One hundred years ago, a series of dramatic events caused turmoil in Ireland, and made rebellion practically inevitable.
At last the third Home Rule Bill (the Government of Ireland Act 1914 ), which would have given Ireland significant self-governing powers, had been passed by the House of Commons, and was slowly going through the Lords. Such a development, however, was bitterly opposed by Ulster. Thousands of men marched in protest against leaving the United Kingdom. The Ulster Volunteers became a force to be reckoned with when in April, 24,000 rifles were delivered in the Larne gun-running episode.
Alarmed by the Ulster protest London ordered a strong force from the Curragh (Britain’s main army base in Ireland ) to march to the north in case there was trouble. The officers at the Curragh refused to budge. This was the first and probably the only time in British history that its officers refused to obey orders. It caused a major crisis of confidence within the army.
In response to the Ulster defiance, similar Volunteer movements sprang up in Dublin and elsewhere. These were given teeth when in July the Asgard landed about 1,000 old fashioned, but useable, rifles, and ammunition at Howth. Dublin grew used to men marching and drilling in the city parks on Sunday mornings, and may not have taken them seriously.
All that was to change as the crisis in the Balkans increasingly dominated the news, which gradually tipped Europe into a nightmare. By July the governments of Germany, Russia, France and Britain ordered the mobilisation of its armies.
On August 4 Britain declared war on Germany. Immediately all government business, including the Home Rule Bill, was swept aside to accommodate the war. A huge recruitment drive was launched in Ireland, which was opposed by many of the Volunteers, some of whom began to see that, at last, Britain’s preoccupation with a major war could be their opportunity to strike. If ever there was a chance to win an independent Ireland maybe this was it.
John Redmond, the Irish parliamentary leader, urged the hot heads to wait out the war, to fight for Britain on this occasion, and to win Home Rule by peaceful means afterwards. This split the Volunteers, giving rise to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB ), a more ruthless organisation dedicated to overthrow British rule.
An heroic destiny
This was the fevered atmosphere that Pádraig Pearse returned from three months fund-raising for his schools in America. Education remained his abiding passion. If only, he felt, the education system could be inspired with a true love of learning; if only the child could be made the centre of education, a soul might come into Ireland. This was his guiding philosophy for his schools Scoil Éanna and St Ita’s. But now, six years after he set them up, they were becoming financially impossible. Staff were cut back, and numbers were falling. Mounting bills were putting serious pressure on him. He had not done badly in America. He came home with about one thousand dollars. But audiences were more interested in hearing about the newly formed Irish Volunteers than about his revolutionary ideas for education.
Perhaps these worries impressed upon Pearse that his educational adventure alone would not give Ireland the freedom he envisaged; nor would it change the face of Irish education that he had hoped. It was becoming increasingly clear that if he was to fulfil the kind of heroic destiny he had always imagined for himself, he would have to look beyond the boundaries of Scoil Éanna.
Pearse was already a member of the Volunteers, where again, his obvious leadership qualities soon brought him into its military wing. In America he was impressed by the uncompromising attitudes to Irish republicanism by the old Fenians John Devoy, and Joe McGarrity whom he met. Now he was sworn into the IRB where, with meteoric speed, he rose through its ranks to be part of a small group actually planning an armed rebellion.
He continued to come to Ros Muc as often as his responsibilities allowed. Local people noticed that instead of having pupils from his schools camping around his cottage, as in earlier days, he now had members of the Irish Volunteers whom he set up in Ros Muc, An Cheathrú Rua, and Na hOileáin. They drilled with sticks rather than rifles.
A new generation
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 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 republican 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 made fun of him.
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.
Pearse’s oration was not just a spark to light the fire of revolution; it was, in fact, the first blow.
Next Week : The poet Rupert Brooke, and the myth of ‘blood sacrifice’.
NOTES: * 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.