1,700 take on the British Empire
1,700 take on the British Empire

The story of Padraig Pearse and the rebellion of Easter 1916, 94 years ago this week, by Joseph E. Gannon of thewildgeese.com

AND I say to my people’s masters: Beware,
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people,
Who shall take what ye would not give. Did ye think to conquer the people,
Or that Law is stronger than life and than men’s desire to be free?
We will try it out with you, ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed, . . . tyrants, hypocrites, liars!

-- From “The Rebel” by Patrick Pearse

Perhaps on Nov. 10, 1879, at 27 Great Brunswick St., Dublin, as the mother and father gazed down at their newborn son, they had a vision of what his future held. That may explain why they named him Patrick Henry Pearse. Their son would grow to be the very embodiment of the words of the American patriot Patrick Henry, whose name he bore, who uttered in the Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775: “I know not what course others might take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Indeed, these words would have formed a very proper epitaph on the gravestone of Pearse, the leader of the Easter Rising 1916.

Like many other uncompromising Irish rebels, Pearse was not of pure Irish blood; he was the product of a mixed English-Irish marriage. His father was a monumental sculptor and an Englishman, his mother was a native of County Meath. Pearse began his life-long study of the Irish language at age 11; perhaps his strident nationalism was a byproduct of his study of the language that the British had tried so hard to destroy over the centuries.

After graduation from Royal University of Ireland he was called to the Bar, but he never practiced. He joined the Gaelic League in 1895. In 1908, along with friends Thomas MacDonagh, Con Colbert, and his brother William, Pearse founded an Irish language school called St. Enda’s at Cullenwood House in Rathmines, outside Dublin. Their school prospered, and in 1910 they moved it to The Hermitage, Rathfarnham, where Robert Emmet had courted Sarah Curran. The school operated until 1935, run eventually by Pearse’s mother and sister, but none of the four founders of the school would see that day all four would be executed within five days of each other in May 1916.

Easter Monday was one of the most critical days in the history of Ireland. On that day, Irish Volunteer units and the Irish Citizen Army, led by Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, began their famous Easter Rising, seizing the General Post Office and other key locations around Dublin. Commemorate the men and woman who took on the British Empire against all odds with one of our “Heroes of the Easter Rising” items.

Through these years Pearse was writing a great deal of prose and poetry, some in Irish and some in English, much of which was published after his death, and contributing articles to Arthur Griffith’s newspaper, The United Irishman. He was becoming more and more radical in his outlook on Irish nationalism, evolving from a supporter of Home Rule to a republican. In 1913, he was one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers, a native Irish militia that would evolve into the Irish Republican Army. Later the same year Pearse joined the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In February 1914, Pearse traveled to the United States seeking money from the Irish-American community for his school and for the Irish Volunteers. He made contact with Joseph McGarrity and former Fenian John Devoy, who helped him on both counts. In July 1914, in the famous Howth gun-running incident, the Irish Volunteers obtained weapons and ammunition. The organization now had the weapons and financial support it needed to consider the military action that many of them, including Pearse, believed necessary to end British rule in Ireland. “There are many things more horrible than bloodshed,” Pearse had once written, “and slavery is one of them.” In the militants’ view, the circumstances were now rife for action, with the republicans possessing organization and weapons. Pearse felt ready to strike for his dream.

In the summer of 1915 the body of Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was brought home from New York for burial. At Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, Pearse delivered one of the most famous graveside orations in the long history of the Irish revolutionary movement. His speech stirred the Irish nation.

“But I hold it a Christian thing, as O’Donovan Rossa held it, to hate evil, to hate oppression, and hating them, to strive to overthrow them,” said Pearse. “... Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations.” Pearse’s clarion call to armed revolt reverberated through the length and breadth of Ireland. On April 24, 1916, words became action.

