Henry James ’s novel The Princess Casamassima, which dramatises the world of stray revolutionaries in London in the 1880s, depends on energy coming from opposites. The novel’s protagonist, Hyacinth Robinson, appreciates beauty and feels excluded from the world of privilege around him. He lives an interior life. ‘He would,’ as James wrote in his preface, ‘become most acquainted with destiny in the form of a lively inward revolution.’ For any action to take place, the novel needs another force, which emerges as the more determined and unconflicted figure of Paul Muniment, who is all outwardness, decisiveness and manliness, with politics that are focused, thought-out, physical, set against Robinson’s ambiguous sexual and social presence. But drama in the novel can only occur when Hyacinth’s bookishness, his soul and his soft feeling, have been lured into the orbit of cold steel and hard strategy. The novel’s energy is released when these opposites cease to move against each other, or cease even to run in tandem, but merge, to become aspects of a single burning emotion.
In a letter to his old Boston friend Grace Norton the year he published The Princess Casamassima, James made clear his deep dislike for Ireland, the country of his grandparents. Ireland, he felt, could injure
England less with [Home Rule] than she does without it … She seems to me an example of a country more emancipated from every bond, not only of despotism but of ordinary law, than any so-called civilised country was before – a country revelling in odious forms of irresponsibility & licence. And surely, how can one speak of the Irish as a ‘great people’? I see no greatness, nor any kind of superiority in them, & they seem to me an inferior and 3rd rate race, whose virtues are of the cheapest and shallowest order, while their vices are peculiarly cowardly and ferocious. They have been abominably treated in the past – but their wrongs appear, to me, in our time, to have occupied the conscience of England only too much to the exclusion of other things.
Two years later, in 1888, he wrote to Norton again: ‘Here there is nothing but Ireland, & the animosities & separations it engenders – accursed isle! Literature, art, conversation, society – everything lies dead beneath its black shadow.’
In order to write the third chapter of the novel, in which the young Hyacinth Robinson is taken to visit his French mother, who is serving a life sentence for his father’s murder, James visited Millbank Prison by the Thames: ‘a worse act of violence’, he called it, ‘than any it was erected to punish’. Hyacinth is accompanied by the dressmaker who has been looking after him. ‘If the place,’ James wrote, ‘had seemed cruel to the poor little dressmaker outside, it may be believed that it did not strike her as an abode of mercy while she pursued her devious way into the circular shafts of cells … there were walls within walls and galleries on top of galleries; even the daylight lost its colour.’
Millbank Prison had played an important role in creating the atmosphere of terror in London that James dramatised in his novel. In 1867, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), also known as the Fenians, who was serving a life sentence for treason, was moved to Millbank. According to his biographer Shane Kenna, he was regarded as the institution’s most troublesome prisoner; news of the punishments he received for petty infringements of the rules became an important part of Fenian propaganda over the next few years. Two different inquiries took place into the conditions in which he and his fellow prisoners were being held. After the second, it was decided to release the prisoners on condition that they did not return to Ireland. Thus, in January 1871, O’Donovan Rossa arrived in New York; he was greeted as a hero.
Among the friends he made in America was Patrick Ford, the editor of the Irish World, a newspaper with a circulation of 125,000. In 1876, Ford and O’Donovan Rossa set up what they called ‘a skirmishing fund’ to assist in the planning and carrying out of a bombing campaign in Britain. ‘Language, skin-colour, dress, general manners,’ Ford wrote, ‘are all in favour of the Irish.’ Ford and O’Donovan Rossa were aware of Alfred Nobel’s dynamite compound, invented in 1867. ‘Dynamite,’ as Sarah Cole wrote in her book At the Violet Hour (2012),
held highly idealised associations. It offered new vistas of power, not solely for its potential to wreak destruction but also for its ability to terrify a wide public. The connotations of dynamite for radical politics are hard to overstate. It was the ultimate weapon of one against the many, of any individual with only a smattering of training … the dynamite bomb seemed tiny in proportion to its capacity to do harm; it could fit easily into a small bag or even a pocket.
Using the pages of the Irish World, Ford and O’Donovan Rossa collected more than $20,000 within a year. Even those among the nationalist Irish-American groups who supported the idea of a bombing campaign in Britain viewed with dismay the lack of restraint and caution in O’Donovan Rossa’s violent rhetoric. John Devoy, one of the leaders of Clan na Gael, the main Irish nationalist organisation in America, believed, as Kenna writes, that O’Donovan Rossa ‘had given the British ample warning of his plans through a desire for notoriety and theatricality, thus jeopardising any future or current Fenian initiative’.
O’Donovan Rossa was defiant. ‘I am not talking to the milk and water people,’ he wrote in the Irish World,
I am talking to those who mean fight, who mean war and who know what war is. When an enslaved nation can produce men who are brave and daring enough to risk life and to face death for the mere glory of showing that the national spirit still lives, that nation is not dead and those men should be encouraged instead of repressed.
As the arguments within Irish-America became more heated, O’Donovan Rossa began drinking heavily. ‘He is now so bad that I fear the only way to save him is to put him under restraint,’ Devoy remarked, having discovered that O’Donovan Rossa had misappropriated funds. Even when sober, O’Donovan Rossa made himself into a nuisance for Devoy and his colleagues in the United States who were seeking to make an alliance, known as the New Departure, with Parnell and the Irish Parliamentary Party in Ireland. Threatening to dynamite Britain would not be helpful in the effort to create a united movement within Irish nationalism.
Increasingly determined, bombastic and indiscreet, O’Donovan Rossa matched his incendiary rhetoric with action. In January 1881 his followers exploded a bomb in Salford, the first time a bomb had been planted in Britain to further a political cause. The bomb destroyed some shops, injured a woman and killed a seven-year-old boy. The British authorities, who began to monitor O’Donovan Rossa’s activities in the United States, observed that he had the ruthlessness of a dangerous conspirator without any of the guile. Micheal Davitt, the leader of the Land League in Ireland, referred to him as ‘O’Donovan Assa’ and called him ‘the buffoon in Irish revolutionary politics with no advantage to himself but with terrible consequences to the many poor wretches who acted the Sancho Panza to his more than idiotic Don Quixote’. Slowly and without much difficulty, the British infiltrated his organisation. Nonetheless, the movement to bomb Britain continued sporadically over the next few years. Its culmination was Dynamite Saturday in January 1885, noted by James in another letter to Norton: ‘The country is gloomy, anxious, and London reflects its gloom. Westminster Hall and the Tower were half blown up two days ago by Irish Dynamiters.’
Eighteen months earlier, a young Irishman recently returned from America, Thomas J. Clarke, one of O’Donovan Rossa’s Sancho Panzas, had been arrested in London. Using evidence of an elaborate bomb factory in Birmingham, the Crown charged him and other followers of O’Donovan Rossa with treason. (The plan, it seems, had been to blow up the Houses of Parliament.) Sentenced to life imprisonment, he would eventually become what Ruth Dudley Edwards described as ‘the spider at the centre of the conspiratorial web’ that would lead to the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin more than thirty years later. He was, in her words, ‘able, vengeful, focused, selfless and implacable’.
Clarke’s time in prison – he began his sentence at Millbank in 1883, a year before James made his visit there – would include much severe hardship, including periods of solitary confinement. Serving a lengthy prison sentence in English jails would give him the sort of mystique that arose from having sacrificed much for Ireland and survived. It would place him in the long tradition of Irish martyrs and put him in a position of leadership in Dublin once the time came. In prison, he managed to connect with colleagues and allies. Though forbidden to speak, the prisoners found ways to circumvent the rules. Like many Irish revolutionaries of the 19th century, including O’Donovan Rossa, Clarke would produce a volume of prison memoirs, in which he described ‘the dismal, dark side, [so] full of wretchedness and misery that even now I cannot think of [it] without shuddering, and, strange as it may seem, the bright side too, the side which I can look back upon now with some degree of pleasure and pride’. That pleasure and pride included a sense of companionship and a sort of arrogance in dealing with regulations and with the prison authorities.
As with O’Donovan Rossa during his incarceration, a campaign began to publicise the sufferings and ill-treatment of Irish prisoners, including Clarke, in British jails. By 1890, the Amnesty Association had 200,000 members. Slowly, the campaign became more vocal and broadly based. One of Clarke’s prison companions ran for election and became an MP, only to be disqualified as a felon. Pressure on the government to release the prisoners continued until in 1898 Clarke was released.
He was 41. His years in prison had led him to see that spies and informers as well as careless planning had done great damage to a movement whose aims he now planned to further with determination and single-mindedness. He returned to Ireland, spoke at a few gatherings in his honour and fell in love with Kathleen Daly, the 20-year-old niece of one of his comrades. Soon he went to New York, where he continued to conspire against British rule in Ireland. Kathleen followed him and they got married. Having come from a large and noisy family, she found that she was living ‘with a very silent man. Those terrible years developed the habit of repressing every sign of emotion and made him suspicious of every stranger.’
Clarke didn’t find work easily in New York. He started as a street sweeper; at least in prison he hadn’t had to beg for work, he told his wife. He was rescued by John Devoy, who was now setting up a newspaper; he made Clarke his assistant and the paper’s general manager. Clarke was effective and self-effacing. He was in a good position to assess the new generation of Irish revolutionaries who came to New York. In 1907, he concluded that it was time for him to return to Ireland. The police noted the arrival of the ‘ex-convict and dynamiter’ while Clarke, in turn, noted a new energy in the movement for Irish independence, which now included Sinn Féin, the political party founded in November 1905 and dedicated to the cause of Irish self-reliance. ‘The young fellows … who take the lead in the Sinn Féin movement impressed me very much by their earnestness and ability,’ he told Devoy’s latest assistant. ‘I am delighted to find them away above what I expected.’
