Patrick Pearse: A Life in Pictures
J Anthony Gaughan
For this valuable collection of photographs associated with the life of Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) the author, the curator of the Pearse Museum in St Enda’s, Rathfarnham, had a rich source to draw from.
At a time when photography was new and expensive Pearse’s father arranged for pictures to be taken of both his family and the works produced in his stone-carving business. To promote St Enda’s, his school at Rathfarnham, Pearse himself had numerous photographs taken of the school’s activities and achievements on the sports field and the stage.
In the early photos Pearse has the appearance of a dreamy child. There is this air of detachment also in the photos of him as a schoolboy in the Christian Brothers School at Westland Row. He never seems at ease in photos taken with other people. Presumably this awkwardness stemmed from self-consciousness about a squint in one of his eyes. It is remarkable that from his teenage years he rarely allowed himself to be photographed in any other way than in profile. In retrospect it seems that he carefully controlled how the camera and posterity would see him and in that context it is curious that the profile is associated with the depiction of heroic figures.
From the outset Pearse was revered in the Irish State and by most Irish people. His cottage at Rosmuc was restored in 1964 and his school and final home in The Hermitage was opened to the public in the centenary of his birth in 1979. Throughout the country parks, schools, streets, stadia, sports clubs and a train station have been named in his honour. He was the most prominent figure during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Rising and his iconic profile became one of the most identifiable symbols of the Irish Revolution.
With the advent of revisionism a more balanced appraisal of the revolutionary years of the early twentieth century and the leaders of the period, including Pearse, emerged. One of the leading critics of the Pearse legacy was Fr Francis Shaw, SJ, who, in a seminal article published posthumously in 1972 – it having been refused by Studies in 1966 – rejected Pearse’s glorification of violence and ideas concerning bloody self-sacrifice.
The horrors arising from the ‘armalite and ballot box’ campaign in Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards caused that legacy to be politicised and it became the subject of acrimonious and bitter debates. Regrettably at this time also some authors vied with each other in presenting with a veneer of sophistication bizarre caricatures of Pearse.
Pearse remains one of the most complex, enigmatic and quixotic figures in modern Irish history. However, his contributions other than his involvement in the Rising should not be overlooked. He was a pivotal figure in the Gaelic League, the driving force behind the Irish Revival and the promotion of Irish as a modern and spoken language. He was a prolific writer in Irish and English. His ideas and orations, as much as his writing, were seminal to the Irish Revolution. He was an outstanding educationalist as evidenced by St Enda’s which was a much lauded and successful experiment because of his inspirational personality, aesthetic tastes and its child-centred education.
The advent of peace in the 1990s in Northern Ireland and the upcoming centenary celebration of the Rising provide an opportunity for a nuanced and balanced assessment of Pearse. In the meantime this splendid collection of pictures and the accompanying narrative is a good first step in that direction.