Through the history of England’s domination of Ireland, Ireland’s revolutionary movements have lived by a basic tenet: England’s agony is Ireland’s opportunity. The Irish Volunteer leadership was split with many of those in the IRB ready to strike, believing the timing would never be better. England was deep into the most savage war the world had ever seen. Millions had died already, millions more would die yet, many of them Irishmen fighting for Britain. Meanwhile, the British were threatening conscription in Ireland, which was absolutely opposed by the vast majority of the country. But many other IRB members believed that the country was not ready for a rising, especially with so many Irish boys fighting in the trenches of France. In many ways, looking back with the clarity of over 90 years of history, both sides may have been right.

Millions had died already, millions more would die yet (many of them Irishmen fighting for England), and the British were threatening conscription in Ireland, which was absolutely opposed by the vast majority of the country. But many other IRB members believed that the country was not ready for a rising, especially with so many Irish boys fighting in the trenches of France. In many ways, looking back with the clarity of over 80 years of history, both sides may have been right.

Chief among the Volunteers who opposed the rising was its chief of staff, Eoin MacNeil. In the end, Pearse and the others in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, along with James Connolly and his Citizen Army, planned a rising for April 23, Easter Sunday, using the Volunteers’ scheduled maneuvers in Dublin as a cover. These plans were made without MacNeil’s knowledge. MacNeil found out on Thursday and at first, after being told of the shipment of German arms that Roger Casement was bringing to the southwest, he agreed to support it. However, when MacNeil found out that Casement had been captured and the weapons lost, he canceled the maneuvers and got word to the countryside that the rising was off. In military terms, there was nothing for Pearse and his cohorts to do but call off the rising, but Pearse was not a military man, he was a visionary. He saw a destiny for himself and his country. Six years earlier he had written in a poem: “I have turned my face to the road before me, to the deed that I see and the death I shall die.” With that deed, that near-certain death, now staring him in the face, he didn’t waver.

MacNeil tried his best to stop the rising, but on Easter Monday, a force of less than 1,700 rose in Dublin, with smaller forces taking the field in Wexford, Galway, and in north County Dublin, where Thomas Ashe’s Volunteers captured four police barracks. In Dublin, the rebels quickly captured several key points, including the General Post Office (GPO). There on the steps, Pearse proclaimed the Irish Republic. Pearse and six others has signed the document the day previous. The man given the honor of signing the proclamation first was 59-year-old Tom Clarke. He signed with tears in his eyes, no doubt remembering the 15 years he spent in a British prison under the harsh conditions the English reserved for Irish revolutionaries. Given the situation regarding MacNeil and the rest of the Volunteers around the island, each signer must have realized, as hand and pen moved across the proclamation, that they were very likely signing away their lives.

By early afternoon, the tricolor of the Irish Republic and a green flag with a gold harp in the center, the ancient symbol of Ireland that had been carried in so many different forms by Irish military units around the world, flew defiantly above the GPO. Across Dublin, the rebels occupied numerous strategic portions, and were awaiting the British response. Among these men and women were names that every Irishman would come to know in the years ahead, including Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, Cathal Brugha, and Constance Markievicz, who commanded a group of Volunteers who occupied the College of Surgeons at St. Stephen’s Green. But in the next few days, as fighting spread across the city, the predictions of those opposed to the rising proved true. The city and the country were not ready to rise up, and the rebels were isolated and surrounded by 20,000 British troops.

Still, the rebels fought on, and fought well. At Mount Street Bridge on Wednesday, 17 of de Valera’s men held off two battalions of British troops for 9 hours. On Thursday, the British began an artillery bombardment of the GPO, fire began to spread around the building, and a cordon was thrown around the city center. The end neared. Finally, on Saturday, having been blasted out of the GPO and forced to take up positions in other buildings on nearby Moore Street, the leadership had to face the futility of further bloodshed.

Pearse watched the city he loved blazing around him and the people of that city being killed, some before his eyes. He fully expected to die in this rising and certainly would have preferred dying in battle to the execution he believed awaited him if he surrendered. He turned to Clarke and told him, “For the sake of our fellow citizens and our comrades across the city who are likely to be shot or burned to death, I propose ... we surrender.” Clarke, who had struggled for decades to bring about a rising, could not speak -- he turned his face to the wall and wept. Pearse surrendered and sent an order to other outposts to surrender also. On Sunday all organized resistance ended. At 5 p.m. April 30, the tricolor was pulled from the top of the remains of the GPO, the dream of the republic seemingly pulled down with it.