In the year Clarke returned to Ireland, a book called Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement, by Sir Robert Anderson, a police commissioner, was published – it helped inspire Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent. The relevant passage was an account of a conversation between Gladstone’s home secretary, Sir William Harcourt, and a police chief. While Clarke was being moved from prison to prison, Harcourt had refused to countenance the idea that he and the others were political prisoners and insisted that they be treated as common felons. (Harcourt generally took a firm line on Irish terrorism, for example putting on the statute books the Explosive Substances Act of 1883, which stipulated a sentence of life imprisonment for anyone involved in making or intending to use explosives, whether the explosives went off or not.) The conversation that inspired Conrad centred on the Fenian bombing campaign of the 1880s. ‘I won’t even try to explain,’ Conrad said in a note written in 1920,
why I should have been arrested by a little passage of about seven lines, in which the author … reproduced a short dialogue held in the lobby of the House of Commons after some unexpected anarchist outrage with the home secretary … And then ensued in my mind what a student of chemistry would best understand from the analogy of the addition of the tiniest little drop of the right kind, precipitating the process of crystallisation in a test tube containing some colourless solution.
As he thought about how to present the secret agent, Adolf Verloc, it occurred to Conrad to have him run a shop in Soho, ostensibly selling soft porn. This would allow strangers – mainly furtive-looking men – to enter and leave at will and information to be passed easily and secretly. The same idea occurred to Clarke when he came back to Dublin. This being Ireland, a shop selling soft porn, while also attracting potentially furtive-looking men, would have caused undue controversy and might indeed have attracted more public opprobrium than a centre for revolutionary activity, which Clarke, like Adolf Verloc, also wished his shop to be. Thus he decided to open a tobacco shop in Amiens Street, near the railway station. Men could come and go, all under the cover of purchasing tobacco.
It would be easy, but mistaken, to draw a straight line between Clarke’s return to Dublin and the rebellion he helped to lead nine years later, as though what occurred was natural, organic, inevitable and predictable, as though somehow the leadership and the circumstances matched each other, and every event that occurred over the next nine years was merely another piece of the jigsaw.
Clarke was determined to do what he could to foment rebellion in Ireland, but while he was dogged and single-minded, his skills were limited. Although he supported the Irish language movement, he was not an Irish speaker or a student of the language. And although the country he would appeal to was mainly Catholic, he was not religious. He wasn’t a good public speaker; he had no military experience. He was naturally secretive and silent; he had no personal warmth. Because he had spent so much time in prison and then in New York, he had no set of close friends or trusted comrades. His judgment was also flawed; his initial sense that there was a new energy in Irish nationalism proved to be wrong.
In 1907, politically and culturally, Dublin could just as easily have seemed what James Joyce called ‘a centre of paralysis’ as a city preparing for revolution. Both the Fenian movement itself and the Irish Parliamentary Party lacked energy; the Fenians were mostly old, and the Irish Parliamentary Party had never fully recovered from the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell. (Parnell, first elected to the House of Commons in 1875, and known for his charisma, cunning and strategic skills, was dubbed ‘the uncrowned king of Ireland’. He was brought down in 1890, having been named by William O’Shea as co-respondent in a divorce action, and died the following year.) It didn’t even look as though Sinn Féin had captured the public imagination. In opening his tobacco shop Clarke might easily have found that the public’s interest in tobacco far exceeded any interest in the sort of politics that the tobacconist had carried with him from his days in English jails. He could easily have ended up as a political dinosaur rather than the leader of a new Irish militancy.
Underneath what appeared as Dublin’s stability and lassitude, however, there was an energy; it had grown out of the political failure brought about by the split in the Irish Parliamentary Party over Parnell. Throughout the 1880s the figure of Parnell had soaked up energy, both political and cultural, not only in Ireland but in Britain as well. Henry James called him ‘the Satanic Parnell, who has fought like a thousand tigers & may very well still carry all Ireland with him; on which he will now throw himself like a tremendous firebrand’. In 1889 James attended what he called ‘the thrilling, throbbing Parnell trial’ (what turned out to be forged letters had been used by the Times to accuse Parnell of supporting the Phoenix Park murders of 1882, in which the new chief secretary for Ireland and his permanent undersecretary had been killed.) ‘If one had been once and tasted blood,’ he wrote to Grace Norton, ‘one was quite hungry to go again and wanted to give up everything and live there. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, getting in was supremely difficult.’ When Parnell was acquitted, he wrote:
Parnell has behaved atrociously (I mean, of course, quite outside the O’Shea case, as to which, shabby as it was, the cant is nauseous), but he has shown extraordinary force, audacity and ‘cleverness’. The last week has been a real drama – living, leaping & throbbing, with the acts bounding over from day to day – on a huge national stage.
Once the throbbing was over, there was a vacuum in Irish public life. In his 1922 essay ‘Ireland after Parnell’, Yeats noted that he had predicted the rise of ‘an intellectual movement at the first lull in politics’. Once Parnell was out of the way, Yeats believed that ‘Ireland was to be like soft wax for years to come.’ The life of the imagination was to replace arguments about politics. It’s interesting in this context to look at two figures who grew up and began to read and think for themselves in an Ireland freed from the energy that Parnell absorbed, a time when Ireland was more open to darting shifts and suggestions. Both Patrick Pearse and James Joyce had fathers who believed passionately in what Parnell had promised. And although they dismissed much of their inheritance, both Pearse, born in 1879, and Joyce, born in 1882, felt an abiding reverence for Parnell.
Joyce attended a few of the Irish language classes given by Pearse at University College Dublin in the spring of 1899, though he soon gave them up because he found Pearse a bore and objected to his efforts to denigrate the English language. He decided to study Norwegian instead in order to read Ibsen in the original. Since the university was small, and they belonged to some of the same student organisations, and since they both used the reading room of the National Library, it’s likely that they would have seen a great deal of each other in the years around the turn of the century. The clash between the two over ideas of language and cultural identity would make its way into the encounter between Gabriel Conroy and Miss Ivors in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’. When Gabriel tells Miss Ivors that he goes to France and Belgium ‘partly to keep in touch with the languages’, she replies: ‘And haven’t you your own language to keep in touch with – Irish?’ To which Gabriel replies: ‘Well, if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language.’ In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a figure whose ideology is close to that of Pearse roundly denounces Stephen Dedalus when he delivers a paper on ‘Drama and Life’ to the college Literary and Historical Society: ‘Mr Dedalus was himself a renegade from the nationalist ranks: he professed cosmopolitanism. But a man that was of all countries was of no country – you must have a nation before you could have art.’
Both Pearse and Joyce wrote for the theatre, and wrote poetry and fiction, Joyce rather more successfully, to say the least, but both, as the soft wax hardened around them, needed to throw stones at the Irish Literary Revival, led by Yeats and Lady Gregory. ‘The “Irish” Literary Theatre,’ Pearse wrote in 1899,
is, in my opinion, more dangerous, because less glaringly anti-national than Trinity College. If we once admit the Irish literature is English idea, then the language movement is a mistake. Mr Yeats’s precious ‘Irish’ Literary Theatre may, if it develops, give the Gaelic League more trouble than the Atkinson-Mahaffy combination [two professors at Trinity College Dublin who saw no value in Irish literature]. Let us strangle it at its birth. Against Mr Yeats personally we have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such he is harmless. But when he attempts to run an ‘Irish’ Literary Theatre it is time for him to be crushed.
Some years later Pearse changed his mind about Yeats, and he worked with him closely on a number of occasions. But Joyce didn’t change his mind about Lady Gregory. Four years after Pearse’s tirade against Yeats, Joyce reviewed a book by Lady Gregory called Poets and Dreamers: Studies and Translations from the Irish for the Daily Express. The storyteller from whom Lady Gregory took the stories had a mind, Joyce wrote, that was ‘feeble and sleepy. He begins one story and wanders from it into another story, and none of the stories has any satisfying imaginative wholeness.’ Lady Gregory, he wrote, ‘has explored in a land almost fabulous in its sorrow and senility’.
Words ascribed to the legendary Irish warrior Cúchulainn – ‘I care not though I were to live but one day and one night if only my fame and deeds live after me’ – were written over the entrance to St Enda’s, the school Pearse founded. This idea of living a heroic rather than a domestic or an ordinary life is alluded to by Gabriel at the end of ‘The Dead’. The sentence, ‘One by one, they were all becoming shades’ is followed by: ‘Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.’ It was this idea, which for Gabriel is merely a passing thought, that would animate Pearse and his followers in the years leading up to the 1916 Rebellion.
Pearse’s politics didn’t come simply or singly. Rather, his beliefs evolved, which made them all the more powerful and influential. If Clarke and O’Donovan Rossa, the two ex-prisoners, inhabit that section of Yeats’s poem ‘Easter 1916’ which uses the image of a stone in a stream (‘Hearts with one purpose alone/Through summer and winter seem/Enchanted to a stone/To trouble the living stream’), and if they are the men in whom ‘too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,’ then Pearse is, at times, closer to the image in the poem of ‘cloud to tumbling cloud’. He is the figure whose personality is protean, whose trajectory is all change. The distance between Pearse, the man who taught Irish classes at University College Dublin in 1899, and Pearse, the man who read his Proclamation in front of the General Post Office on Easter Monday 1916, is as great as that between Joyce the author of Dubliners and Joyce the author of Ulysses.
