Dr Elaine Sisson, Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture, IADT. Author of ‘Pearse’s Patriots: St Enda’s and the Cult of Boyhood’


I would like, today, to put forward some thoughts on the relationship between Pearse, as one of the founders of our nation state, his ideas on education and citizenship, and the influences and consequences of his thinking in relation to our Republic.

One of the things we have been asked to consider is the legacy of 1798 on the thinkers of the Republic.  References to Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet appear all through Pearse’s work: he admired them hugely.  Indeed the iconic photographic profiles of Pearse that we are familiar with owe as much to being modelled on Emmet’s image as to hiding Pearse’s lazy eye.  Pearse gave a commemorative address at the grave of Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown, 1913, and two orations on Emmet in 1914 – one at the Academy of Music in Brooklyn and the other at the Aeolian Hall, Manhattan. These speeches were designed to be heard and not to be read so their impact is somewhat lessened in print. Contemporary accounts confirm that Pearse was a superb orator and public speaker.  He was passionate and poetic, determined and convincing. However, if you were to try and construct a political philosophy from these speeches, you’d be hard pressed.  Pearse was inspired by them as men rather than as political thinkers per se.  He was particularly drawn to Wolfe Tone and from 1910 onwards he read and reread Wolfe Tone’s autobiography.  Tone appeared to Pearse as a kindred spirit: like Pearse, he had studied law and, disenchanted to discover that law is not necessarily about justice, had abandoned it. They were both ambitious men: single-minded and idealistic.  But most of all, Tone was a man of action.  He had attempted to realize his beliefs despite the outcome. This was immensely appealing to Pearse and, as Ruth Dudley Edwards has noted, “this craving for action began to dominate Pearse’s thinking, and combined with his literary and oratorical gifts, it made him an object of interest to revolutionary groups.” (RDE, 153)  After the Bodenstown address, Thomas Clarke, who had been sceptical about Pearse’s brand of nationalism, sat up and took notice: “I never thought there was much stuff in Pearse” he commented, and from that point on Pearse was marked out as of interest and possible use to the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

Between 1910 and 1912, Pearse was becoming increasingly radical in his thinking (although he didn’t join the IRB until 1913): for much of the previous period he had been a loose supporter of the ideas of Home Rule (hence Thomas Clarke’s reservations) but his politics and energy had, from 1908, been put into founding and running his own school; St Enda’s.  Therefore, it is not difficult to see why he admired men like Tone and Emmet who had the courage of their convictions.  For all the poetic dreaming (and somehow the legacy of Pearse is that he was a dreamy idealist), Pearse was an intensely practical man. He was running a boarding and day school and dealing with the everyday details of laundry, meals, text-books, bills, as well as the practice of daily teaching.  Pearse’s interest in Robert Emmet intensified when St Enda’s School moved from Cullenswood House in Ranelagh, to The Hermitage in Rathfarnham, which had geographic and historic links to Emmet.  It was in the grounds of The Hermitage that Emmet had walked with his sweetheart Sarah Curran and, in truth, it was Emmet’s shadow that convinced Pearse it was the right place to relocate his school.  Emmet, as a persona, became very influential over Pearse during the Hermitage years. Desmond Ryan, a past pupil, said that Emmet’s memory haunted Pearse and that this haunting can be traced in Pearse’s later speeches.

Again, I would argue that the revolutionary political philosophies of 1798 are less discernible in Pearse’s writings than the admiration, even adulation, of the men of ’98 and 1803 as men.  If we are looking for political influences from the eighteenth century we must return to education which is at the root of all of Pearse’s radical thinking.  Pearse first proposes the idea of a citizen-republic during his time as the editor of the Gaelic League newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis in 1905.  However, he is not talking about political revolution – remember at this stage his view of national politics is still quite conservative – but instead advocates a radical model of education.  We are now familiar with how popular collective nationalist thinking was influenced by the emergence of literary and cultural forms: ballads, sports, and stories, leading to the establishment of a network of institutions such as the Gaelic League, the Abbey Theatre, and the GAA and so on.  However, the Indian post-colonial theorist, Partha Chatterjee, identifies educational reform as a central conduit for cultural expression to be explored and developed in one place. The emergent forms of cultural nationalism in literature, language, music, art, drama and sport come together, and are most powerfully articulated and consolidated, in a school environment.   There is no other place where all of these elements come together so easily.  Pearse understood this; that our schools are critical to the reformulation of national thinking.  This is directly linked to the philosophy of the Enlightenment and ideas about childhood, personal liberation and social formation espoused by thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau.  Later, nineteenth century educationalists like Maria Montessori, laid the groundwork for embedding concepts of individual achievement within early childhood education.

