering the cause” at St Enda’s (p193).
Although the addition of the girls’ school in January 1911, St Ita’s, expanded the number of pupils to the point where the college was paying for itself, this was not to last. By 1913, pupil numbers had fallen drastically and this continued over the following two years. Pearse’s increasing involvement in political activities from 1913 on drew his energy away from the school. As with the Gaelic League, he appears to have believed the school’s work was essentially done and it was time to move on to more explicitly political activities.
The chapter on Pearse as politician effectively demolishes revisionist portraits of Pearse as being inculcated into some kind of romantic Irish nationalism by women such as his mother’s aunt. Augusteijn meticulously covers Pearse’s political development and shows, instead, that his politicisation was relatively slow and took place over a considerable amount of time. For instance, in the first decade of the 1900s, Pearse was clearly still more concerned with cultural regeneration than politics, let alone Irish republicanism. He supported the Irish Council Bill of 1907, something unusual for an Irish nationalist of any persuasion and in 1912 supported the Liberals’ Home Rule Bill. Augusteijn dates Pearse’s shift towards republicanism to the point when St Enda’s was moved to the Hermitage, with its associations with Emmet. Emmet hadn’t left any sort of literary legacy, and Pearse began reading Tone’s Autobiography and then Mitchel’s Jail Journal. He began attending meetings of the Wolfe Tone Club. In March 1911 the IRB got Pearse to deliver the main oration at the annual Robert Emmet concert in Dublin and later that year the radical labour leader Cathal O’Shannon asked him to deliver a lecture on Emmet in Belfast.
The following year Pearse started Cumann na Saoirse (the Freedom Club), as an organisation in which Irish speakers could discuss opinions and initiate actions, and its paper An Barr Buadh (Trumpet of Victory). While he spoke in support of the Home Rule Bill he also declared that if it was passed it represented simply the undoing of one manacle on a chained prisoner and that it it wasn’t passed then force would have to be used to free Ireland from British rule. In June 1913 he began contributing a column to the IRB paper, Irish Freedom. In it, his shift away from mere nationalism to republicanism became clearer; he also strongly supported the Dublin workers in the great lockout from August 1913-February 1914. His politicisation was then given further impetus with the founding of the Irish Volunteers in late 1913, a step he was heavily involved in. Now he would speak of “the Irish revolution” as being the task of the current generation although, Augusteijn suggests, he had more faith in the Fianna generation carrying out the revolution than those who were already adults. Shortly after the establishment of the Volunteers, Pearse joined the IRB.
In the Volunteers and IRB, Pearse stood on the left, for instance voting against MacNeill’s suggestion to agree to allow 25 John Redmond nominees onto the Volunteers’ leadership, a step which gave the parliamentarians a decisive sway in the organisation and allowed John Redmond to decimate the organisation by leading a chunk of it into the British Army when WW1 began. The approach of war sent the Redmondites into hyper-activity against the radicals in the Irish Volunteers, while MacNeill, Pearse noted, was “weak, hopelessly weak. I knew that all along.” Pearse also noted how MacNeill “never makes a fight except when they (the Redmondites – PF) assail his personal honour, when he bridles up at once.” (MacNeill, of course, would go on to destroy any chance of success the 1916 Rising might have had and then, incredibly, be allowed back into the movement and its leadership, so he could carry out two more major betrayals – voting for the 1921 Treaty and then selling out on the Boundary Commission a few years later! As Connolly put it, the British ruled not just by repression but by fooling and in Irish nationalism they had a great many fools on whom to practise. Constance Markievicz, in contrast to the men who allowed MacNeill back into the leadership, wanted him shot as a traitor after 1916.)