Both Pearse and Joyce worked as language teachers, Pearse teaching Irish, Joyce English. They would be transformed by ideas about language and would be on opposite sides of the debate about the connection between language and identity, language and form. Pearse claimed that the Irish child ‘granting it be of Irish parentage’ was ‘meant to speak Irish’. He claimed – several times – that the vocal chords of the Irish child ‘as a result of heredity working through the generations’ were primed to speak Irish. The last time he said it was in 1906, when Joyce was already installed in Trieste, where so many languages and dialects were spoken, and where Joyce would end A Portrait of the Artist with an image of himself going ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’.
Pearse, too, would become interested in forging the conscience of his race: it would take up all his time and energy. He would be as obsessed in his cultural pursuits as Joyce was as a writer. But it made a difference that the other part of Joyce’s sentence – the idea of encountering ‘the reality of experience’ – eluded Pearse and would continue to do so until his death by firing squad on 3 May 1916. Pearse’s lack of interest in ‘the reality of experience’ would take him from writing poems and teaching students, from a solitary cultural idealism, to leading a bloody insurrection.
He was the second of four children. His father was an English stonemason and church sculptor who came to Dublin in his twenties and established a successful business; he died suddenly in 1900, when Pearse was 21. He and his younger brother, Willie, tried to keep the business going. (Willie tended to follow his older brother’s example in everything – they spoke to one another throughout their lives in a kind of baby talk.) Pearse had a degree in languages from University College Dublin and after that studied for the Bar. Although he qualified, he never practised. Even as a student, he put all his energy into the movement to restore the Irish language. In his teens he became a member of the Gaelic League, the organisation founded in 1893 by Eoin MacNeill and Douglas Hyde to promote the use of Irish as a spoken and literary language. This was part of the emergence of a cultural nationalism in Ireland after the fall of Parnell. By 1904, the year Joyce left Ireland, the Gaelic League had 600 branches with 50,000 members. By the following year it had 900 branches and 100,000 members.
Pearse had been co-opted onto the executive council of the Gaelic League by the time he was twenty, and he began to deliver papers at meetings. The League was an acrimonious organisation, filled with factions. Pearse managed to function well in it because he had no close friends among its members; he was a loner and represented only himself. Besides, he was a tireless worker. By 1903 he was elected editor of the League’s weekly newspaper, and became involved in many controversies on behalf of the Irish language, not least with the Catholic bishops over their language policy, but also with the British government. In 1904 the newspaper’s circulation was 174,000. It had declined to 131,000 in 1908 but remained immensely influential.
Some members of the League, those who were also in the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Féin, thought of it as a Trojan horse. For them, cultural nationalism and the language movement were soft ways of furthering the political movement. In these early years Pearse, however, was a single-minded language enthusiast; he was a member of no political organisation. ‘When the position of Ireland’s language as her greatest heritage is once fixed,’ he wrote,
all other matters will insensibly adjust themselves. As it develops, and because it develops, it will carry all kindred movements with it. Irish music, Irish art, Irish dancing, Irish games and customs, Irish industries, Irish politics – all these are worthy objects. Not one of them, however, can be said to be fundamental.
When Ireland’s language is established, her own distinctive culture is assured … All phases of a nation’s life will most assuredly adjust themselves on national lines as best suited to the national character once that national character is safeguarded by its strongest bulwark.
Pearse had open differences of opinion with more militant nationalists. When the Irish Council Bill was proposed by the Liberal government in 1907, it offered only partial Home Rule – which was unacceptable not only to Sinn Féin but even to moderate members of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Pearse, though, supported it because it offered local control over education, which meant that Irish could be taught in more schools and given more prominence in the education system. ‘The English government,’ he wrote, ‘is unable to settle our grievances for us, for it is unable to understand either us or them. Let us first get control of the education system: then let us set about solving our problems ourselves. We shall find their solution wonderfully easy.’ For figures such as Thomas Clarke, who wanted the British removed from Ireland before anything else, Pearse’s support for small acts of potential reform meant that he couldn’t be trusted. Many readers of the Gaelic League newspaper were horrified by his support for the bill, a piece of legislation that was in any case doomed, and called for his resignation.
Pearse had many opinions, some of them bizarre and out of touch, others progressive and liberal. He believed that emigrants were traitors to their country rather than people who couldn’t find work at home. ‘Let us plainly tell the emigrant,’ he wrote, ‘that he is a traitor to the Irish State, and, if he but knew all, a fool into the bargain.’ He suggested that emigrants ‘can scarcely be accounted a loss, for they are deserters who have left their post, cowards who have refused to work in Ireland though work is to be had’. Later, he opposed the introduction of the old-age pension, taking the view that in Ireland the pensioners were selling out to the enemy. When there was discussion about the governing body of the new National University of Ireland, however, Pearse wanted women on the board. ‘Is one woman,’ he wrote,
would even two women or for that matter six women, be a sufficient representation of the interests of what is, after all, the more important half of Ireland’s population, a half, too, which is bound to be largely represented amongst the students of the university? We think that some of the male deadheads might well give place to female brains and educational experience. And we should like to see it made clear that women will be eligible for the professorial chairs.
He approved of women only in theory, however. In practice he was shy and uneasy in their company. He liked boys, and, as with many before and after him, he saw fit to set up a school where he could teach boys and spend time with them. There is something both peculiarly innocent and oddly revealing about some of his writing. One autobiographical account of a trip he made to the West of Ireland in 1902 tells of an encounter with a little boy called Padraig with whose family he was staying:
‘If you have only two other beds,’ said I, ‘there will not be room for the five of you. You must put little Padraig in my bed.’
‘God forbid,’ said Caitlin, surprised. ‘Go up to bed quickly, Padraig.’
Padraig was on his way to the loft, but before he reached the ladder I told Cait that I wouldn’t go to bed at all unless she let Padraig sleep with me.
Although she was an obstinate woman, she had to yield to me.
‘Everyone to his will,’ said she. ‘The loft is good enough for Padraig, but if you are determined to share your bed with him, I’ll not go against you.’
I think that Padraig was contented to be allowed to sleep with me. We went back to the room without delay, undressed quickly and into the bed with us. We stayed awake for about an hour talking together.
In a poem from 1909, written in both Irish and English, called ‘Little Lad of the Tricks’, Pearse wrote:
Little lad of the tricks
Full well I know
That you have been in mischief:
Confess your fault truly.
I forgive you, child
Of the soft red mouth:
I will not condemn anyone
For a sin not understood.
Raise your comely head
Till I kiss your mouth:
If either of us is the better of that
I am the better of it.
There is a fragrance in your kiss
That I have not found yet
In the kisses of women
Or in the honey of their bodies.
One former pupil of St Enda’s, the school Pearse set up, said: ‘Pearse used to kiss the young boys. He tried to kiss me but I would not have it.’ ‘Pearse was under a cloud because it was known that he used to kiss boys in his school,’ another pupil wrote, and then added: ‘Pearse made love to his boy pupils.’
Since he liked boys, besides writing about them and kissing them, he took a serious interest in their education and their welfare. ‘To me a boy is the most interesting of all living things,’ he wrote, ‘and I have for years found myself coveting the privilege of being in a position to mould or help to mould, the lives of boys to noble ends.’ In February 1908 he sent out a letter looking for financial support for ‘a project of a High School for boys in Dublin on purely Irish Ireland lines’. The building he wanted to use for this purpose was in Ranelagh in Dublin. The school opened in September 1908. By the end of the year he had seventy boys, including twenty boarders, and 24 girls. As numbers increased he employed more teachers, including the poet and nationalist Thomas MacDonagh.
Pearse had put a great deal of thought into education. As Joost Augusteijn says in Patrick Pearse: The Making of a Revolutionary (2010), ‘the teaching in St Enda’s was to be based on the most modern educational methods and thinking … The ideas that Patrick linked into had also caused the establishment of similar schools abroad. The child-centred education, modern teaching methods, the emphasis on the development of the whole person including character formation, patriotism and physical training were common denominators.’ He was, by many accounts, an inspiring teacher. He disliked corporal punishment, which was widely used elsewhere. ‘In St Enda’s there were no prefects,’ one student, who had previously been at Jesuit schools, wrote: ‘You were not watched, or kept under constant observation. You were put on your honour. And on your first transgression Pearse called you to his study: you gave your word not to offend again, and you usually kept your word.’
Putting on plays was an important element in the school’s curriculum and a useful way to publicise its mission. In March 1909, when two plays were performed by the students, one of them written in Irish by Douglas Hyde, co-founder of the Gaelic League, Yeats was in the audience. Later, when Pearse desperately needed money for the school, Yeats agreed to produce a play of Pearse’s with Rabindranath Tagore’s play The Post Office, giving St Enda’s two-thirds of the profits. ‘Only a great artist can afford to be greatly generous,’ Pearse remarked to his mother.
Especially in the early years, there was an atmosphere of pure idealism at St Enda’s; it was part of a more general sense of idealism and elation created by the new generation in Dublin which Roy Foster describes in Vivid Faces (2015). Mary Colum, for example, later wrote about her time teaching at Pearse’s school:
The teaching staff was young, and we seemed, all of us, to be travelling on the same road … Looking back, it seems incredible that so many young people were eager to devote their lives to the service of causes and ideals rather than to the normal things of youth. That they should take on themselves the arduous task of running a school, of bringing up and educating boys and girls, a task so full of drudgery and routine, seems unbelievable. But then it seemed equally incredible to some that parents would want to entrust their children to a group of young people whose chief recommendation was their ideals, their scholarship, their sense of art, and in other ways their lack of experience.
Although there was religious teaching in the school, Cúchulainn was the presiding deity; ‘the children in there are being taught according to the commandments of Cúchulainn rather than the ten commandments of God,’ visitors remarked. Every day after religious devotions Pearse told a tale from the Cúchulainn cycle of stories to the assembled school. The boys joked that the pervasive presence of the implacable hero made him ‘an important if invisible member of staff’. As with his work for the Gaelic League, Pearse devoted himself totally to the school. He didn’t draw a salary and, being highly impractical, constantly had to cajole others into investing money in the school to keep it going or persuade his debtors that the cause for which he owed them money was worthy and noble.
Of all the decisions Pearse made, the decision to move the boys’ school from Oakley Road near the centre of Dublin to Rathfarnham on the deep outskirts was perhaps the most significant. On the other hand that may just be one way of looking at how and why he changed from being the man who ‘kept a school and rode our winged horse’, as Yeats put it in ‘Easter 1916’, to becoming as militant as any of the old members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Other explanations would depend on the notion that the times themselves were changing, that militancy was in the air in the years before the First World War, and that Pearse, so solitary and mercurial, was especially susceptible to what was in the air. It might also have mattered that Pearse’s kind of cultural nationalism – his belief, for example, that the Irish language was intrinsically superior to English – would inevitably lead to a more intense views of what should be done to rid Ireland of English rule.
In Oakley Road, situated between Ranelagh and Rathmines, St Enda’s was part of bustling suburban Dublin. The heroism and example of Cúchulainn might have been important in the school itself; it would have been met with indifference out on the road. The Hermitage in Rathfarnham, where he moved the school in 1910, was set in fifty acres of wood and parkland, with a river and a lake near its boundary. For Pearse, the place had a different tutelary spirit: not Cúchulainn, but the ghost of Robert Emmet, who had led an ill-fated rebellion in Dublin in 1803 and was publicly executed in the city afterwards. Emmet’s death was memorialised in songs by Thomas Moore, a poem by Shelley and an elegy by Berlioz. Emmet’s speech from the dock which ended, ‘When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written,’ was considered a masterpiece of its kind. Henry James’s father, who was close to the Emmet family in New York, knew it by heart. Legend had it that Emmet and his girlfriend Sarah Curran used to walk in the grounds of the Hermitage.
‘If a locality can preserve the past and haunt a receptive mind with past good or evil, assuredly the Hermitage haunted the mind and personality of Pearse,’ Desmond Ryan, who studied at St Enda’s, wrote in his memoir, Remembering Sion. ‘Robert Emmet’s memory haunted Pearse, and this haunting is clamant throughout Pearse’s later speeches: he seems to see Emmet tapping his cane along the Rathfarnham roads … or standing on a scaffold before a silent Dublin crowd.’ Whereas in the old school Pearse had spoken of ancient heroes, in the new school, Ryan noted, ‘he spoke oftener to his boys of past efforts to gain Irish independence.’ Pearse himself was aware of the change. In 1910 he wrote in the school newspaper:
I am not sure whether it is symptomatic of some development within me, or is merely a passing phase, or comes naturally from the associations that cling about these old stones and trees, that whereas at Cullenswood House [in Oakley Road] I spoke oftenest to our boys of Cúchulainn … I have been speaking to them oftenest here of Robert Emmet and the heroes of the last stand. Cúchulainn was our greatest inspiration at Cullenswood; Robert Emmet has been our greatest inspiration here. In truth, it was the spirit of Emmet that led me to these hillsides.
By 1910, Thomas Clarke, aged 52, had two young sons and had opened a second tobacco shop in Parnell Street at the top of O’Connell Street. It was clear to him now what a moribund organisation the Irish Republican Brotherhood was. John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, had begun to dominate political debate in Ireland to such as an extent that, as Clarke’s biographer Michael Foy has written, ‘Dublin Castle believed that no secret society was active in Ireland and wanted the police to concentrate instead on open organisations like the Gaelic League, the Gaelic Athletic Association and Sinn Féin.’ In other words, the authorities believed that the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Fenians, were not even worth spying on. Clarke began to associate with a few young members of the Brotherhood, notably Sean MacDermott, 26 years younger than him, whose gregariousness masked an ability to be secretive and determined. Slowly and with difficulty, Clarke and MacDermott set about moving into positions of authority within the IRB, Clarke almost accidentally slipping into position of secretary of the Supreme Council. MacDermott became national organiser.
Early the following year, when MacDermott suggested to Clarke that Pearse could be used to deliver a tribute to Emmet, Clarke was uneasy. ‘Pearse,’ he said, ‘might be a good Gaelic Leaguer, but he had never been identified with the separatists.’ Clarke saw no reason to trust Pearse. But MacDermott, according to Clarke’s wife, stressed Pearse’s oratory. ‘It was his first truly nationalistic speech,’ Ruth Dudley Edwards says in her biography of Pearse, ‘and although it sprang from his devotion to Emmet rather than to any revolutionary programme, it demonstrated to the IRB men that he had talents that could be useful to them.’ Clarke was impressed: ‘I never knew there was such stuff in Pearse.’
While Clarke was watchful, taciturn, determined, unselfconscious, Pearse was becoming fascinated by his own image and indeed his own destiny. Desmond Ryan remembered Pearse being taunted at a meeting when he asked for a more charitable attitude to the Irish Parliamentary Party. Pearse’s response was: ‘Yes, give me a hundred men and I will free Ireland.’ On the way home to St Enda’s he said: ‘Let them talk! I am the most dangerous revolutionary of the whole lot of them!’ In 1912, in a newspaper he ran, Pearse wrote open letters to some public figures, including one to himself, filled with self-regard:
I don’t know if I like you or not, Pearse. I don’t know if anyone does like you. I know full well many who hate you … Pearse, you are too dark in yourself. You don’t make friends with the Gaels [Irish people]. You avoid their company … Is it your English blood that is the cause of this I wonder? However you have the gift of speech. You can make your audience laugh or cry as you please … You did a good deed when you founded St Enda’s … Take my advice, attend to [that], leave politics alone.
But he didn’t leave politics alone. Slowly, over the next four years, Pearse’s rhetoric became more messianic and reckless. He still wasn’t aligned with any party, however, and as late as 1912 could speak in favour of Home Rule at the same rally as John Redmond. But there was menace in his tone. ‘If we are tricked again,’ that speech ended, ‘there is a band in Ireland, and I am one of them, who will advise the Irish people never again to consult with the Gall [the foreigner], but to answer them with violence and the edge of the sword. Let the English understand that if we are again betrayed there shall be red war throughout Ireland.’
On a fund-raising tour of America for St Enda’s in the spring of 1914, Pearse was treated by radical nationalists as an important figure in the Irish freedom movement. In one speech he made there he spoke about ‘the spirit of Irish patriotism’ and how it called to various Irish patriots. ‘Heroic effort,’ he wrote, ‘claimed the heroic man.’ But then as he considered Emmet, he made a distinction between him and the other patriots, a distinction he might also have made between himself and a figure such as Clarke. ‘In Emmet it called to a dreamer and he awoke a man of action; it called to a student and a recluse and he stood forth a leader of men; it called to one who loved the ways of peace and he became a revolutionary.’
While Pearse was becoming more political, Clarke was building up a powerbase within the IRB until he won some control within the organisation. But the IRB was still a minority group. Once the possibility of Home Rule by legislation began to emerge, Clarke was worried about being further marginalised. However, in 1913 when the Ulster Volunteer Force was set up to oppose Home Rule, there was a move in Dublin led by Eoin MacNeill, the co-founder of the Gaelic League, to set up the Irish Volunteers as a counter to the Ulster Volunteer Force. Their declared aim was ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’. Essentially, they were a nationalist force. Clarke and his comrades put all their energy into controlling the Volunteers. Sixteen of the Provisional Committee of thirty were members of the IRB, and three, including Pearse, would soon be sworn in (Pearse joined the IRB in December 1913). The rest were members of Sinn Féin or followers of Redmond and his Irish Parliamentary Party. By the spring of 1914, the Irish Volunteers had 18,000 members, but membership increased to a hundred thousand when the UVF smuggled close to 30,000 rifles and a large quantity of ammunition into Larne in County Antrim.
‘The country is electrified with the volunteering business – never in my recollection have I known in any former movement anything to compare with the spontaneous rush that is being made all over to get into the movement and start drill and get hold of a rifle,’ Clarke wrote to Devoy in America. ‘Young fellows who had been regarded as like wastrels now changed to energetic soldiers absorbed in the work and taking pride at last they feel they can do something for their country that will count. ’Tis good to be alive in Ireland these times.’ The police now began to keep a close watch on who was coming and going at Clarke’s tobacco shop.
When guns were smuggled in by the Orangemen in 1913, Pearse wrote an article that made clear how far his position had moved. ‘I am glad that the Orangemen have armed,’ he said,
for it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands … I should like to see any and every body of Irish citizens armed. We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes at the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.
Redmond too wanted to exert control over the Irish Volunteers and proposed a smaller executive that he believed his supporters could dominate. To avoid a split, MacNeill argued for a compromise that would give Redmond effective control of the Volunteers. This was vehemently opposed by Clarke and most of his followers, including Pearse, though some members of the IRB, including one of Clarke’s most trusted allies, supported it. When Clarke lost, a friend reported never having seen him so moved.
