In 2004 in a review in the Irish Times, Ruth wrote about the reaction to the biography
Paving the way to hell
Ruth Dudley Edwards
History: I despise reviewers who talk about themselves rather than their subject, but - while I will eventually get around to Elaine Sisson's excellent book - today I'm joining their ranks.
In the mid-1970s, I wrote Patrick Pearse's biography. I had been interested in him from my mid-teens, mainly because it seemed odd that so little was known about someone our teachers and politicians told us was a saint, a martyr and a great patriot. In the mid-1960s I even tried to write my M.A. thesis on him, but had to give up because of the paucity of sources. Then, in the early 1970s, when Pearse's sister had died and the family papers had become available, a London publisher asked Terence de Vere White, literary editor of this newspaper, who should write the biography. Because I wrote reviews for him and he knew of my long-standing interest, White suggested me.
During the research and writing, I became fond of and sorry for Patrick Pearse, who in many respects was an admirable and lovable human being. However, his flaws - most notably, recklessness with his own and other people's money and lives - were deep and horribly destructive.
Most reviews were favourable, but not surprisingly, quite a few people took serious exception to the book and to two aspects in particular. The first was my statement that the Provisional IRA were the true heirs of Pearse. (These days, of course, it is dissident republicans who have the legitimate claim to his legacy. My contribution to the most recent war about Pearse in this newspaper - "idealist", "psychopath", "realistic man of his time" etc, etc - is the view that the continuing hypocrisy of the Irish establishment about 1916 is unforgivable. Ireland was a democracy at that time: there was no more moral justification for a few hundred conspirators to murder people then in the name of Mother Ireland than there is for the Real IRA to murder them today. Yes, I'm sure that Pearse would have hated the methods of today's terrorists, but he penned the rhetoric and set the example that sustains them. That photograph of Pearse behind Bertie Ahern's desk sends out a terrible signal.)
The second objectionable aspect was that I pointed out the bleeding obvious - that Pearse, although almost certainly chaste, was turned on exclusively by young male beauty. That - like his legacy to Ireland - is still today a hot topic, argued over inter alia by academic followers of fashion.
Elaine Sisson is an academic, and her otherwise readable style is occasionally marred by litcrit buzzwords (no, dammit, "gender" and "privilege" are not verbs; worse, there's a "may" on page one where there should have been a "might"), but hers is a well-researched, honest and thoughtful exploration of Pearse and his school within their historical and intellectual context from which I learned a great deal.
Pearse wanted the St Enda's boy to be a macaomh - a word literally translated as "youth" but which for him was imbued with imagery of Celtic scholars and pagan warriors. Drawing on inspiration from sources as various as Belgian educationalists, British public schools, Richard Wagner and Norse sagas, Pearse - who saw himself as the boys' fosterer - set about fashioning the ideal, nationalist boy with the help of Gaelic games, literature, mythology, drama, pageantry and, increasingly, militarism. He was a wonderful teacher, not least because - like so many other great pedagogues - he was in love with his boys. Emotionally and sexually stunted, he wanted to be a boy.
"St Enda's secured national identity to the body of the male youth and paraded youthful male bodies as a visual metaphor for the nation state", says Sisson, but adds that to label the school as an embryonic fascist organisation would be historically lazy. Nonetheless, it "promoted certain troubling ideologies about the symbolic relationship between power and display".
Sisson handles the subject of Pearse's sexuality sanely and sensitively, concluding that while he was not a practising paedophile, it was the innocent sublimation of his sexuality that eroticised his macaoimh. That sublimation too was an element in his desire for his own martyrdom and sometimes, in his imagination, that of individual pupils.
There would have been few parents who sent their boys to St Enda's to have them trained as revolutionaries, but what else was an aspiring macaomh supposed to do? In fact, before Pearse himself became committed to bloody revolution, the school's physical fitness instructor, Con Colbert - whom the brothers Pearse admired as the living incarnation of Napoleon - was busily recruiting children into the IRB. Thirty St Enda's boys went to the GPO and five of its teachers - the Pearses, Colbert, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett - were executed. Pearse's intentions were good, but they paved and are still paving the way to hell for many many innocent people.
• Ruth Dudley Edwards is an historian, crime writer and journalist. Her most recent novel, Carnage on the Committee , was published by HarperCollins in May. The paperback of Newspapermen: Hugh Cudlipp, Cecil Harmsworth King and the Glory Days of Fleet Street will be published by Pimlico in July History