After the Redmondite split took a big majority of the organisation, the radicals reorganised the Irish Volunteers and it grew again. Pearse played a crucial role in its rebuilding and also drew up a plan for guerrilla resistance in the event that the British moved against them. Unfortunately, however, the weakling MacNeill was allowed to remain chief of staff and the treacherous Bulmer Hobson became QMG. In this section Augusteijn looks at some of Pearse’s political contradictions during this period – for instance a tendency to be over-inclusive and failing to see clearly the class divisions in Irish nationalist politics – yet also rightly notes that the lockout and the impact of the war on the Dublin poor were important in drawing Pearse further left. “The most influential development in Patrick’s political thinking in 1915,” he notes, “was his rapprochement with James Connolly” (p267); he also records that the 1913 lockout had led him to read Connolly’s Labour in Irish History and, subsequently, Connolly’s Workers Republic paper. Augusteijn also notes that Pearse, a strong supporter of women’s rights and social advancement, admired Connolly’s position on that issue. Pearse also became more influenced by the views of the leading revolutionary republican thinker of the Young Ireland era admired and promoted by Connolly, Fintan Lalor.
Augusteijn notes, “Patrick supported a number of socialist policies towards the end of his life which put the interest of the people as a whole over the individual, for instance in relation to the common ownership of means of production, distribution and exchange” (p267). At the same time, Pearse had become the most publicly known and popular of the major IRB figures (p268) and was asked to deliver the oration at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, a major coming together of the radical groups of the time (IRB, the workers’ militia of the ICA, the Irish Volunteers, trade unions and advanced nationalists of other sections). Pearse asked Tom Carke how far he should go in the oration and Clarke told him, “As far as you can. Make it as hot as hell, throw all discretion to the winds.” His funeral speech became one of the great orations of Irish history. Following the oration, the Redmondites – nice people – moved to discredit him, by trying to bankrupt him over St Enda’s (p270).
The fifth section of the book focuses on Pearse the Revolutionary. It begins by looking at the differences between Pearse and the IRB and how it was only after the ousting of the older IRB leadership and their replacement by more radical young men, with Tom Clarke as their veteran mentor, that Pearse drew closer, although Clarke remained suspicious of him for some time. Indeed, even when Pearse finally joined the IRB he kept some reservations about it, telling a friend “The IRB is necessary because we must keep our own counsel, but as soon as an Irishman can declare himself a republican openly there should be an end of the IRB” (p282). This was very insightful because, only a few years later, the IRB Supreme Council, the self-appointed guardians of Irish freedom, became its grave-diggers and Collins’ control of the IRB was an important element in cohering the counter-revolution. Pearse’s attitude to the IRB also contrasts to the professional anti-republicans’ presentation of him as someone who loved the drama of cloak-and-dagger conspiracy.
Augusteijn also shows that Pearse and some others in the IRB/IV leadership began thinking of a rising even before WW1 began. Pearse was now playing a pivotal role in both organisations and was elevated to the IRB Supreme Council. At the end of 1915 he also “started clearing the deck intellectually”, as Augusteijn puts it, by writing a series of pamphlets laying out his ideas. Two of these, Ghosts and The Spiritual Nation have strongly metaphysical features and treat Irish nationalism as some kind of timeless, unshifting, divine faith. In fact, they reads quite oddly in the context of his evolving political views and when read in conjunction with the other two pamphlets produced in the final few months of his life. For instance, in The Separatist Idea he looked at the republican tradition, centring on revolutionaries such as Tone, Lalor, Mitchel and Davis. In The Sovereign People, the final pamphlet and the highpoint of his political development, he turns to what he calls the material basis of freedom. This pamphlet is essentially a document of revolutionary nationalism and revolutionary democracy. It’s not a socialist document but it certainly shows the influence of Connolly’s socialism and that Pearse was still evolving leftwards in the last few months of his life.
Augusteijn quotes Pearse’s famous, or infamous, declaration about how good it was to see people shedding their blood for their countries when WW1 began, the declaration that met with Connolly’s response of “blithering idiot”. Unlike the revisionists, of left and right, however, Augusteijn notes that this was “not a simple celebration of bloodshed” since Pearse understood that wars like this really were terrible and had also noted that WW1 was a war between empires over global power (p293). (Nevertheless this was certainly one of the issues that showed the superiority of Connolly’s Marxism over even the most advanced purely republican thinker of the time.)
