Spotlight: Padraic Colum’s thoughts on Pearse and MacDonagh (1916)


taken from the Introduction to Poems of the Irish revolutionary brotherhood (Padraic Colum, 1916)

“The years that brought maturity to the [poets] who were foremost to sign, and foremost to take arms to assert, Ireland’s Declaration of Independence, may come to be looked back on as signal days in Irish history. They were days of preparation. The youth of Nationalist Ireland had turned to a task – the task of learning – of learning first the Irish language, of learning then about Irish public affairs, and at the end of learning arms and about the handling of men.

Padraic Colum - from a sketch by Jack B. Yeats
Padraic Colum – from a sketch by Jack B. Yeats

The generation that became conscious twenty years ago turned with hope, faith and reverence to Gaelic Ireland. From the remnant of the Gaelic speaking people they would learn what civilization their country was capable of attaining to. Those who regarded themselves as the historic Irish nation were then rediscovering their origins and their achievements : they were Celts; they were of the race of Brennus and Vercingetorix, of Cuchullain and Maeve, of Columbanus and Scotus Eiriugena; they were of the breed of the warriors who had shaken all empires although they had founded none; of the race of the missionary saints, and of the lovers of learning who had made themselves the patrons and protectors of European culture. The Ireland they willed would not be an autonomous West Britain, but a resurgent Gaelic nationality. And their race-dream was as fantastic perhaps as the race-dream of any other reviving people.

Those who mastered the Irish language began to learn it in classes spontaneously organised in the cities and the villages, and they made themselves fluent by living with fishermen and small farmers in far islands and remote villages. Classwork made a comradeship between young men and women. Their first control was over classes and their first intervention in public affairs was from the lecture platform.

kellsPadraic Pearse was the first of the young men to be seriously spoken of in the Gaelic League. He had learned Irish in one of the few schools where it was then taught, and he took up Irish studies in University College, then part of the old Royal, and now part of the new National, University. He graduated from University College and was called to the bar. Meanwhile he had mastered the language and had learnt about Gaelic life by living for long spaces of time in a cottage he owned in one of the poorest districts of West Connacht.

He was on the executive of the Gaelic League, then the most vital organisation in Ireland. He became editor of the Gaelic League weekly An Claidheamh Soluis (The Sword of Light) and he announced his intention of making it “the organ of militant Gaeldom.” He wrote articles continuously in Irish and English. During the years of his editorship his interest in education was shown in his intelligent advocacy of bilingualism in the schools. He went to Belgium on behalf of the Gaelic League and reported on bilingual instruction in that country.

He was grave, and if it were not for his kindliness and his humour, Padraic Pearse would have appeared as a sombre young man. His head was always slightly bent as though in deep, but never anxious, reflection. His ideas were so composed that, when he addressed you in conversation, parts of what he said might go into essays or lectures. He talked programmes. But nothing in his speech was dry or pedantic – so much enthusiasm – grave enthusiasm, indeed – was in all he said.

Photo: National Library of Ireland, KE 097 (via Century Ireland)
Padraig Pearse: (National Library of Ireland, KE 097, via Century Ireland)

All his programmes were for the recreation of a chivalry in Ireland. He never spoke unkindly nor even slightingly of any person – neither did his brother, the even gentler William Pearse who was shot with him. He was first of all a Christian man. Although he was a fervent Catholic, and although the Gaelic was the culture he always looked to, his father was an Englishman who had been a Protestant. Padraic Pearse was unmarried and he lived with his simple and gentle mother, with his brother and his two sisters. Eight years ago he decided to leave the office of An Claidheamh Soluis and put into practice his ideas of a national Irish education.

He took a big dwelling house in Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin – Cullenswood House, where the historian Lecky once lived – and opened there a secondary school for boys – Scoil Eanna or St. Enda’s. The school was to be bilingual – that is to say, it was to give instruction through Irish as well as through English. The whole atmosphere of the school was to be Gaelic. On its formal side the school was to give an intermediate education and prepare students for entrance into the universities.

Thomas MacDonagh was one of the well-known teachers he placed upon his staff. Two years afterwards he turned Cullenswood House into a girls’ school, Scoil Ide or St. Ita’s and brought St. Enda’s into the country – into a big eighteenth-century mansion with extensive grounds, known as the Hermitage, Rathfarnham. It is curious to note that St. Enda’s and St. Ita’s were the only lay Catholic schools in Ireland.

A fresco painted in the hall of Cullenswood House represented the boy Cuchullain taking arms. The Druid warns him that whoever takes arms on that day will make his name famous but will die an early death. Around the fresco, in Old Irish, was Cuchullain’s reply:

I care not if my life has only the span of a night and a day if my deeds be spoken of by the men of Ireland.

