‘The face and voice of the coming revolution’

‘I am prepared to take the consequences of my act. But I should like my followers to receive an amnesty. I went down on my knees as a child and told God that I would work all my life to gain the freedom of Ireland.’ (Padraig Pearse at his trial at Richmond Barracks on May 2 1916 )

Week IV

It was a strange coincidence that within a mile or so of Pearse’s cottage at Ros Muc is the handsome Inver Lodge where William Humble Ward, 2nd Earl of Dudley, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1902-1905 ) would stay for the summer, fishing and touring Connemara. Lord Dudley represented the might and power of imperial Britain; while close by was Padraig Pearse, the man who would vow to wrench Ireland away from its grip.

It is not known if the men met each other, but a competitive spirit arose in Pearse when he heard that Lord Dudley had arranged an evening’s entertainment for local children. Party food would be served, while a man was brought over especialy from London to show slides about heroes who fought for the empire.

Not to be outdone, Pearse decided to strike back. The following year he invited the local children to the school at An Turlach Beag, where he showed slides ‘picturing the nobility and wisdom ‘ of the Gaelic race.

Colm Ó Gora, an admirer and friend of Pearse takes up the story: ‘I never saw Pearse so full of talk as he was that night. Songs were sung, tales were told, poems were recited and orations pronounced.

‘The people saw that this man had respect for the language...That was the blow An Piarsach struck on his own behalf in the year 1906, as stout as any he struck in his life. It’s many the one he saved by it. The English gentry gave no more festivities after that - much to the annoyance of their local lackeys.’*

Military council

More dramatic changes, however, were soon to challenge Pearse. By 1910 his independent and child-centered schools were burdened by ever increasing debt. The much vaunted Home Rule bill was making slow progress through the English parliament. It was eventually put on hold for the duration of World War I.

Following the race to arms by the Ulster Volunteers, it was inevitable that there would be a similar response in Dublin and in other centres. In December 1913, Belfast man Bulmer Hobson, a leading member of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB ), swore Pearse into the IRB. This organisation was dedicated to the over throw of British rule in Ireland, and the establishment of an Irish republic. Because of his obvious organisational skills, Pearse rose rapidly through the ranks to become the prominent member of its Military Council.

In that same year Hobson, Liam Mellows and Pearse spent time at Ros Muc where they set up a branch of Fianna Éireann, the republican answer to Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts. All the signatories of the Proclamation, with the probable exception of James Connolly, met at Pearse’s cottage at some time during this period.

Pearse himself established a battalion of Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Volunteers in Ros Muc, An Cheathrú Rua and Na hOileáin. Soon lads were drilling with sticks, for lack of arms, and camping around the cottage.

The first blow

A major opportunity came with the death in New York of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, an old Fenian associated with attacks on British targets at home and in America. The new republican movement was quick to realise the propaganda value of the old Fenian’s death. Tom Clarke, probably the person most responsible for the Easter Rising, famously cabled John Devoy:‘ Send his body home at once.’

It was agreed that Pearse would give the oration at the graveside. He asked Clarke for advice. Clarke, a hardened man who had spent 15 years in prison for his activities, told him that he should go ‘as far as you can. Make it as hot as hell, throw all discretion to the winds.’

Taking his brother Willie, and their friend Desmond Ryan with him,** Pearse returned to Ros Muc to write his speech. Again and again he wrote and rewrote it, calling it out to Willie and Ryan so many times that they teased him about his earnestness.

By August 1 1915, the day of the funeral, he was ready. It was an immense political occasion. The body of O’Donovan Rossa first lay in state in Dublin’s City Hall. Then it travelled to Glasnevin cemetery led by hundreds of armed Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Citizen Army. The streets were lined by enormous crowds. Thousands more gathered at the graveside. Attempts were made to limit the numbers, but many more pressed around.

Pearse, dressed in his green Army uniform, stepped forward and delivered his oration. His voice was clear and strong, and carried out over the crowd. He spoke slowly with ‘intense delivery.’

He spoke ‘on behalf of a new generation that has been re-baptised in the Fenian faith’: and called on the Irish people to stand together for the achievement of the freedom of Ireland. He said, ‘we know only one definition of freedom: It is Tone’s definition, it is Mitchel’s definition, it is Rossa’s definition’ (that is, an Irish Republic ). The oration concluded with a challenge to the ‘Defenders of this Realm’: ‘They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! - they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’

Ryan later commented that Pearse’s words electrified the people. At the phrase ‘The Fools’ he threw back his head. His tone made it very clear that an attempt would soon be made to establish an Irish Republic by force of arms. As the crowds dispersed, Ryan said, Pearse walked home alone. That day confirmed him as the face and voice of the coming revolution.

Pearse never returned to his cottage in its ‘little Gaelic kingdom’. Events swept him along. His oration was not just a spark to light the fire of revolution; it was, in fact, the first blow.

Next week: Three friends in military uniform

NOTES: * In fact the Dudleys were popular locally, largely due to the Lord’s first wife Lady Rachel Dudley who established the so called ‘Dudley Nurses’ who brought comfort and medical care to the poor in isolated regions of rural Ireland, and in the slums of Dublin. She later established the Australian Voluntary Hospital in France to help the World War I wounded.

Lord Dudley, who famously ran off with a music hall entertainer Gertie Miller, is immortalised in James Joyce’s description of his Vice-Regal progress through Dublin in Ulysses.

** Desmond Ryan was Pearse’s first pupil at Scoil Éanna. As a young man he remained a devoted friend, fought with Pearse in the GPO, and later spent a life as a journalist, and biographer of some the 1916 leaders.

I am leaning on Tim Robinson’s Connemara - A Little Gaelic Kingdom (Published by Penguin Ireland 2011 ) for much of this week’s Diary.

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