The Pearse Papers rediscovered

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2012), Volume 20

One of a collection of watercolours and sketches by Willie Pearse (inset).

One of a collection of watercolours and sketches by Willie Pearse (inset).

Patrick Pearse remains one of the most contested and most elusive figures of the revolutionary period, yet the Pearse Papers (MS 21,046–MS 21,097) contain a wealth of biographical information on all aspects of the Pearse family’s various political, business and artistic endeavours. Some of the most affecting manuscripts in this collection include handwritten drafts with annotations and corrections by Patrick Pearse of his political pamphlets Ghosts and The separatist idea, a handwritten letter from the commandant of Kilmainham Jail summoning Margaret Pearse in advance of the execution of her sons, a phrenological chart purporting to analyse the head dimensions and character of James Pearse, letters from Margaret Pearse to her son ‘Pat’, encouraging him to discuss his financial problems with his family, and a collection of watercolours and sketches by William Pearse, along with a wealth of personal correspondence and related family papers.

Willie Pearse

Willie Pearse

Pearse’s temperament is attested to by character references from Douglas Hyde and Professor Edouard Cadic. Cadic states that ‘Mr Pearse was an earnest student who always did his work to my satisfaction and I may add that his unassuming and gentlemanly manner gained for him my esteem and regard’. Naturally, much of the later material in the collection pertains to Pearse’s work for the Gaelic League, including hundreds of letters from prominent League members. The problems faced by language enthusiasts were manifold, and an exasperated correspondent from Youghal wrote to Pearse in 1903 bemoaning the popular negative attitude to the Irish language: ‘. . . in this town they seem to take no interest in the Irish language. In fact they look upon it as being vulgar and out of place, it would really disgust any person . . .’. The perpetual financial burdens under which Pearse worked arose from his commitment to keeping his school, St Enda’s in Rathfarnham, open in the face of financial ruin, and this strain was the source of much concern to his family. Margaret Pearse frequently wrote to her son, offering consolation and support. In one letter she writes: ‘Dear, dear Pat, I know you must be in a dreadful abject state over the money, God help you . . . I feel silly and I like to be included [when] people [are] trying to comfort each other over such a disappointment.’ The collection includes invaluable material relating to Pearse’s political development, including original handwritten drafts of his seminal writings Ghosts and The separatist idea and the collected Notes from a hermitage. In a handwritten note included with the latter series of articles, Pearse states: ‘These articles form a contemporary commentary on proceedings immediately before the rise of the Irish Volunteers . . . I commenced the series with the deliberate intention, by argument, invective and satire, of goading those who shared my political views to committing themselves definitely to an armed movement.’ He consequently lamented that ‘Modern Irishmen with open eyes have allowed themselves to be deprived of their manhood: and many of them have reached the terrible depth of degradation in which a man will boast of his unmanliness . . . Unable to exercise men’s rights, we do not deserve men’s privileges. We are in a strict sense not fit for freedom; and freedom we shall never attain.’

Working drawings of monuments by the Pearse brothers’ father, James.

Working drawings of monuments by the Pearse brothers’ father, James.

What emerges from this collection are the scattered fragments not of a life committed to the futile imaginings of an illusory Gaelic idyll but rather of a lifetime dedicated to pragmatic action (work which was more often than not tedious and physically and emotionally draining), shaped far less by messianic dreams of national redemption than by the tedium of administration, perpetual financial burdens and the sneers and indifference of the Irish people. Pearse possessed a sophisticated political vision that was not static but which evolved and was moulded by circumstance and experience. As one leading character from the draft of the dramatic play Freedom, contained in Pearse’s papers, remarks following the death of their leader after battle, ‘Do not grieve for him, he went to his death with no grief, rather with joy. If he could have wished for anything for himself, he would have wished for death now, death unsought, this death in victory.’

A handwritten letter from the commandant of Kilmainham Jail, informing Margaret Pearse that her son William is a prisoner there and would like to see her.All images: National Library of Ireland

A handwritten letter from the commandant of Kilmainham Jail, informing Margaret Pearse that her son William is a prisoner there and would like to see her.
All images: National Library of Ireland

It is envisaged that revised catalogues of the papers of P.H. Pearse, Bulmer Hobson, Joseph McGarrity, Patrick McCartan, Maurice Moore, Joseph Mary Plunkett and John Devoy will be available in the National Library’s new on-line catalogue by 2013. The Pearse Papers can be viewed by any member of the public in possession of a valid reader’s ticket in the Manuscripts Department of the National Library.  HI
Conor McNamara works at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, Dublin.

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