‘A work for other hands’: Patrick Pearse and St Ita’s College

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), News, Volume 14

Louise Gavan Duffy—St Ita’s second ‘house mistress’.

Louise Gavan Duffy—St Ita’s second ‘house mistress’.

In his account of St Enda’s, of which he was a pupil and where he came to know Pearse intimately, Desmond Ryan said

simply: ‘It is hardly within my province to deal with the story of St Ita’s College. That is a work for other hands’, and recorded little more of its existence than the dates of its opening and closing (September 1910 and June 1912 respectively). St Ita’s (named, like the better-known boys’ school, after a semi-mythical early Irish Christian saint and missionary) occupied the premises at Cullenswood House which St Enda’s vacated in 1910 when, two years after it was founded, Pearse decided to move his bilingual day and boarding school to a more remote site in Rathfarnham.

Amongst the few sources available for knowledge of the girls’ schools are Pearse’s letters, which contain a good deal of valuable detail about the business affairs both of the perennially penurious St Enda’s and its equally cash-strapped sister school.  

Members of Cumann na mBan marching in Dublin—many St Ita’s pupils became and remained active Republicans.

Members of Cumann na mBan marching in Dublin—many St Ita’s pupils became and remained active Republicans.

Pearse may have been inspired to found St Ita’s by his sister Margaret and her earlier experiment in running a nursery school (in 1907), but from the first he determined that he would be an arm’s-length proprietor. Thus he took for himself the title of director (stiurtoir) and set about appointing a head (known as the ‘house mistress’) to deal with the day-to-day operation of this new venture. A letter from July 1910 seems to suggest that he considered several candidates before settling on the somewhat improbably named Gertrude Bloomer for this role. But before coming to this decision he had, inadvertently or not, apparently allowed another candidate, Eleanor (Lena) Butler, to believe that she would be appointed. He informed her of his decision to appoint someone else in a letter of 27 July 1910. She was now to be an assistant mistress (one of two), alongside an assistant resident mistress (Mary Cotter), all of them under Mrs Bloomer. The latter, presumably a widow as no husband is ever referred to in Pearse’s correspondence with her, also invested a sum of capital in the new school. This investment was to be the cause of some acrimony in the years after the school’s closure.
In practical terms the Cullenswood House operation was far from being a financial success, and when the main school, St Enda’s, was ailing (largely a self-inflicted injury as Pearse had lost many pupils through his impetuous relocation to Rathfarnham, an unpopular, distant site for many Dublin-dwelling parents) it was St Ita’s that had to be sacrificed. In a last bid to save the girls’ school, Pearse seems to have accepted an offer from Louise Gavan Duffy, then a St Ita’s teacher, to refinance the venture, but this involved her ousting Mrs Bloomer and replacing the latter as house mistress. This was not a universally acclaimed move on his part. Fourteen pupils wrote to express their regret at Mrs Bloomer’s departure. In the event, the Gavan Duffy intervention also failed and St Ita’s was closed, though a new school has since occupied the same site.
In subsequent years Pearse seems to have made assiduous efforts to repay his debt to Mrs Bloomer, as evinced by his frequent letters to her on the subject, sometimes enclosing piecemeal payments, more often importuning more time to pay (‘I have no money available at present . . . I can only ask you to have patience’). An unpaid bill and accompanying letter from a firm of Dublin booksellers shows that Mrs Bloomer’s finances and those of the school were inextricably intertwined. She had evidently bought books on her account for the girls’ use and, a year and a half after the school’s closure (the bill is dated 27 January 1914), she was being asked to settle for goods that she had not purchased for her personal use.

Cullenswood House—home of St Ita’s after St Enda’s vacated it in 1910. (Pearse Museum)

Cullenswood House—home of St Ita’s after St Enda’s vacated it in 1910. (Pearse Museum)

The decision to make telling the story of St Ita’s ‘a work for other hands’ has reduced considerably our knowledge of Pearse’s second school. Vital documentary and other sources appear to have been lost. Much remains mysterious, not least about the school’s curriculum and the ‘shape’ and ‘feel’ of life and learning there. Pearse has been the subject of feminist criticism for his alleged fascistic and masculinist tendencies, and his first biographer was dismissive of the girls of St Ita’s. But some sort of coda is possible.
Louise Gavan Duffy served in the alliance of Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army that seized key points in Dublin that fateful Easter Week. In later years she founded her own school, and in the 1960s this moved onto the old Cullenswood House site. Further details about Mrs Bloomer would seem to be elusive. One prominent former pupil, Mary Bulfin, went on to marry Seán McBride. Several others, it seems, became and remained active Republicans. In this much Pearse appears to have had some influence on his female pupils; whether that influence was for good or ill is more a political or moral than historical question.

David Limond lectures in the history of education at Trinity College, Dublin.

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