Perhaps no one looks like a revolutionary, but Patrick Henry Pearse looked even less so, and some historians would argue that he didn’t have the heart for it either. Before the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland, Pearse was a schoolteacher, as well as a writer and poet of some note and a spellbinding public speaker.
He was also a man with a great reverence for Irish culture and language. Until the 1830s the vast majority of people in Ireland spoke and read Gaelic, but in 1831 the use of the language was outlawed by the British. Then when the Great Famine came along in the 1840s, Irish was used mostly by the peasantry and became a symbol of inferiority. The language gradually faded, pushed along by practices in school that included punishing young students for lapsing into Irish. But Pearse cherished and used Gaelic, reveled in Irish culture and sought to inspire his students the same way.
For a long time, Pearse had thought that the way to achieve Irish independence was through peaceful means, but there came a time when he, like so many other Irish revolutionaries, concluded that only a revolt that involved bloodletting would set Ireland free. So he dedicated himself to the task.
On August 1, 1915, the body of one of the Fenians, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, who decades earlier had plotted against the British but had gone to America to work on the Irish People newspaper, was returned to Dublin. He had finally come home, and Pearse delivered a powerful oration at the graveside that was to become famous and was the measure of his resolve:
“The fools, the fools, the fools!-they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland un-free shall never be at peace.”
Pearse was one of a handful of men who actually planned the details of the revolt, and though at one point the British sensed that something was brewing, most officials scoffed that anything would come of it. Still, they debated back and forth whether to arrest Pearse and his cohorts, and finally on Easter Monday morning, led by Lord Winmere, they decided to do just that.
They were too late. The attack had begun. The revolutionaries held out for five days, but on April 29 at a quarter to four in the afternoon Pearse, who had become commander in chief of the IRB, was forced to surrender. He and other ringleaders were arrested.
Their efforts seemed to have done nothing, but the British turned public opinion against themselves with the executions of the rising’s ringleaders.
Patrick Henry Pearse was the first to be executed, and it was clear that the judge who passed sentence did not relish the idea. Later, he would remark that it was terribly difficult sentencing a man of such courage to death.
Though others were killed, Pearse’s death had a greater impact because he was a leader, a poet, a speaker and someone who had perpetuated the love of things Irish. When he was killed, a part of Ireland died with him. His death affected his countrymen greatly.
Just before he died, Pearse wrote a final letter to his mother, a stunning, moving document informed by everything he was-including a desire to make his mother feel good on the most terrible day any mother can have. What he wrote to his mother, who was not allowed to see him, was a single sheet of paper and is today on display in the National Museum of Ireland:
Dear Mary, that didst thy first born son
Go forth to die amidst the scorn of men
For whom he died
Receive my first born son into thy arms
And keep him by thee till I come to thee
Dear Mary, I have shared thy sorrow and
Soon shall share thy joy.