That was the spirit Pearse wished to kindle in his boys. He published an occasional review in connection with his schools – An Macaomh (The Youth). He hoped it would become, not solely a school review, but

a rallying point for the thought and aspirations of all those who would bring back again in Ireland that Heroic Age which reserved its highest honor for the hero who had the most childlike heart, for the king who had the largest pity, and for the poet who visioned the truest image of beauty.

Pearse (second row, centre) with a group of people, c. 1905. (via UCC multitext project)
Pearse (second row, centre), c. 1905. (via UCC multitext project)

After he took up teaching he connected all his literary efforts with his schools. One year he produced a heroic pageant ” Cuchulainn,” and another year a little religious play “Iosagan”(Jesukin).

In writing the Cuchulainn Pageant, I religiously followed the phraseology of the Tain. In ‘Iosagan’ I have as religiously followed the phraseology of the children and old men in Iar-Connacht from whom I have learned the Irish I speak. I have put no word, no speech, into the mouths of my little boys which the real little boys of the parish I have in mind — boys whom I know as well as I know my pupils at Scoil Eanna – would not use in the same circumstances.

In 1911 he wrote a Passion Play in Irish and with his students and the staffs of his schools produced it at Easter in the Abbey Theatre. A year later he published his single book of verse, “Suantraidhe agus Goltraidhe” (Songs of Slumber and of Sorrow) written in the language of his Iar-Connacht parish. He had begun to put together in the pages of the Irish Review an anthology of poetry in the Irish language, making his own translations. Three of these translations are given in this collection, for into them, I believe, he put much of his own personality.

In the spring of 1913 he made a visit to America and raised some funds for his schools by lecturing on Irish literature and on his own ideas of education. In the winter of 1913 the Irish Volunteers were organised. Pearse had already formed a corps of Boy Scouts. He was made one of the Executive of the Irish Volunteers. In the summer of 1914 Mr. Redmond demanded that an equal number of his nominees be placed on this Executive. Pearse was amongst the very small minority that were altogether against the Parliamentary Party being given any control.

A few months afterwards the European war broke out.

I am ready, for years I have waited and prayed for this day. We have the most glorious opportunity that has ever presented itself of really asserting ourselves. Such an opportunity will never come again. We have Ireland’s liberty in our hands. Will we be freemen, or are we content to remain as slaves, and idly watch the final extermination of the Gael?

He wrote these words in an article published just before the insurrection. There spoke the man who would walk steadily toward martyrdom. Pearse was a man of supreme value to Ireland. But he was the one who, when lives had to be ventured, would make the nearest approach to death. He was a mystic, and for him a cause would become a call. He would not spare himself and he would not spare those who went with him. He was the very type of the implacable idealist.

Those who saw Thomas MacDonagh in his academic robe and noted his flow of speech and his tendency to abstractions might have carried away an image of one of those adventurous students who disputed endlessly in a medieval university. But MacDonagh was as far from being a pedant as was Pearse. He was a wonderfully good comrade, an eager friend, a happy-hearted companion. He had abundance of good spirits, and a flow of wit and humour remarkable even in a Munster man.

Thomas MacDonagh - photo taken at Rockwell College (via MacDonagh Heritage Centre)
Thomas MacDonagh – photo taken at Rockwell Teacher Traning College (via MacDonagh Heritage Centre)

He had, too, an intimate knowledge of the humours of popular life in the country and the country town which he never put into his writings. With his short figure, his scholar’s brow and his dominating nose, he looked a man of the Gironde – a party, by the way, that he often spoke of. He was born in Cloughjordan, a town in the County Tipperary, and his father and mother were teachers in primary schools. He was trained by a religious order, and was indeed a religious novice in early youth. He became a teacher in a college in Kilkenny and afterwards in Fermoy. While he was in Kilkenny he took up the study of Irish.

Afterwards he went to the Aran Islands and to the Irish-speaking districts in Munster, and made himself fluent in the language. He published some volumes of literary verse. Just before Pearse opened his school, MacDonagh came to Dublin to look around him. He had written a play and wanted to have it produced in the Abbey Theatre, which was then under the brief direction of J. M. Synge. The play was “When the Dawn is Come.” The scene is laid in a revolutionary Ireland of the future, and it is the tragedy of a leader whose master idea baffled his followers. MacDonagh had joined the staff of St. Enda’s when this play was produced.

I knew him from the year before he came to Dublin. His great interest then was poetry. He knew poetry well in English, French, Latin and Irish, and was drawn to the classical poets- to Catullus, Dante and Racine. After he came to Dublin the poetry he wrote was more personal. What he wrote in the first four years is in “Songs of Myself.” When this book was published he went to Paris for a while to do some reading. Then he took his M.A. degree in the National University. A professor in the College of Science, with MacDonagh, James Stephens and myself started the Irish Review. MacDonagh was associate editor, first with the three of us, and after an interregnum, with his friend Joseph Plunkett. He wrote a thesis, “Thomas Campion and the Art of English Poetry,” and was made assistant professor of English literature in the National University, Dublin.