Augusteijn also usefully records how the elevation of shedding blood was very common at the time among liberals, feminists, even sections of erstwhile socialists, not to mention the imperialist ideologues, something usually passed over in silence by the professional anti-republicans. This section of the book concludes with a reconstruction of the weeks leading up to the Rising and the Rising itself.
The final section of the book deals with Pearse’s legacy. The author notes the difficulties the Free Staters had in relation to Pearse, while Fianna Fail invoked him in the late 1920s and early 1930s. However after they became the government in the Free State in 1932, Fianna Fail leaders became less inclined to refer to Pearse. While Pearse’s name was still invoked, it was usually done by parties in opposition; meanwhile, Pearse’s writings themselves were largely ignored. After 1966, and especially after armed conflict in the north broke out, attitudes towards Pearse shifted. 1916 became far more complicated in the eyes of an establishment that rested not on Irish nationalism but 26-county pseudo-nationalism. Although Augusteijn makes some useful points in this section, he deals mainly with things like how many times TDs mentioned Pearse’s name over the decades and with developments in academic writing about Pearse. While these are valid, it might have been more satisfying to go on from there to talk about the relevance, or otherwise, of Pearse’s ideas in relation to Ireland today. For instance, a quick survey of the state of the mass of the people would suggest that his view that the common good should take preference over private ownership of wealth-producing processes is highly relevant.
Augusteijn concludes the book with this: “Although it can be argued that the adherents of his thinking triumphed when they became the new leaders of an independent southern Ireland, his social and cultural ideas were read but never implemented. The failure to act upon these can, as Martin Daly already claimed in 1917, mainly be attributed to a backward country not to the irrelevance of his ideas.”
It’s certainly true that none of Pearse’s ideas became state policy – not in education, not in women’s rights, not in the ownership of the soil and natural resources being vested in the people, not in the right to private property being subordinated to the public good – but this had little to do with the backwardness of the country and everything to do with the success of the counter-revolution of 1922-23. The abandonment of Pearse was a necessary result of the triumph of two reactionary states and the setting back of every progressive cause in Ireland.
While I have some quibbles with this book, as indicated, I’d strongly recommend it. For scholarship, it stands head and shoulders above the anti-Pearse brigade of revisionists. It’s an excellent account of Pearse the human being and Pearse the republican revolutionary, full of intriguing information, insights and analysis.
Where does that leave socialist-republicans with Pearse today? I think we should venerate Pearse as an outstanding republican revolutionary utterly dedicated to the emancipation of Ireland and the self-upliftment of the mass of the Irish people. He wasn’t a socialist but he was a better revolutionary than the gas-and-water socialists who have been turning up their noses at him for many a decade.
Pearse was still young and still developing politically when his life was cut short by a British firing squad; if the Rising had’ve succeeded, his mature views, as outlined in The Sovereign People, would suggest an alignment with Connolly. He also acknowledged that Connolly was, politically, the key leader of the Rising. And there we come to the crunch. It was Connolly who was the greatest thinker of that generation of Irish revolutionaries and it was Marxism that gave Connolly by far the sharpest weapons of analysis.
Today, class contradictions have developed further within Ireland and understanding the class basis of the existing political arrangements on both sides of the imperial border is essential for working out the way forward to complete freedom. Moreover, the last century has shown that talking about The Republic isn’t enough; we need to be specific about what the class nature of an Irish Republic would be and that class nature is a Workers Republic – or, in political terms, a Socialist Republic. That is, one in which the working class, leading the small farming class, rules.
Pearse had nothing to say about this, although his last pamphlet indicates that he was developing increasingly leftist views. It was Connolly who laid out the strategic path of an Irish revolution, the necessary class basis of that revolution and the necessary class basis of a free Ireland. While venerating Pearse as an outstanding republican – or revolutionary nationalist in the sense Lenin used that term – it’s on Connolly’s shoulders that we have to stand.
- Philip Ferguson
Posted on November 20, 2012, in General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Padraic Pearse, Political education and theory, Republicanism post-1900, Republicanism pre-1900, Reviews - books, The road to the Easter Rising. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.