The stranger waiting at Maam Cross station

Pádraig Pearse among the  attendees at the 1913 Conradh na Gaeilge Oireachtas, pictured  outside the Town Hall, Galway, published in this newspaper November 28 2013. Embarrassed by a squint in his right eye, he usually posed for photographs showing a side-profile as he does here.

Pádraig Pearse among the attendees at the 1913 Conradh na Gaeilge Oireachtas, pictured outside the Town Hall, Galway, published in this newspaper November 28 2013. Embarrassed by a squint in his right eye, he usually posed for photographs showing a side-profile as he does here.

There was a humorous mix-up when Pádraig Pearse first visited Ros Muc in 1903. He was 24 years of age, and already imbued by a passion, and a vision for the Ireland of the new century.

It was an exciting time in Ireland. Practically on every level, whether it was sporting, cultural, political, spiritual, or the growth of a distinctly Irish military force (however, poorly armed ), there was a rediscovery of an Irish identity, and the possibility that at last, whether through Home Rule, or by some sort of personal sacrifice, Ireland could stand alone for the first time in many centuries.

The young Pearse believed that the Irish language was intrinsic to the identity of that new nation. He was not alone. Already a nation-wide language movement, Conradh na Gaeilge or the Irish League, was gaining momentum year after year; with Irish colleges being set up to teach teachers the best methods of teaching the language.* These were popular summer activities usually accompanied by music, outings and fun.

Pearse had joined the League as a student at Dublin university (known then as the Royal University ), where he graduated in modern languages, and a law degree from King’s Inns. His work rate, and commitment, soon made him indispensable to the League. It certainly helped him win the editorship of its bilingual weekly newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light’ ), in 1903, the same year as his first visit to Connemara.**.

Laughter and surprise

In the previous year a branch of Conrad na Gaeilge had been founded by a group of young people, most of whom had been attending school at An Gort Mór. When they read in An Claidheamh Soluis that there was to be an examination for would-be teachers of Irish, a dozen of them contributed a half-crown each to pay for an examiner to come down from Dublin. The school-master at An Gort Mór agreed to put him up.

The idea of meeting enthusiastic Irish speakers in the heart of Connemara appealed to Pearse directly. He decided that he would be the examiner. Probably no one in the Ros Muc area had heard of Pearse at the time, nor had they any knowledge what he looked like. They gathered at Maam Cross station to welcome him. The train steamed in, and a stranger stepped down. He was at once surrounded by the welcoming committee, and escorted out to the waiting side-car to be whisked off to the teacher’s house. When the committee went back inside the station they noticed that another stranger was waiting on the platform. There was laughter and surprise when it was realised that the man on his way to the teacher’s house was himself a candidate for the exam, and from Mayo. The second stranger was Pádraig Pearse.***

Coincidence of history

One of the young men who met Pearse that day was Colm Ó Gaora, the secretary of the local branch of Conrad na Gaeilge. He was deeply impressed by the examiner and came to idolise him. In his autobiographical work Mise (Myself ), he describes Pearse as he saw him that first day....

‘He was handsome, well-built young man of medium height. A pale complexion - the complexion of one who worked indoors. Very diffident - the diffidence of people who lack relationships with other people. He was a peaceable, silent man, more ready to listen than to talk. A notable, noble brow and thick black hair. A slight cast in one eye added to his good looks. He was very well dressed, it seemed to me. I can truthfully say that I was under the influence of this examiner from then on. Without my realising it he put me under a sort of spell that I couldn’t shake off from that day to this. Pearse gave his affection to Ros Muc in the same way.’ ( Tim Robinson’s translation )

Pearse immediately felt at home. He began to visit the area every year. By 1910 he had build an attractive three-roomed cottage at An Aill Mhór, overlooking a lake. It is an ideal and beautiful place even today. Pearse was to bring his students there who camped outside. Local people enjoyed his visits. He became known as An Piarsach (an affectionate Irish term ). The cottage became a focus for revolutionary talk and planning. Pearse’s famous oration at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, the old Fenian hero, August 1 1915, was composed there. He electrified the large crowd, gathered at the graveside, with the words: “ Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women, spring living nations.”

It is one of the extraordinary coincidences of history however, that barely half a mile from Pearse’s cottage, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Humble Ward, 2nd Earl of Dudley, had his holiday home, Inver Lodge, on a lake island just north of Ros Muc. There was Dudley, who represented the might of the British Empire in Ireland, while close by was Pádraig Pearse, the man who would knock it down.

Over the next few weeks I will try to explore the Ros Muc connection further; and the interesting Dudley family who were, in fact, generally very popular with the Irish people.

NOTES: *Pearse is an interesting man from whatever angle you see his character. Up to the closing years of the 19th century education in Ireland was through English. Pearse developed his own ideas as to how language should be taught. He visited Brussels where he was impressed at the bilingual educational system where French and Flemish were taught together. Later, with his brother Willie, and their friend Thomas Mc Donagh, he famously established his own school, St Enda’s for boys and St Ita’s for girls, at Rathfarnham, Dublin. The children enjoyed an imaginative curriculum through Irish and English; and all the subjects of the day, with a generous helping of drama, gymnastics, and wonderful outings into the fresh air, and countryside.

** There were fierce rows within the League on such matters of which regional dialect was the best, or which was the correct spelling of various words. Pearse was impatient with all that. He urged the purists to leave aside their bickering, and concentrate on spreading the word.

For all Pearse’s idealism of folk culture, he was an active moderniser. He constantly looked to Europe for inspiration. He insisted that ‘A living modern literature cannot (and if it could, should not ) be built on the folk tale.’

Irish literature, he wrote, ‘must get into contact with the mind of contemporary Europe. This is the 20th century, and no literature can take root in the 20th century which is not of the 20th century.’ (An Claidheamh Soluis, May 26 1906. )

***I am taking this from Connemara - A Little Gaelic Kingdom, by Tim Robinson, published by Penguin Ireland 2011.

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