He regarded it from the beginning as cold-blooded and contemplated treachery likely to bring about the destruction of the only movement in a century which brought promise of the fulfilment of all his hopes. During his life he had had many, very many grievous disappointments but this was the worst and the bitterness of it was increased by the fact that it was brought about by a trusted friend.
In July 1914 when guns were smuggled into Howth, north of Dublin, for the Irish Volunteers, by this time numbering 180,000 men, Clarke and MacDermott twice filled a taxi with rifles. Barely a week later the First World War broke out, and it was clear to Clarke that there would now be an opportunity for a rebellion in Dublin. Between August and the following February, however, 50,000 Irishmen volunteered to join the British army. Redmond himself had called on Irishmen to join the British army and fight ‘wherever the firing line extends in defence of right, freedom and religion’. As a result of his speech, the Irish Volunteers split. Redmond’s supporters, who became the National Volunteers, were the vast majority.
About ten thousand men remained active in the Irish Volunteers as the war in Europe intensified. The battle Clarke and his followers now had on their hands was to control this group and use whatever influence they had to move towards an armed insurrection. Within the leadership of the Volunteers especially, but also within the IRB, there were some who didn’t share Clarke and MacDermott’s radicalism, but this seemed, if anything, to sharpen their determination. Clarke found making enemies easy, and these enemies now included figures in his own movement who were still not sure that the best strategy would be open rebellion.
A conference was arranged between leading members of the Volunteers and the IRB and James Connolly, who controlled the Irish Citizen Army, a small militant left-wing group. Connolly, a Marxist, saw the war as an opportunity for the Irish working class to liberate itself from Britain. Both Clarke and Pearse attended the meeting, which discussed seeking help from Germany for the Irish cause. But it was clear from the enthusiasm with which the war effort was greeted in Ireland that parts of the country remained more ambivalent about Britain, or at least more nonchalant about the struggle for Irish independence, than any members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood or the Irish Citizen Army had presumed. Once a crisis broke out, many young men saw no great reason not to join the British army. Britain was merely the supposed enemy. The population of the two countries spoke the same language after all, and had the same education system. Many Irish people moved back and forth between Ireland and England seeking work; many in Ireland also had family in England. While most in the south of Ireland actively or tacitly supported Home Rule, Home Rule was postponed until the war ended. It looked as though the two islands were going to join forces in the war effort. (More than 200,000 Irishmen eventually volunteered in the First World War. Although conscription was threatened in Ireland, it was never actually introduced.)
It seemed as though groups such as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Sinn Féin and indeed the Gaelic League were going to become increasingly marginalised as the First World War took its course. To change that would require acts that were radical and imaginative. The transformation needed would involve a full merging of the single-minded diehard politics which Clarke stood for, with their roots in the narrow self-sacrifice and violent actions of the Fenian movement of the 1860s, with Pearse’s inspirational cultural nationalism, his brilliant oratory and his increasing interest in following both of his heroes – Cúchulainn and Robert Emmet – to an early death and martyrdom.
It would need, for a start anyway, a dead body, a spectacle and a speech. Clarke had noted how large the funerals had been for the three civilians shot by troops at the time of the Howth gun-running in July 1914. The cortège, with its three coffins, headed by forty priests and controlled by the Irish Volunteers, took seventy minutes to pass any given point. It was the greatest outpouring of grief since the death of Parnell.
On 29 June 1915, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa died in his eighties in New York. When John Devoy cabled Clarke, ‘Rossa dead, what shall we do?’ Clarke replied: ‘Send his body home at once.’ In her memoirs, Clarke’s widow reported him saying: ‘If Rossa had planned to die at the most opportune time for serving his country, he could not have done better.’ In the years since Clarke had last seen the old Fenian in New York, O’Donovan Rossa had been giving tours recalling his prison days. He had even returned to Ireland for a time to take up a sinecure offered him by Cork County Council. The day after his death, the Irish Times wrote: ‘there was a time in Ireland when his death would have created a sensation, but it is no exaggeration to say that today there are many who had almost forgotten his existence.’
Clarke understood what could be done with the last of the original Fenians, especially one whom very few people in Ireland had known personally, and who had not been involved in the bitter local disputes that had dogged the Republican movement over the previous decade. Once he was dead, O’Donovan Rossa could be remembered as the man who had served years in an English prison; he could be commemorated as someone who had held out for Irish freedom in a dark time; he could become all legend. Those who knew him better than Clarke did, or had a better memory – Devoy, for example – made their reservations clear even after his death. ‘He began to sacrifice himself, his family and his interests at the very inception of the movement, and he continued it to his last conscious hour,’ Devoy wrote. ‘Often the sacrifice was wholly unnecessary, even unwise, but Rossa believed it was called for and never hesitated or counted the cost.’ But Clarke was having none of this as he began to prepare a spectacular funeral. He set up sub-committees to organise the event, and the heads of these included many of the men who, the following year, would become leaders of the 1916 Rebellion. Clarke moved Thomas MacDonagh, who had been a teacher at St Enda’s but was now a lecturer in English at University College Dublin, into a central position as organiser of the funeral.
MacDonagh was to be invoked in ‘Easter 1916’ as Pearse’s ally:
That other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
MacDonagh’s own poem for O’Donovan Rossa sums up the way the dead man was now to be seen:
Grieve not for him: speak not a word of sorrow;
Although his eyes saw not his country’s glory,
The service of his day shall make our morrow:
His name shall be a watchword in our story.
Him England for his love of Ireland hates;
This flesh we bury England’s chains have bitten:
That is enough; for our deed he waits;
With Emmet’s let his epitaph be written.
It was agreed that the funeral procession would include not only the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army and members of the Gaelic Athletic Association, but also Redmond’s National Volunteers. It would be the last time these four organisations marched together. But, as the arrangements were being made, the Daily Telegraph reported that O’Donovan Rossa had recanted on his deathbed, praising Redmond and his party and seeming to support the British war effort. All of this was vehemently denied by O’Donovan Rossa’s widow, who came to Ireland with her daughter.
Although the coffin arrived at Liverpool, the plan was for it to be carried from the ship to the boat for Ireland ‘on Irish shoulders’, thus ensuring that it would not touch English soil. After an argument with the archbishop of Dublin MacDonagh had arranged that it would be brought first to the pro-cathedral in Dublin on Tuesday, 27 July where prayers would be said, followed by Mass the next day. Even though the Fenians, with their oath of secrecy, were anathema to the Catholic Church, no one could be left out of this solemn mise-en-scène. The body was then to be taken to City Hall on Dame Street and draped with the Tricolour of the Irish Republic; it was held there until the funeral on Sunday, 1 August. A glass opening in the coffin allowed the estimated hundred thousand people who came to pay their respects to see the dead man’s face. There were queues from City Hall as far as George’s Street. The coffin was protected by a guard of honour, led by Edward Daly, the younger brother of Kathleen Clarke, Clarke’s wife.
When Sean MacDermott had suggested to Clarke in 1911 that Pearse deliver a tribute to Emmet, he’d told Clarke that if he gave Pearse ‘the lines you want, he will dress it up in beautiful language’ (MacDermott was in prison at the time of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral, prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act after saying in a public speech that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’). When Clarke asked Pearse to deliver the oration over O’Donovan Rossa’s grave, Pearse inquired what tone he should take. Clarke replied that he wanted the oration to be ‘as hot as hell’. Pearse, he suggested, should ‘throw all discretion to the winds’.
On leaving City Hall in Dublin the funeral cortège took a most circuitous route. The day was warm. It was estimated that 200,000 people lined the streets of the city to see it pass. Special trains had been arranged for those who wished to travel to Dublin for the spectacle. The leaders of the procession arrived at Glasnevin Cemetery, the site of the graves of Parnell and some of the other Fenian leaders, at 4.30, but it took two more hours for the coffin itself to enter the gates of the cemetery.
There are many accounts of the day in the Bureau of Military History in Dublin. They emphasise the significance of the occasion, ‘the extraordinary perfection of the organisation’ and the fact that the Irish Volunteers – unlike the National Volunteers – were armed. Joseph McCarthy, from Wexford, for example, noted that ‘the slow march of the Volunteers passing through the city conveyed to everyone the significance of a real national army. The wail of the laments from the pipers’ bands and the music of the brass bands mingled with the slow and rhythmic beat of the steps of the marching men, re-echoed up the quiet streets adjoining the route and through the open squares.’
Pearse had learned his words by heart. The oration ended as follows:
Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The defenders of this realm have worked well in the secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think they have foreseen everything, think 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.
When Pearse had finished, a voice from the crowd shouted, ‘Say it again!’ and then: ‘Doesn’t he speak like a priest?’ ‘The oration,’ one witness remembered, ‘soon became the favourite recitation at concerts and social entertainments all over the country. I have heard it recited in railway journeys to hurling and football matches.’ But what happened immediately after the oration was, it seems, as impressive as the speech itself. Volleys were fired over the grave. ‘This must have been one of the very few occasions,’ one witness said, ‘on which this military demonstration took place in our lifetime and this too in its way made a deep impression not alone on all those who were present but who read the report afterwards.’
‘The old order changeth,’ the Irish Independent noted the following day. Father Michael Curran, secretary to the archbishop of Dublin, remembered the event as ‘the date that publicly revealed that a new political era had begun’. He thought that ‘the supremely impressive moment was the triple volley fired by the Volunteers.’ This represented ‘more than a farewell to an old Fenian – it was a defiance to England by a new generation in Ireland.’
