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Sunday 20 March 2016


The mysteries of the strange Pearse family

Despite the best efforts of historians, Patrick Pearse remains in many ways an enigma, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Patrick Pearse. Photo: Getty Images

According to Ezra Pound, his friend WB Yeats had been saying for years before 1916 that "Pearse was half-cracked and wanting to be hanged. He has Emmet delusions same as other lunatics think they are Napoleon or God."

Like many others, Yeats was baffled by Pearse. Before 1916, he knew him as an indefatigable activist for the Irish language and Irish culture, occasional playwright and poet, debt-ridden headmaster of an innovative Irish-speaking school, and latterly, an occasional fiery orator who wrote inflammatory and highly emotional prose.

Yet the post-rising Pearse became a Catholic nationalist god, the adulation reaching such crazy levels that in a posh Dublin 1950s convent school a nun insisted that the only two men in history who were exactly six feet tall were him and Jesus Christ. In my Irish-speaking primary school in Dublin, we were told that Pearse was a saint and martyr, the greatest man in Irish history. The profile of him gazing into the distance in a visionary kind of way was ubiquitous. In 1965, Galway Cathedral installed Pearse and the assassinated President John F Kennedy in mosaic in a side-chapel, praying on either side of a resurrected Jesus.

When I wrote his biography in the mid-1970s, he turned out to be far more interesting and likeable than I had ever imagined, but almost 40 years later, writing about him again, I still puzzle over his tortured psyche and the oddity of his family. How come, for instance, none of the four children of James and Margaret Pearse apparently had normal sexual relationships? Or even friends?

Some things are clear. As Pearse put it himself, they were the product of two "very widely remote traditions - English and Puritan and mechanic on the one hand, Gaelic and Catholic and peasant on the other".

James Pearse, the Birmingham stone mason, Methodist turned Freethinker and atheist, who had settled in Dublin in the 1850s, was a man of artistic skill and enormous intellectual breadth and curiosity about history, politics, religions and philosophy. Although to keep his clerical Catholic customers sweet he found it necessary to convert, it was cosmetic.

Margaret Brady, James's second wife, a 20-year-old shop assistant when she married this 38-year-old widower, was a pleasant, emotional, uneducated and unquestioning Catholic and nationalist. There was a great-aunt who passed on songs and stories to her favourite nephew about heroes like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Napoleon.

An intensely imaginative child, Patrick starred in many epic adventures on Dobbin, the wooden rocking-horse his father had carved for him, and "saw myself daring or suffering all the things that were dared or suffered in the book or story or song or picture". Discouraged by his mother from mixing with local children, there were few companions.

"As a boy," wrote Pearse of his younger brother Willie, "he was my only playmate; as a man he has been my only intimate friend." But there were also dull, conscientious Margaret and sickly Mary Brigid. After an initial battle for supremacy with his big sister, Patrick established dominance over all three siblings and a couple of younger cousins and had them acting in the plays he wrote, directed and starred in.

At the nearby Christian Brothers' School, which had many poor children, Pat and Willie were set apart not just because they were socially awkward, but because they wore tight velvet jackets and Eton collars and had what were thought of as English accents. Patrick was a star pupil, but was cripplingly shy, not least because of the cast in his left eye, about which he was so self-conscious all his life: "No one knew Pearse," said one contemporary. "He was aloof."

After his father died in 1900, Pearse, who already had two degrees and was a force in the Gaelic League, became head of family and provider to a worshipping mother and siblings, a female cousin, a half-sister and her son, running the business with his art-student brother.

His terror of women of marriageable age was neatly summed up in a recollection of a woman who became Thomas MacDonagh's sister-in-law. "We were all standing in the library talking, when MacDonagh suddenly got me by the arm and said, 'Come outside, I want to talk to you about something.' So I went out, leaving my sister in the room with Pearse. (MacDonagh said), 'Wait till you see Pearse! Wait till you see Pearse! He won't stay in the room for a minute with her!' And the next thing, the door opened and Pearse shot down the passage with his head down like as if he was pursued by devil… it was so funny."

Emotionally, Pearse was frozen in early adolescence, happiest with boys, and as his writings, as well as recollections from pupils published very recently would show, sexually attracted by them, obsessed with images of the sacrificing of a beautiful boy and given to kissing the more good-looking of his pupils on the lips.

It would be MacDonagh and Joe Plunkett who would point out to this innocent man the alarming implications of his poem "Little Lad of the Tricks" ("Raise your comely head/Till I kiss your mouth:/"). "Why are ye torturing me, O desires of my heart?' was the opening of another poem.

Willie's only recorded interest in a female was his obsession with Mabel Gorman, who modelled nude and clothed for him from the time she was eight and to whom he wrote and sent presents until she got bored with him.

Not that he had much opportunity to meet women. When the stone-mason business failed, he returned full-time to his stultifying family, joining his plain sister Margaret in working exclusively at St Enda's. The Pearse family mutual protectiveness extended to the neurotic, unattractive younger daughter, Mary Brigid, insisting in all joint theatrical ventures with Willie that she must play the female lead lest someone "make love to" her brother. Willie would follow Patrick to the execution yard at Kilmainham and into nationalist myth as the selfless brother of the greatest man in Irish history.

In Patrick Pearse's writings and speeches, as well as constructing a nationalist gospel, this propagandist of genius brilliantly simplified, romanticised and packaged himself for posterity.

In recent decades, in books and essays, fascinated historians have worked to disentangle myth from reality and assemble a true picture of this tormented man, with his exceptional gifts and deep flaws, who was driven by the death wish that Yeats had spotted.

We have made enough progress for Pat Cook, an ex-curator of the Pearse Museum, to say hopefully: "It is possible at least partially to deconstruct this mythic stereotype and discover a personality that was trying, by declaiming a patriotism simple in its certainties, to fly the nest of a troubled identity."

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards