The intellectual leader behind the Easter Rising of 1916, Patrick Pearse, born 10 November 1879, had qualified as a lawyer but his interests ranged widely beyond that. He was a proponent of both the revived Irish language and educational reform; combining these interests, he opened a private bilingual school for boys in Dublin, St. Enda’s, in 1908.
He came to notice as an Irish nationalist through his writings — he edited the Gaelic League’s newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis from 1903 to 1909 — and through speeches he made, particularly his eulogies on the anniversary of Wolfe Tone’s death (1913) and at the graveside of the leading Fenian (Irish Republican) Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1915):
‘I propose to you then that, here by the grave of this unrepentant Fenian, we renew our baptismal vows; that, here by the grave of this unconquered and unconquerable man, we ask of God, each one for himself, such unshakable purpose, such high and gallant courage, such unbreakable strength of soul as belonged to O’Donovan Rossa. Deliberately here we avow ourselves, as he avowed himself in the dock, Irishmen of one allegiance only. We of the Irish volunteers and you others who are associated with us in today’s task and duty are bound together and must stand together henceforth in brotherly union for the achievement of the freedom of Ireland.’
Pearse’s romantic view of Irish history had by this point moved from the purely cultural to the political and revolutionary. He was particularly fascinated by the many failed rebellions against British rule in Ireland. He helped to found the Irish Volunteers in 1913 and assisted in drilling, exercises and arms-smuggling. He was inducted into the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret grouping within that secret society which was planning a rebellion against the British. When the rising occurred Pearse played a high-profile but largely symbolic part in it: he was assigned the roles of Commandant-General of the Army of the Irish Republic and President of the Provisional Government; it was he who read out the Proclamation of an Irish Republic in front of the General Post Office at the beginning of the rising and it was he who took the decision to surrender after several days of fighting.
Pearse was sentenced to death in a British court martial. In the days between his arrest and his execution he spoke and wrote passionately to justify the rising. In his final letter (to his mother) he wrote:
‘We are ready to die and we shall die cheerfully and proudly. Personally I do not hope or even desire to live, but I do hope and desire and believe that the lives of all our followers will be saved including the lives dear to you and me (my own excepted) and this will be a great consolation to me when dying.
You must not grieve for all this. We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own. Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland’s history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations.’
(Unbeknownst to Pearse, his brother, Willie, had also been sentenced to death. He was executed on 4 May 1916, one day after Pearse died by firing squad.)
Pearse’s interpretation of the significance of the Rising, with his idea of a ‘blood sacrifice’ that would revitalize the Irish independence movement, seemed to be borne out by the events that followed. This prescience, as well as his public role during the rising, explains why he, of all the participants, is most closely associated with the events of 1916.
See Bruce’s Irish History Compressed.