Desmond Ryan, who admired Pearse, recalled his dramatic gesture as the speech came to an end: ‘Beside the grave he stood, impressive and austere in green, with slow and intense delivery, and as he cried aloud upon the fools he threw back his head sharply and the expression seemed to vivify the speech which ended calmly and proudly.’ The image with which Ryan ended that chapter of his memoir seems even more significant than his description of Pearse’s performance itself. ‘He walked home alone, and sat in his study: at last he had spoken the just word he sought to immortalise a man less great than himself.’ After the speech, he had not associated with any group, or gone to eat or have a drink with others. He had returned to Rathfarnham on his own. He didn’t have a group of peers or supporters.
When Ryan found him, Pearse asked him for a loan of ten shillings. He never managed to look after either his own finances or those of his school. His impracticality only added to his mystique. His solitude, his not leading a faction within the Volunteers or the IRB, gave him even more power as he determined that there would soon be a rebellion. He was not interested in anyone else’s opinion. What he had begun to plan, in fact, was his own death. Early in 1916, when he was asked for a portrait of himself for the cover of a pamphlet about Emmet which supporters in Enniscorthy wanted to publish, he wrote: ‘I think a portrait of Emmet would be better (as well as handsomer) on the cover. After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting, but not before.’
Between the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915 and Easter week 1916 an intense dispute went on within the ranks of the Volunteers and the IRB. In January 1916 James Connolly was co-opted onto the Military Council of the IRB, a body that had come into being the year before. Clarke, MacDermott and Pearse were also members. The plan to organise a rebellion on Easter Sunday 1916 was not shared with senior members of the Irish Volunteers, such as MacNeill, who would have opposed such an idea. Rather it was shared among people whom Clarke and Pearse believed that they could trust, most of whom had been sworn into the IRB.
Preparations for the Rising were kept secret, remaining, for the most part, a matter of rumour. It meant that news of the plan was unlikely to reach Dublin Castle with any degree of certainty, or indeed reach those among the Volunteers who could put a stop to the preparations. But it also meant that the numbers involved in any rebellion would be low and, no matter what happened, there would be confusion over who had control.
The plan depended on arms from Germany arriving in Ireland. On Good Friday the authorities arrested Roger Casement, who had arrived from Germany by submarine, and intercepted the landing of German arms off the coast of County Kerry. During the three or four days before the Rebellion MacNeill, who was the chief of staff of the Volunteers, repeatedly sought clarification about the intentions of his more extreme colleagues. When he discovered that there was a plan for a general mobilisation on Easter Sunday at 4 p.m., he held a meeting on the Saturday evening at which he announced that ‘he had come to the conclusion that the enterprise was madness, would mean a slaughter of unarmed men and that he felt it to be his bounden duty to try and stop it.’ He issued ‘a countermanding order’, which was reported in the press on Easter Sunday morning.
Those who had favoured a rebellion were devastated. One volunteer reported: ‘It was the first and only time that I saw Sean [MacDermott] really angry and upset.’ Connolly’s daughter remembered her father’s response: ‘The tears ran down his face … “Are we not going to fight now?” he said. “The only thing we can do is pray for an earthquake to come and swallow us up and our shame.”’ At a meeting of the Military Council, held on the morning of Easter Sunday, Clarke wanted to go ahead with the rebellion as planned. But it was agreed that it should be postponed by a day. MacDonagh was detailed to visit MacNeill to dupe him into believing that the plans for a rebellion had been cancelled. At 8 p.m. on Easter Sunday, Pearse dispatched couriers across the country with a simple message: ‘We start operations at noon today, Monday. Carry out your instructions.’
On Easter Monday, then, rebels took the General Post Office in Dublin. A republic was declared. Fifty years later, Kathleen Clarke wrote that it was her husband, not Pearse, who was president of the short-lived republic. Pearse, she said, ‘had wanted to grab what was due to others … surely Pearse should have been satisfied with the honour of commander-in-chief when he knew as much about commanding as my dog.’ It was Pearse, however, dog or no dog, who read out the Proclamation – a thousand copies of which had been printed that morning – in front of the GPO. Its seven signatories included Pearse himself, Clarke, MacDonagh and MacDermott. Now that he had moved into the real world of military action and out of the realm dominated by his imagination, Pearse’s oratorical skills seemed to fail him – or maybe it was the audience that was different. ‘There was very little noise in the street – practically silent,’ one witness recalled.
The crowd numbered about two hundred and I’m sure that many of them didn’t recognise the significance of what Pearse was saying. His voice didn’t carry too well and it was difficult to hear him. He had the document of the Proclamation in his hand, standing between the columns of the GPO, in the middle, on what I judged to be a chair. But there was no reaction … when he had finished the crowd melted.
Another witness reported: ‘Slowly the crowd broke up … Quite a few, bored with the whole affair, simply turned and wandered away.’ ‘The people simply listened and shrugged their shoulders, or sniggered a little and then glanced around to see if the police were coming,’ the writer Stephen McKenna recorded. Within a week, however, the Chicago Tribune reported that when Pearse finished speaking ‘thundering shouts rent the air, lasting for many minutes. The cries were taken all along Sackville Street and the adjoining thoroughfares.’
What happened on Easter Monday in Dublin is open to interpretation. As a military event, it makes almost no sense. Taking St Stephen’s Green, rather than Dublin Castle, suggests poor planning and lack of strategic thinking. ‘Was the Rising an attempted coup d’état or an irrational blood sacrifice?’ Fearghal McGarry asks in his book The Rising (2011). In other words, did what happened arise from Clarke’s notion (however hamfisted and badly thought out) of taking power in Ireland by use of arms, or did it take its bearings from Pearse’s more messianic and dreamy illusions: to have a small number sacrifice themselves at Easter in order to inspire a larger number? Was it meant to have resonance rather than resolution?
Over the last hundred years there has been much discussion about the rebellion in Dublin that began on Easter Monday and ended with unconditional surrender the following Saturday. It involved the destruction of the city centre and the deaths of almost five hundred people, just over half of them civilians, some of them children. Very soon after the rebellion ended, what McGarry calls ‘a powerful narrative emerged … the Rising was seen as a heroic fight by selfless patriots who had recklessly taken on the might of the British Empire, the nobility of their cause and vindictiveness of the British response resurrecting a quiescent Irish nation.’ According to this narrative, the 1916 Rising led directly to Sinn Féin’s spectacular victory in the 1918 election, the ensuing guerrilla war against Britain, and Irish independence.
More recently, historians have offered other narratives. Peter Hart, for example, has called the Rebellion ‘a unique example of insurrectionary abstract art’:
The surprise, the proclamation, the tricolour, the seized buildings and barricades were all there, but the targets seem almost purely symbolic or even arbitrary: instead of the arsenal, city hall or barracks, they occupied a post office, a bakery, a public park. There was probably some military rationale involved – it’s hard to tell since no record of the plan has survived – but there was certainly no intention of seizing power.
Another historian, David Fitzpatrick, has commented on the civilian casualties:
By raising their tricolour in the centre of the main shopping area and close to Dublin’s northside slums, the rebels ensured massive human and material losses once their position was attacked. It is difficult to avoid the inference that the republican strategists were intent upon provoking maximum bloodshed, destruction and coercion, in the hope of resuscitating Irish Anglophobia and clawing back popular support for their discredited militant programme.
The British were surprised by the Rebellion. Later, it would emerge that the quality of the intelligence they had about the leaders was, to say the least, unimpressive. This would become apparent in their efforts to interrogate MacNeill, whom they had arrested ‘on the charge of being a rebel’. They followed earlier failure with a sudden burst of energy, handing over effective power in Ireland to the military, arresting 3430 men and 79 women and raiding houses throughout the country. In a series of court martials they sentenced 90 rebels to be shot. Fifteen of these sentences were quickly carried out. The charge was that the rebels had been ‘waging war against His Majesty the King with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy’.
Among those shot by firing squad were Pearse, Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott and Edward Daly, Clarke’s brother-in-law. The day after they shot Pearse, they shot his brother Willie, though Willie Pearse had not been a leader of the rebellion and the authorities had no evidence against him as a leader. They didn’t return the bodies to the families but buried them in quicklime and without coffins. As early as 3 May – the day Clarke, Pearse and MacDonagh were shot – Redmond protested to Asquith, the prime minister, that ‘if any more executions take place in Ireland, the position will become impossible for any Constitutional Party or leader.’ On 8 May the lord lieutenant, Lord Wimborne, warned Major-General Sir John Maxwell, who had come to Ireland on 28 April as military governor, of possible ‘disastrous consequences’ arising from the executions. On the same day, John Dillon, who would be the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which was wiped out by Sinn Féin in the 1918 election, told Maxwell: ‘It really would be difficult to exaggerate the amount of mischief the executions are doing.’ On 10 May Asquith sent instructions to Dublin that ‘no further executions are to take place until further orders.’
In the House of Commons, on 11 May, Dillon told the government what would happen next. ‘You are doing everything conceivable to madden the Irish people,’ he said. ‘If Ireland were governed by men out of Bedlam you could not pursue a more insane policy.’ As Charles Townshend wrote in Easter 1916 (2015), ‘In terms seldom if ever heard in Parliament, Dillon reiterated and amplified the warning he had issued to Maxwell: “You are washing out our whole life work in a sea of blood … What is poisoning the mind of Ireland, and rapidly poisoning it, is the secrecy of these trials and the continuance of these executions.”’ Thousands of people in Dublin, Dillon said, ‘who were bitterly opposed to the whole of the Sinn Féin movement and to the Rebellion are now becoming infuriated against the government’. Dillon asked Asquith to stop the executions. ‘This series of executions,’ he said, ‘is doing more harm than any Englishman in this House can possibly fathom.’ The men being executed were not guilty of murder: they were ‘insurgents who have fought a clean fight, a brave fight, however misguided’. As English MPs began to heckle him, Dillon, a constitutional nationalist with no connections to the rebels and a supporter of the war effort, said: ‘It would be a damned good thing for you if your soldiers were able to put up as good a fight as did these men in Dublin.’ He was, he said, ‘proud of their courage, and if you were not so dense and stupid, as some of you English people are, you could have had these men fighting for you’.
