‘Lord, thou art hard on mothers’

Week XI

Where is more beautiful, Connemara or Kerry?

This question, still argued over today, occupied the Pearse children in happier days before the 1916 Rising. Padraig, who had been coming to the west since 1903, and had built a cottage at Ross Muc, said the only way to finally solve the question, was for his mother Margaret, and his two sisters, the elder, also called Margaret, and the younger girl Mary Brigid, to come to Connemara for a holiday. The two men, Padraig and his inseparable brother Willie, set out in advance to get things ready while the three women followed later.

In her diary (excerpts published here on March 31 ), we glean that Mary Brigid was not all that impressed. A sickly girl in any case, she found the journey wearisome; the smoke from the turf fire, the food, and the constant rain made her unwell, and a general malaise required medicine from Dublin, delivered by train to Maam Cross station, and collected by Padraig on his bike. Mary Brigid’s diary, however, gave me some insight into the dynamic of the Pearse family, which understandably was shattered by the execution of its two young men, Padraig and Willie.

Even though she had aspirations to be a writer, and did write one dreadful novel The Murphys of Ballystack, (published 1917 ), and an unsatisfactory account of her brother’s childhood The home life of Pádraig Pearse, published in 1934, Mary Brigid was not a good writer. Her sister Margaret was very unhappy with the book on Padraig’s home life. The two women argued and fell out over its content and royalties.

After Mary Brigid’s sudden death in November 1947, Margaret, the only surviving member of the family at that stage, became its main spokesperson. She was the eldest in the family and the closest to Padraig. She shared his passion for education. Together they travelled to Belgium in June 1905, to study teaching a language through a bilingual method, which Pearse successfully adopted in the teaching of Irish at his school Scoil Éanna, and advocated it in his writings on education. Margaret became an important support at his school. She ran a preparatory school, teaching French, acting as matron, and keeping in touch with the boys over the summer. Through her mother she became a close friend of Éamon de Valera, was elected a Fianna Fáil TD for a time. She became a senator in 1938 and remained so until her death in November 1968. Neither girl married.

Supported her sons

It was, however, Padraic and Willie’s mother Margaret who completely reinvented herself, as she recovered from their joint execution. Originally from a strong nationalist background in Dublin, she was the second wife of James Pearse who ran a successful monumental sculpture business in Great Brunswick (now Pearse ) Street. On the death of her husband she and her sons jointly ran the family business; but their hearts were not in it. Instead Margaret joined them at Scoil Éanna, a far more exciting project, taking charge of the domestic arrangements at the school. She fully supported her sons as they left for the GPO at Easter 1916.

Following their deaths, she was determined to perpetuate their memory, and indeed she embodied their nationalist spirit. She envisaged Scoil Éanna as their lasting monument. She reopened the school, and as the mother of the famous Pearse brothers toured the United States raising large sums of money to pay off its crippling debts. Despite her best efforts, even joining the staff and teaching ‘endless catechism lessons’, the school continued to decline. She resented the interference of fund-raising committees. The school once again operated at a loss until it closed in 1935.

Grief and exaltation

She was eager to help in the independence struggle and protected many men on the run, including Liam Mellows. Her home was raided by the Black and Tans, and later by the proTreaty soldiers. Elected to the Dáil in 1921 she spoke emotionally against the Treaty, invoking her son’s name: “ My reasons for doing so are various, but my first reason for doing so I would like to explain here today is my son’s account. It has been said here on several occasions that Patrick Pearse would have accepted this Treaty. I deny it. As his mother I deny it, and on his account I will not accept it.”

But not everyone thought Margaret deserved the status she appeared to inhabit. Kathleen Clarke felt she distorted the truth of 1916, diminishing the importance of her husband Tom Clarke. Margaret hit back at anyone whom she believed questioned her exaggerated vision of her sons, including the influential Irish American John Devoy who had lauded Tom Clarke as the main revolutionary figure of the Rising.

In 1922 Cumann na mBan debated her removal from its executive. Margaret’s adoration and pride in her son’s achievements was equally acknowledged and returned by them, particularly by Padraig. His poem, The Mother, published here, written in a fever of creativity before his execution, speaks in her voice as she struggles to come to terms with her grief and her exultation in their achievements. An extraordinary moving poem, written at an extraordinary time. She was also the mother figure who appeared in many of Padraig’s plays and poems.

One hundred years later the historic position of her sons was, and is, immense. She died April 22 1932 at Scoil Éanna. She was accorded a State funeral. Her body lay at City Hall before burial at Glasnevin cemetery. Her funeral was one of the largest in the history of the State. Éamon de Valera’s graveside oration was broadcast live on Irish radio.

NOTES: I am leaning heavily of the essay on Margaret Pearse (1857-1932 ) in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, by Anne Dolan and William Murphy.

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PHOTO CAPTION

Margaret Pearse - She fully supported her sons as they left for the

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