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The Irish Times
26 May 2009

Long-awaited mature debate on an insistent ghost in Irish republicanism

The Life and After-Life of PH Pearse – Pádraic Mac Piarais: Saol agus Oidhreacht cover photo

BOOK OF THE DAY: RUTH DUDLEY EDWARDS reviews The Life and After-Life of PH Pearse – Pádraic Mac Piarais: Saol agus Oidhreacht. Edited by Roisín Higgins and Regina Uí Chollatáin. Irish Academic Press 274 pp, €24.95

YIPPEE! PATRICK Pearse has been dead for only 93 years, yet already Irish academics are beginning a grown-up debate about him. We may finally have come through the long drawn out “Take-that-you-revisionist swine!”/“You-don’t-frighten- me-you-ghastly-Provo-fellowtraveller” brawling of the past 30 years, about which Roisín Higgins writes illuminatingly.

Analysing why there was such a carry-on about the biography I published in 1977, she suggests that for many Irish people Pearse symbolised moral and political integrity, and so my argument that social, sexual and financial failures drove him towards revolution “hit a very raw nerve . . . The mind of Pearse became an area of historical study and many in the population responded as if it was the national psyche which was being raided”. This, after all, as she points out, was a time when the dysfunctional (my word) Pearses were popularly regarded as a “holy family”.

In this volume 15 contributors from a wide variety of disciplines rummage around productively in the Pearsean psyche to produce an absorbing account of – as the editors say in the introduction – a multifaceted figure reflecting many tensions of that period: “he was both Irish and English, Victorian and modernist, respectable and revolutionary”.

All these essays have something of interest, several of them are extremely illuminating, and some really made me sit up.

Joost Augusteijn, for instance, who is writing an intellectual biography of Pearse, has some fascinating new sources that deepen understanding of how Pearse’s political sympathies gradually moved from imperial patriotism to revolution; Pat Cooke, formerly curator of the Pearse Museum, looks sympathetically at this “Victorian Gael”, and shows a fissured personality trying, “by declaiming a patriotism simple in its certainties, to fly the nets of a troubled identity”; Thomas Hennessy remorselessly demonstrates how the isolationist nationalist dogma laid down by Pearse made partition permanent by driving out the inclusive Redmondite variety that would have allowed common Irishness with unionists; James Quinn traces how in his devotion to the dead nationalist writers who haunted him, Pearse elevated secular writings to the level of the sacred texts, and contrasts this with internationalist revolutionaries like Tom Paine, who wrote that “The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies.” As Dr Quinn concludes, “For many who came after him, Pearse would become the most insistent ghost of them all, whose reproach would in turn have to be appeased.”

It is unthinking allegiance to this most insistent, deeply troubled ghost that has us in the mess we are still in with violent republicanism.

As Father Séamus Murphy said recently in this newspaper, those who see the Good Friday agreement as a “sell-out” are “consistent with the attitude of the Provisionals in the 1980s, of the IRA during the Border Campaign of the 1950s, and of the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War [and] with the views of the men and women of Easter 1916”. Yet Bertie Ahern, like generations of unthinking politicians before him, sees no paradox in declaring Pearse his hero while condemning those who emulate him.

I declare an interest, as she republished my Pearse biography, but I make no apology for praising Lisa Hyde of Irish Academic Press who over the past few years has been midwife to this and many other excellent and attractively produced books.

Irish scholarship owes this modest, highly effective publisher a great debt.

It is also encouraging to see Foras na Gaeilge, the Office of Public Works and the Pearse Museum collaborating in work of scholarship that would shock many of those who determine their grants.

Maybe our institutions are growing up, too.

Ruth Dudley Edwards is the author of Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure , republished by Irish Academic Press in 2007

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