Despite his warning and Asquith’s instructions, Connolly and MacDermott were shot on 12 May. Since Connolly had been injured in the rebellion, they had to sit him in a chair before shooting him. On 3 August, Roger Casement was hanged in London.
Around 1600 prisoners were transferred from Ireland to England. They were held as ‘enemy aliens’, which some considered strange since they were indisputably British citizens, or would be until six years later, when the British left Southern Ireland, having made every further mistake possible: losing the support of the Catholic Church, continuing the threat of conscription and sending in the Black and Tans, a force not known for its restraint or discipline, to attempt to pacify the country.
By mid-May 1916, as Townshend writes, the forces of law and order in Ireland were reporting ‘a significant sign in a sudden unfriendliness or even hostility towards the police’; throughout Leinster, they noted, ‘popular sympathy for the rebels is growing’ and in Munster ‘sympathy among all nationalists is becoming intensified in favour of the rebels arrested or sentenced.’ On 17 May, having been provoked by Maxwell, Bishop O’Dwyer of Limerick made clear that the British had lost whatever support they had had from the Irish Catholic hierarchy: ‘You took great care that no plea for mercy should interpose on behalf of the poor young fellows who surrendered to you in Dublin,’ he wrote to Maxwell. ‘The first information we got of their fate was the announcement that they had been shot in cold blood.’ The bishop condemned ‘the deporting of hundreds and even thousands of poor fellows without a trial of any kind’ – ‘an abuse of power as fatuous as it is arbitrary’. ‘Your regime,’ he told the military governor, ‘has been one of the worst and blackest chapters in the history of the misgovernment of the country.’
Early in June, Maxwell told Asquith that there was ‘a growing disposition on every possible occasion in favour of Sinn Féinism or Republicanism. At masses for the repose of the souls of the executed rebels, at the arrival or departure of released or deported suspects, on their return to their native towns, are [sic] seized upon to demonstrate.’ Maxwell ‘was particularly bothered’, Townshend writes, ‘by “the extremist ladies” who, with the priests, were “difficult to handle”’. He told Asquith’s private secretary that the Irish were ‘impossible people … even if they were to get Home Rule there will always be a large number “agin the government” whatever it may be.’
Among those watching the Rebellion and its aftermath closely were three of the most significant writers of the age. All of them had known Pearse personally; one had also been a close ally of Connolly. Now they set about creating works that would interrogate and follow the contours of the Rebellion, works that would remain among the greatest they produced and which would add in their own awkward and argumentative ways to the Rebellion’s myth.
In August 1916, Yeats was staying in France with Maud Gonne – whose husband, John MacBride, had been among those executed by the British – when he received a letter from Lady Gregory. She was, she wrote, ‘a little puzzled’ by Yeats’s
apparent indifference to Ireland after your excitement after the Rising. I believe there is a great deal you can do, all is unrest and discontent – there is nowhere for the imagination to rest but there must be some spiritual building possible, just as after Parnell’s fall, but perhaps more intense, and you have a big name among the young men.
Yeats began writing ‘Easter 1916’, a poem which in its repeated refrain seems to give the leaders of the Rebellion heroic status and in its repetition of the line ‘a terrible beauty is born’ appears to make the Rebellion itself iconic, almost noble. But in the last two stanzas, in a number of startling images, Yeats had much to question, much to say about the idea of violence and violent insurrection and nationalism:
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
While the Rebellion itself was moving – with the poem’s own help – towards the status of myth, Yeats sought to tease out the conflict between the dream of death that had haunted Pearse in the last few years of his life and the actual fact of death itself, perhaps even needless death:
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
Lady Gregory was involved in delicate and fruitless negotiations with the British government and the National Gallery in London over the return to Ireland of the pictures of her nephew Hugh Lane, who had drowned on the Lusitania. On 28 March 1917, six months after he wrote the poem, when Yeats arranged to have 25 copies published to be distributed to friends, he wrote to the printer: ‘Please be very careful with the Rebellion poem. Lady Gregory asked me not to send it to you until we had finished our dispute with the authorities about the Lane pictures. She was afraid of it getting about and damaging us and she is not timid.’ Although Yeats read it aloud a few times to friends, no part of it appeared in public until a Dublin magazine quoted the first 16 lines on 17 March 1919. It was not included in Yeats’s collection The Wild Swans at Coole, also published in 1919. It did not appear in England until October 1920, when it was printed in the New Statesman.
Sean O’Casey had been a member of the Gaelic League, which he joined in 1906, and had supported Pearse’s setting up of St Enda’s. He admired what he called Pearse’s ‘awesome sincerity’. He became general secretary of the Irish Citizen Army and served under Connolly, but resigned late in 1914 when the Irish Citizens became involved with the Irish Volunteers, which he saw as having a bourgeois agenda. There is a letter from Clarke in May 1914 noting attacks on the Volunteers from the trade union movement, ‘largely inspired by a disgruntled fellow named O’Casey’. Clarke already knew O’Casey, who had worked as a volunteer in 1910 on a monthly newspaper Clarke had edited. O’Casey had also drafted a constitution for the Irish Citizen Army early in 1914 that would have distinct echoes in the 1916 Proclamation. ‘That the first and last principle of the Irish Citizen Army,’ O’Casey wrote, ‘is the avowal that the ownership of Ireland, moral and material, is vested of right in the people of Ireland.’ The Proclamation, which Pearse read in front of the GPO on Easter Monday 1916, included the sentence: ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.’
O’Casey’s first play, The Shadow of a Gunman, was produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in April 1923. They put on Juno and the Paycock a year later. In August 1925 he submitted his play about the Easter Rebellion, The Plough and the Stars, to the Abbey. In the play, Irish nationalists carrying the tricolour mix with prostitutes, one of whom, Rosie Redmond, is in a bar in Dublin where the voice of Patrick Pearse comes from outside; the speech he is making includes the lines: ‘Bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood … There are many things more horrible than bloodshed, and slavery is one of them.’ At one point, a character who has been using the Rebellion as an excuse to loot goods from posh stores runs onto the stage with ‘a new hat on her head, a fox fur around her neck over her shawl, three umbrellas under her right arm, and a box of biscuits under her left’. She describes the looting with immense comic relish. All this irreverence resulted in a riot at the Abbey in February 1926, causing Yeats to tell the audience: ‘You have disgraced yourselves again.’ There was a threat to remove the government subsidy for the theatre. Clarke’s widow and Pearse’s sister, who by 1926 were a pair of suffering saints, figures of long and mournful legend – Kathleen Clarke lived until 1972 and was lord mayor of Dublin between 1939 and 1941; Margaret Pearse lived until 1968 and was a member of the Irish Senate until her death – walked out of the theatre in disgust. A group of armed republicans tried to kidnap one of the actors in an attempt to stop the play.
So, as the afterglow of the Rebellion continued to shine, the best-known poem about it wasn’t published until four years after its composition, and the best-known play caused riots and walkouts. The rhythmic energy in Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’ and the hilarity and pathos in The Plough and the Stars partly arose from their authors’ involvement not only in an argument with themselves but in an argument with a powerful myth about the value of political violence and blood sacrifice, which was slowly becoming dominant.
Joyce remained in Trieste. He followed the events of the Rebellion, in which his friend Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a pacifist, was shot by the British, ‘with pity’, Richard Ellmann writes in his biography. ‘Although he evaluated the Rising as useless, he felt also out of things … He predicted that some day he and Giorgio would go back to wear the shamrock in an independent Ireland.’ His book Dubliners had appeared in 1914 and A Portrait of the Artist would be published at the end of 1916. In that same year Ezra Pound, seeking a Civil List pension for Joyce from the British government, had sent his books to Asquith’s secretary, who wrote to Yeats and George Moore asking for their views.
A year before, when Yeats had raised the matter with Edmund Gosse, he had been asked about Joyce’s politics and if he supported the British cause in the war. Yeats replied: ‘My dear Ghosse [sic]:
I thank you very much for what you have done; but it never occurred to me that it was necessary to express sympathy ‘frank’ or other wise with the ‘cause of the allies’. I should have thought myself waisting [sic] the time of the committee. I certainly wish them victory, & as I have never known Joyce to argue with his neighbours I feel that his residence in Austria has probably made his sympathy as frank as you could wish. I never asked him about it in any of the few notes I have sent him. He had never anything to do with Irish politics, extreme or otherwise, & I think disliked politics. He always seemed to me to have only literary & philosophic sympathies. To such men the Irish atmosphere brings isolation, not anti English feeling. He is probably trying at this moment to become absorbed in some piece of work till the evil hour is passed. I again thank you for what you have done for this man of genius.
In August 1916 Asquith granted Joyce £100 from the Civil List. Joyce was, by now, working on Ulysses. Early in the book he has Stephen Dedalus recount a visit to the old Fenian Kevin Egan in Paris, watching him roll what he called ‘gunpowder cigarettes through fingers smeared with printer’s ink’. He refers to the explosion at Clerkenwell caused by the Fenians in 1867: ‘Shattered glass and toppling masonry’. And then Egan himself: ‘In gay Paree he hides … unsought by any save by me … Loveless, landless, wifeless … Weak wasting hand on mine. They have forgotten Kevin Egan, not he them.’