So, for me it is the seeds of radical thinking of Enlightenment ideas on individual liberty and learning which are most influential in Pearse’s vision and that, later, places him within a continuum of nationalist longing with Wolfe Tone and Emmet, as well as John Mitchel, Thomas Davis and Fintan Lalor.  So what is this ChildRepublic that Pearse attempts to build?  The radically progressive nature of Pearse’s educational vision was focused on a system where the child as child was paramount – not child as exam result or prototype civil servant.  Pearse saw education as an agent of social change and in this was influenced by Montessori who advocated school as a place where a child could develop physically, intellectually, emotionally and creatively.  But in addition to this, Pearse envisaged school as a civic space and encouraged a view of childhood as significant itself and not merely a life-stage in the development of the adult. For us, in 2013, this may seem self-evident, even tired, but in Pearse’s time, when schooling was a blunt instrument cruelly administered, it was revolutionary.

Between 1908, when Pearse first opened the doors to his new school for boys, St Enda’s, and 1913 when he joined the IRB, Pearse’s politics was fueled by pedagogy rather than rebellion.  Even after 1913 when he became radicalized, Pearse’s political writings and speeches (for example his orations on Tone and Emmet) tend towards the rhetorical: he invokes ideas of national spirituality and feeling, of yearning and striving, of reclaiming rather vague ideas of a shared Irishness through physical action.  It is difficult to construct or even identify a rigorous political philosophy.  There is no sense of what the nuts and bolts of nation-building would look like post-revolution.  Perhaps we can get a better sense of Pearse’s vision for the new Republic in St. Enda’s which operated as a sort of microcosm of what a nation state could be.

Part of Pearse’s approach was to take existing (imperial) models of education and to recast them as ancient Irish forms. To that extent he advocates the old Irish practices of fosterage, where boys are sent to study with masters (both within the monastic Christian system, and the older bardic societies such as the Fianna Éireann).  He writes extensively on the benefits of the immersive cultures of schooling where a boy’s education is not only centred in the classroom but in playing fields, dormitories, gardens, drama clubs, debating societies, science labs and nature where every aspect of their lives teaches them about their native culture and heritage.  Conveniently, bypassing the existence of such schooling models in Britain and Germany (in particular) he instead advocates St. Enda’s as the modern day equivalent of the “natural” culture of the ancient Irish.

Yet there is no doubt that Pearse’s model was infinitely more humane and nurturing than English public schools.  First and foremost, he considered that the school should, where possible, emulate home life (rather than the military model advocated by the more brutish boarding schools in Ireland and England).  There was no corporal punishment (Willie Pearse had been badly bullied in school); there were no priests in charge and although it was a Catholic school, it was run by lay people (thereby belying the perception that Pearse was slavishly devoted to the Catholic church).  He was also keenly aware of the demographic profile of potential fee-paying students and understood the interests and needs of an emerging aspirational nationalist middle class. Pupils were involved in most aspects of the school’s governance.  Consulted as to curricular change, internal organisation and work schedules, the pupils were invited to elect their own leaders at the beginning of each school year.  Desmond Ryan recalls that they were allowed to shape “the internal government of the school” and the annual elections were a significant and exciting point in the school calendar conducted with great decorum and operating as “an Ireland in miniature” (Ryan, A Man Called Pearse, 82). The curriculum itself was enlightened, even by today’s standards.  Boys were offered classes in French, German, Italian and Spanish, music and dancing lessons, the natural sciences: botany, zoology and geology as well as lessons in shorthand, bookkeeping and typewriting.  Gaelic football, hurling and handball were installed as the school games; and among some of the visiting lectures from the larger nationalist community were talks on French literature, art, classics, horticulture, phonetics, philosophy, physics, and medieval history.  Visitors included prominent public figures: WB Yeats, Douglas Hyde, the Markieviczes, Roger Casement and many other luminaries of the nationalist movement.

