Tuesday 20 March 2018

More of an orator than a military leader

Pearse and the martyrdom complex

Richard McElligott photographed in UCD.
Richard McElligott photographed in UCD.

Richard McElligott

Patrick Pearse was an unlikely revolutionary leader. However the emergence of the Ulster Volunteers and its implications for nationalist politics began to awaken his zeal. Pearse described his satisfaction that the "Orangemen had armed, because it is a goodly thing to see arms in Irish hands."

The outbreak of the First World War turned him down the road of revolutionary nationalism. Like many of his generation across Europe, Pearse began to glorify the ideal of a blood sacrifice in pursuit of a nobler cause, most notably when he wrote "the old heart of the earth needed to be warmed by the red wine of the battlefields".

Having joined the Irish Volunteers, Pearse was sworn into the IRB in December 1913. Following the larger split in the Volunteers, he began to develop plans for a series of resistance activities which the Irish Volunteers should engage in if circumstances dictated.

These efforts secured him the key position of Director of Military Organisation for the Volunteers in December 1914. The following May Pearse was one of three men appointed to the IRB's newly created Military Council, which was tasked with planning a rebellion against British rule using the Irish Volunteers.

Working in secret throughout the autumn of 1915, the Military Council perfected its plans for revolt. Pearse's adulation of Robert Emmet's failed uprising in 1803 had a significant influence on the planners who, like Emmet, saw Dublin as the focal point for a new rebellion. By now Pearse had truly developed a martyrdom complex and was convinced that Irish nationalism needed a sacrificial gesture in order to prompt it into a full scale war of independence against British rule.

With the addition of James Connolly in January 1916, the Military Council now consisted of all seven signatures of the Proclamation.

That document was mainly Pearse's composition, and its reference to "the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood" echoed his conviction that each generation needed to justify itself in arms.

Events had doomed the rebellion to certain failure but Pearse still led a detachment of Irish Volunteers into the GPO on Easter Monday. Though the figurehead of the rebellion, he was no military leader and his talents lay in oration. While the fighting raged it was Connolly who physically directed the battle. Within the walls of the GPO, Pearse confined himself to discussion about the justification for the Rising with his co-conspirators and morale boosting speeches to keep the beleaguered rebels fighting.

Forced to evacuate their position on Friday afternoon, Pearse and his command made a chaotic retreat to Moore Street. By Saturday, with British forces bearing down, the situation was hopeless. There are reports that after witnessing three elderly men being cut down by the crossfire, Pearse notified his men of his intention to surrender. At approximately 3.45pm, he drafted a general to "lay down arms" so as "to prevent the further slaughter of Dublin citizens, and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers".

Dr Richard McElligott lectures in Modern Irish History at University College Dublin (UCD) and is the author of several works on the Irish Revolutionary period

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News