Joyce had met the former Fenian revolutionary Joseph Casey, on whom he based Egan (he was called Joe Egan in the first draft), in Paris in 1903, probably at the instigation of his father, who knew the Casey brothers. Joe Casey had been arrested in London in 1867, and his brother Patrick and other Fenians had hatched a plot to spring him from Clerkenwell Prison by blowing up the walls with a bomb. The plot failed disastrously. Joseph was later released and sought exile in Paris, where he worked on various newspapers as a printer and compositor. In 1907, Joyce had written an essay called ‘Fenianism: The Last Fenian’, marking the death of another old Fenian, John O’Leary, for an Italian newspaper. In 1919, three years after the Rebellion, he wrote the Cyclops chapter of Ulysses, the most political chapter in the book, which deals with events in Ireland with the same kind of interrogation and uncertainty as Yeats in ‘Easter 1916’ and the same degree of irreverence and hilarity as O’Casey in The Plough and the Stars. The chapter contains an encounter in a pub between Bloom and various nationalists. The narrative is peppered with elaborate parodies of subjects that Irish nationalists, including Pearse and Clarke, held dear, most notably ancient Ireland and public funerals. The parodies include outlandish and brilliantly comic lists.
The first parody is of the sort of ancient Irish manuscript that was regularly translated in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century, and which became a sort of sacred text for nationalists. The list begins with Cúchulainn, spelled ‘Cuchulin’ here, and places many revered figures from Irish history beside Goliath, Peg Woffington, Cleopatra, Patrick W. Shakespeare, Thomas Cook and Son, Dolly Mount and Sidney Parade. The penultimate figure in the list is O’Donovan Rossa. Soon, one of the nationalists and Bloom have an argument about figures from Irish history including Emmet. Then, in a tour de force of parodic writing, Joyce invokes the execution of a dead Irish hero. It is one of the funniest and most brilliant sections of Ulysses. In narrative shape it follows the execution of Robert Emmet closely and makes direct references to it – they would be clear to any Irish reader of the novel – but also contains contemporary references that are closer to O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral, such as: ‘Special quick excursion trains and upholstered charabancs had been provided for the comfort of our country cousins of whom there were large contingents.’
The parody moves closer to reports of the 1916 executions when it refers to the ‘learned prelate who administered the last comforts of holy religion to the hero martyr when about to pay the death penalty’, since there were many reports of the presence of priests in the cells of the condemned rebels in 1916. The connection becomes even more explicit when ‘the stern provostmarshal, lieutenantcolonel’ overseeing the execution is invoked. His name is given as ‘Tomkin-Maxwell ffrenchmullan Tomlinson’. In Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated this is glossed as ‘a fictional name that suggests extraordinary pretension to “good family” backgrounds’. But for Irish readers in 1922, the year Ulysses was published, the name would have jumped off the page. Here we have Major-General Sir John Maxwell, who oversaw the 1916 executions. The reference to ffrenchmullan is particularly interesting. One of the only towns outside Dublin to have a rebellion in Easter week 1916 was Enniscorthy in County Wexford, where the surrender was accepted by a Colonel French. But Joyce may not have known this, though he would certainly have known the name of Maxwell. With the name ffrenchmullan, more than anything, he is amusing himself and bamboozling the reader. For most Irish readers in 1922, the unusual name belonged to Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, who was a member of the Irish Citizen Army, took part in the 1916 Rebellion and was elected to Rathmines District Council for Sinn Féin two years before Ulysses appeared.
Ulysses is, of course, set in 1904, before Maxwell oversaw any executions in Ireland and before Madeleine ffrench-Mullen took part in any rebellion, but the novel was written in the heady aftermath of the Rebellion and names and echoes can be easily invoked. It isn’t simply that Joyce wanted to mock names that the rebels held dear, names such as Cúchulainn and O’Donovan Rossa and Robert Emmet. Rather, like Yeats and O’Casey, he wished to dramatise and see what he could do with the conflicts surrounding nationalist fervour and what had happened. It is even possible to suggest that Joyce needed the elaborate and playful parody of an Irish execution, at that moment in Ulysses, to liven up his book – much as Clarke needed the spectacle of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in a difficult time for Irish nationalism. Clarke and Joyce shared, it should be said, little else.
At the end of his essay on Fenianism, Joyce wrote about John O’Leary, beside whose grave O’Donovan Rossa was buried: ‘Now that he is dead, his compatriots escort him to the tomb with a great show of pomp, because the Irish, even when they break the hearts of those who sacrifice their lives for their country, never fail to show a great reverence for the dead.’ Major-General Sir John Maxwell put it another way when he tried to justify to Asquith his refusal to hand over the bodies of the executed leaders to their families. ‘Irish sentimentality,’ he wrote, ‘will turn these graves into martyrs’ shrines.’ Annual processions would be made to them, he wrote, ‘which would cause constant irritation in this country’.
By the time they sat in their prison cells in the early hours of 3 May 1916 awaiting execution, it was clear that Clarke and Pearse had divided public opinion in Britain and Ireland in a way that would come to matter. They appeared to the British as supremely treacherous. They had stabbed the country in the back during a time of war, causing immense destruction to life and property. They had made clear their willingness to treat openly with the enemy against whom so many Irishmen had volunteered to fight and in a war in which so many were still dying. (In the week of the rebellion, to take just one example, 570 men from the 16th Irish Division were killed at Hulluch on the Western Front.) ‘I admit having opened negotiations with Germany,’ Pearse said in his court-martial statement. ‘We have kept our word with her and as far as I can see she did her best to help us. She sent a ship with men.’ It was hard to imagine, if viewed from the British side, what else could have been done with the leaders of the rebellion. It must have seemed not only natural, but just and right, to shoot them.
But the rebels appeared to the Irish side in a totally different light. The stark divergence in this after-image – the creation of a deep fissure between Britain and Ireland – was perhaps the rebels’ real achievement. Thomas Clarke was seen in Ireland as a man prematurely aged from his years in English prisons, a man who had remained dedicated to a cause that was often unpopular. Patrick Pearse was a poet, a language enthusiast and a teacher. Clarke and Pearse and their followers, despite their fanaticism, had somehow managed to present themselves in Ireland as noble spirits, serious people who had made no personal profit from their politics and then lost everything. Their fellow citizens had grown used to them; they were almost familiar. Once they were shot, they became, as Yeats suggested, changed, oddly heroic. Their last words and deeds became part of the culture.
It is interesting that the two ways of looking at the rebels happened within the single conscience of Lady Gregory, a supporter of Home Rule whose only son was fighting in the First World War, and would be killed early in 1918. When the Rising was still going on in Dublin she wrote to Yeats: ‘It is terrible to think of the executions or killings that are sure to come – yet it must be so – we had been at the mercy of a rabble for a long time both here and in Dublin, with no apparent policy.’ On 7 May she wrote that she was sorry for Pearse and MacDonagh, ‘the only ones I knew among the leaders’. By 13 May, her attitude had become even more sympathetic to the rebels. ‘My mind is filled with sorrow at the Dublin tragedy, the death of Pearse and MacDonagh, who ought to have been on our side, the side of intellectual freedom,’ she wrote to Yeats. ‘It seems as if the leaders were what is wanted in Ireland and will be even more wanted in the future – fearless and imaginative opposition to the conventional and opportunist parliamentarians.’ In his cell on the night before his execution Pearse composed a poem about the beauty of the world which we all learned in school fifty years after his death. He also wrote a letter to his mother. In it he said: ‘I have just received Holy Communion. I am happy except for the great grief of parting from you. This is the death I should have asked for if God had given me the choice of all deaths – to die a soldier’s death for Ireland and for freedom.’
By the time Clarke was sentenced, his wife had been arrested and was being held at Dublin Castle. Some hours before he was to be shot, she was taken to his cell. Outside, a priest asked her to allow him to see her husband. ‘I have never interfered with my husband in anything he thinks right,’ she said, ‘and I am not going to begin now. If he will not see you, he has his reasons.’ She spent an hour with Clarke in a cell illuminated by a candle held by a soldier. She wrote in her memoirs that when she asked him what happened with the priest, ‘he told me that the priest had wanted him to say he was sorry for what he had done.’ If he did not then he could not get absolution. Clarke, she wrote, said: ‘I told him to clear out of my cell quickly. I was not sorry for what I had done. I gloried in it and the men who had been with me. To say I was sorry would be a lie, and I was not going to face my God with a lie on my tongue.’ He was attended by two other priests before being shot and died a Catholic. But he was resolute as ever in his diehard nature as he gave his last wishes to his wife. One of them was about Eoin MacNeill, who had countermanded the order for the Rising on Easter Sunday: ‘I want you to see to it,’ his wife reported him saying, ‘that our people know of his treachery to us. He must never be allowed back into the national life of the country, for so sure as he is, so sure he will act treacherously in a crisis. He is a weak man, but I know every effort will be made to whitewash him.’
All the families gave accounts of the last hours of the rebels. They made sure to emphasise that their loved ones, including the Marxist James Connolly, had seen priests before they were shot. They also included as much sad detail as they could. ‘I had to stand there at the cell door,’ Kathleen Clarke wrote, ‘while the soldier locked the door of what seemed to be my husband’s tomb. How I held myself together, with my head up, I do not know. I must have been turned to stone … but the sound of that key in that lock has haunted me ever since.’
Watch Colm Tóibín discussing his essay:
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.