As the rebels were marched off to jail, they were shocked by the reaction of bystanders. People screamed invective at them and even threw objects at them. The people of Dublin had been unable to work for a week, of course, and were going hungry; others had lost family members or had their homes destroyed and many had sons or brothers fighting in France and considered the rising a betrayal of those men. Perhaps this outpouring of anger toward the rebels gave the British a false sense of the underlying feeling of Irish people. Perhaps they were even foolish enough to think that it constituted some sort of endorsement of British rule over the island. Many of the people in those angry crowds, in fact, agreed completely with the aims of the rising -- freedom from English domination. It was only the means and the timing of it they resented.

The British commander, General John Maxwell, court-martialed the rebel leaders. Within days, the leaders faced closed trials before courts made up of three British officers in which the defendants had no lawyers and were allowed to call no witnesses. The British officers found every defendant guilty and condemned them to death.

During the few minutes that his court-martial lasted, Pearse told the court: “You cannot conquer Ireland. You cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children will win it by a better deed.” Pearse wanted to be remembered with the martyred heroes Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone. Later at a dinner party, Brig. Gen. C.G. Blackader, who was in charge of the trials, told a friend, “I have just performed one of the hardest tasks I ever had to do. Condemned to death one of the finest characters I ever came across. A man named Pearse. Must be something very wrong in the state of things, must there not, that makes a man like that a rebel.”

When the sentences of death were later relayed to the men in their cells, Clarke breathed a sigh of relieve, not because he dreamed of martyrdom, but because he feared more time in an English prison much more than death. When Pearse heard the sentence, there in his cell in Kilmainham jail, where Napper Tandy, O’Donovan Rossa and especially Emmet had also been held, he must have realized his destiny had come to pass just as he had envisioned it. His spirit would have sunk though, had he known that his brother William, who was not one of the leaders of the rising, was also condemned to death. Willie’s capitol offense was being the brother of Patrick Pearse.

In a last letter home to his mother May 3rd, Pearse wrote, “I will call you in my heart at the last moment.” Father Aloysius, who was attending the men, asked to stay with them to the end. He was refused. He gave Pearse a 10-inch crucifix of brass to carry with him. As he walked to his execution, Pearse heard two volleys Clarke and his old friend MacDonagh had preceded him in death. With a soldier on each side and blindfold already in place, Pearse was hustled to a corner of the prison walls, past the pooled blood of Clarke and MacDonagh. At that moment, his brother Willie was being led to the jail. A British officer had decided to allow them a moment to speak before Patrick died, but he didn’t inform Willie where he was being taken, or why, and Willie was sure it was to his own death.

In the northwest corner of the compound, Patrick Henry Pearse swhere Pearse stood, the order rang out, “Aim.” When one of the soldiers allowed his rifle to dip, the officer in charge ordered, “As you were.”

Pearse must have anguished as those words, in place of the expected “FIRE,” were heard. Now the officer ordered, “Aim,” again and then finally, “FIRE!” At the gates of the jail, where Willie was being led in, he heard the sound, and a warder turned to his guards and said, “Too late.” They turned him around and took him back to Richmond Barracks -- no one told him he had just heard the sound of his brother being killed. Willie’s turn would come the next day.

In all, 97 participants in the rising were condemned to death; most had those sentences reduced when the British learned how counterproductive the executions were. If one counts Casement, executed in August, 16 were actually killed. These executions by the British would turn a large portion of the Irish from critics of the Rising to supporters and emblazon those slain into the pantheon of Irish revolutionary heroes. Had the British simply jailed those involved, the ripples from their rising may never have grown into the waves that ultimately rocked British rule in Ireland, virtually ending it in 26 of 32 counties by 1922. With decades more strife in store for Ireland, Pearse’s last words at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915 proved prophetic:

But the fools, the fools, the fools!
They have left us our Fenian dead,
and while Ireland holds these graves,
Ireland unfree will never be at peace!

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