St Enda’s boys were a regular fixture in Dublin social and cultural life between 1908 and 1916 and were often referred to as emblematic of the potential of Irish manhood.  The St Enda’s boys functioned as an imaginative symbol for Ireland, past and future, and this is evident in the school’s public profile.  The boys performed plays and pageants from Irish history on the school grounds and in Jones’s Road (now Croke Park), they drilled in military formation through the streets, but also staged plays in the formality of the Abbey Theatre, images of them playing Gaelic games, gardening, and bathing in the school grounds were sold as postcards.  By teaching the boys how to be national citizens, ultimately the cultural project of St Enda’s was to fashion a generation of boys to articulate and implement a new social and cultural order.

The boys who attended St Enda’s in the Pearse years embarked on years of extraordinary social and political upheaval.  The ethos of public service which they learned at school was indeed realized in their later service to the State as architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, journalists, soldiers.

Padraig Yeates, in his fine book on the history of Dublin between 1914 and 1918, argues very convincingly that World War I changed Irish history much more radically than the 1916 Rising.  In August 1914, Pearse commented that “a European war has brought about a crisis which may contain, as yet hidden within it, the moment for which the generations have been waiting.” (Pearse, How Does She Stand?).  Most of us were taught about the Rising as if it were an event in isolation, but Yeates’ book contextualises 1916 within rising fuel costs and food shortages, labour disputes, the losses of Irish soldiers (especially the growing bitterness caused by criticism of Irishmen at Gallipoli in 1915), housing crises, and the diversion of resources towards the war effort.  These factors, and more, created a climate in which national determination gained ground.  It was not “the glorious sacrifice of the rebels” which secured our future but a complex merging of social, cultural and political agendas which determined the direction of events.

And so, it was no surprise that this fragile network fragmented after the Civil War and in the early years of the State.  It would have been impossible for everybody’s dreams to have been realized. The Civil War left its mark on the politics of the St Enda’s boys as it did elsewhere.  The school limped on, burdened by debt and to everybody’s relief it closed in 1935.  The real damage though was to Pearse’s educational philosophy.  Pearse’s ideas were inscribed in the new curriculum but only in the form of his Irish language short stories.  His memoirs of St Enda’s became part of the set texts for County Council scholarships and his early writings on literature became mandatory reading in teaching colleges.  Pearse’s simple and naïve stories about the spiritual beauty of the West of Ireland became part of the new educational orthodoxy because they sat easily within a Catholic ethos and his more radical and innovative ideas about educating the whole child were not so much set aside as deserted.   Back in 1914 Pearse had countered that “the work of the first Minister of Education in a free Ireland will be a work of creation, for out of chaos he will have to evolve order and into a dead mass he will have to breathe the breath of life.”  Instead, struggling with overcrowded classrooms, financial austerity, badly resourced schools, and the ideological demand to “Gaelicise” Irish education, Pearse’s complex and liberal ideas became reduced to a narrowly focused religious and nationalist orthodoxy which was to define his public perception for years.

In conclusion, Pearse’s unrealized educational philosophy continues to throw a long shadow over Irish educational reform in the Republic.  Perhaps it was all too vague; perhaps it needed the naïve belief, drive and doggedness of Pearse as the first Minister for Education, perhaps his pedagogical vision could never have been scaled up and rolled out across the new State.  In any case, Pearse’s educational vision was not only never realized but was so watered down as to become incomprehensible.  However, slowly and steadily the calcified apparatus of the Junior and Leaving Certificate and the grip of religious orthodoxy, under the determined hand of our current Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn, is being loosened.  And, perhaps the time is coming when we cease to measure the merit of our citizens in points or in grades, and if it happens, I will be thinking of Pearse.

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