Thursday 12 December 2019

Padraig Pearse: A leader who pushed at an open door

Calling Pearse 'his age's moderniser' ignores the vital new Ireland that was emerging on its own

Padraig Pearse
Padraig Pearse

John-Paul McCarthy

AT the height of the American bombing campaign over Vietnam in 1972, an irate President Nixon asked his assistant Henry Kissinger why he put such faith in the B-52 bombers.

By that point, the Americans had dropped more bombs on Vietnam than they did on Europe during the entire Second World War, and yet the men in the black pyjamas still flooded into Saigon.

Kissinger replied chillingly that he could not accept the proposition that North Vietnam did not have "a breaking point". They should bomb until they found it.

Many viewers must have felt as exasperated as Nixon while watching Sean O Mordha's fairly conservative RTE documentary on the generation of 1890-1916 last week.

What is Patrick Pearse's breaking point?

Even though his morbidly introspective personality has been critiqued in each of the last four decades, he can still be presented on prime time television as a "super-modern thinker" (Declan Kiberd).

Like Rasputin, Pearse just refuses to die. Some people began to refer to him as a "modernist" about 20 years ago as part of an attempt to turn his unrepresentativeness to his advantage.

His profoundly isolated position within Irish cultural and political life before 1916 was thus made to look like a badge of honour.

Anyone who spends some time with Pearse's Irish writings must quickly register the inadequacy of the modernist tag though.

Since he was writing for a small audience in Irish, Pearse tended to be less guarded. Large parts of this corpus were given over to children's stories. Most people probably remember Iosagan or the poem A Mhic Bhig na gCleas.

It is difficult to read this material today without thinking of Graham Greene's definition of pity in one of his novels as a "deep sympathy with childhood", a sympathy that he felt was inimical to maturity.

Conor Cruise O'Brien reworked this insight brilliantly in his first book on the Catholic imagination, Maria Cross, in 1954. Here he explored the Catholic preoccupation with the purity of the child's soul, or what he called "the influence of the dead and the inadequacy of words".

O'Brien did not write about Pearse here explicitly, but he hovers over O'Brien's correlation of Catholicism with the deeply anti-modern desire for continuing childhood.

That desire is so strong in Pearse's Irish writing that no serious portrait of him can leave it out. And yet it was ignored in the documentary.

Instead Mr Justice John McMenamin read from Pearse's essay Ghosts, as he recast the argument most closely associated with Garret FitzGerald about the way the Rising was meant to wake modern Ireland up from its Anglophile slumber.

That particular argument of course is a double-edged sword. Even if we assume that this was the overriding objective of the enterprise, rather than say the desire for vengeance against his jailers that was so strong in Tom Clarke, then it only serves to magnify the scale of the revolutionaries' isolation from life as life was lived in 1916.

This particular interpretation of the Rising brings with it another profound question that was dodged by the documentary as well.

This is the folklorist Gearoid O Crualaoich's argument about the manipulative and escapist element in radical nationalism. O Crualaoich wrote about the way the Pearse tradition "served in effect to mask and to mute the actual cultural history of Ireland in the four middle decades of the century, and that another Ireland of those years has gone largely unrecorded. That other Ireland is the Ireland whose cultural expression was the popular culture of the city streets and the factories, the popular culture of town life in the urbanising countryside, and the popular culture arising from the modernising aspects of village and rural life".

How did Irish nationalism win power on the back of a cultural and intellectual programme that was so obviously divorced from the way large parts of the population lived their lives?

With all due respect to O Mordha and his team, one might have thought that this kind of problem might have been pursued more vigorously, even at the expense of screening out the abrasive anti-Redmondite tone of parts of the documentary.

Pat Wallace of the National Museum provided an appropriately old-fashioned end to an oddly old-fashioned programme. "Don't tell me," Mr Wallace declared in a no-two-ways-about-it-let's-face-it coda, "that we didn't achieve something with that War of Independence."

It's hard to argue with "something", though some of us would say that it must include a recognition of the fact that Irish nationalism faced the same basic problems in 1922 as they did in 1912, namely partition and the crown, the only major difference being the butcher's bill in deaths that had to be paid after the Civil War.

And Pearse's most important gift, the virus of retrospective vindication, was also loose in our bloodstream – a possession in perpetuity, as we found out after 1969.

Sunday Independent

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