His country was always in his mind but it did not fill it exclusively, as it might be said to have filled Pearse’s mind. He would have welcomed a reasonable settlement of Irish political conditions from the government of Great Britain. Two years after its angry rejection by the National Convention, he said to me that the country should have accepted the Councils Bill, with its control of education and its possibilities of checking financial relations between Ireland and Great Britain. I often had a vision of my friend in a Home Rule Parliament, working at social and legislative problems and perhaps training himself to become a Minister of Education.

He was, when the Home Rule Bill reached its last stages, happily married, and was the father of the child he has addressed in “Wishes for My Son.” Another child was born six months before the insurrection. In the end, the Home Rule question became something different from an adjustment of legislation as between Great Britain and Ireland. The English Conservative Party, with incredible folly, made its granting or its withdrawal a question of military preparation and racial manliness. Those in Ireland who had conviction, courage and military organisation would have their way, the Conservative press and the Conservative leaders declared, and all conviction, courage and military organisation were on the anti-home rule side. Then the Nationalists created their Volunteers. Thomas MacDonagh had a place on the Executive and the command of a corps.

The Irish Volunteers parade though Cork City on St Patrick’s Day in 1916 (via An Phoblacht)
The Irish Volunteers parade though Cork City on St Patrick’s Day in 1916 (via An Phoblacht)

A poet with a bent towards abstractions, a scholar with a leaning towards philology – these were the aspects Thomas MacDonagh showed when he expressed himself in letters. But what was fundamental in him rarely went into what he wrote. That fundamental thing was an eager search for something that would have his whole devotion.

His dream was always of action – of a man dominating a crowd for a great end. The historical figures that appealed straight to him were the Gracchi and the Irish military leader of the seventeenth century, Owen Roe O’Neill. In the lives of these three there was the drama that appealed to him – the thoughtful man become revolutionist; the preparation of the crowd; the fierce conflict and the catastrophe.

Many things Thomas MacDonagh said and wrote were extraordinarily prophetic. Most prophetic of all was his mental dramatisation of the end of Tiberius Gracchus. At last he, too, had the ascendency over the crowd; he saw the conflict in the city, and he faced the vengeance of the capitalists and the imperialists.

Gaius Gracchus addressing the Plebeians.
Gaius Gracchus addressing the Plebeians.

One day about five years ago Thomas MacDonagh told me that a lady had called at the school to ask him to help her son at his Irish studies. The lady was Madame Plunkett. MacDonagh consented, and his pupil, Joseph Mary Plunkett, became his admirer and his friend. Joseph Plunkett was often ill. He looked a youth who could do little more than be a reader and an onlooker. Yet he was working hard at verse and had taken up many out-of-the-way studies.

McDonagh’s great enthusiasm, the adventurousness of his mind, his unquenchable desire to be making and shaping things must have been vital influences on the younger, frailer man. Joseph Plunkett, for all his ill-health, had remarkable power of will. I saw him in New York in September, 1915, and I was impressed by the decision and command he had attained to. In the fall of 1913, after he had published his book of verse, “The Circle and the Sword,” he and Thomas MacDonagh took over the Irish Review. Afterwards they formed a little literary theatre and produced plays written in their own circle, with some European masterpieces. Tchekof ‘s “Uncle Vanya “was amongst the plays they produced.

Like his friend MacDonagh he joined the Irish Volunteers on their formation, and he, too, had a command and a place on the Executive. Joseph Mary Plunkett belonged to a Catholic branch of a family whose name was in Irish history for six hundred years. His people had remained loyal to the faith and the aspiration of the majority of the Irish people, and for that they had memories of dispossession and repression. But their most cherished memory was that of a martyrdom. The venerable Oliver Plunkett, the last priest martyred in England, was of their family.

Joseph Mary Plunkett
Joseph Mary Plunkett


The young man who was shot to death in Dublin Castle was a mystic, but a militant mystic – his symbols were the eternal circle and the destroying sword. He would war for Ireland, and he would have the Irish people make war out of “the anger of the Sons of God.”

I have brought their history through the formation of the Irish Volunteers to the European war of 1914. The things which made so many in Ireland willing to venture revolt – the threat of conscription, the actual over-taxation, the danger of famine, the exasperation caused by unfair and clumsy administration – these things belong to political and not to personal history.

Pearse, MacDonagh and Plunkett became members of a secret political society that had revolution for its object; – like the liberators of Greece and Bulgaria, they strove to bring about foreign intervention. They made a great immutable gesture. With the good and brave Connolly, with the steadfast Clarke, with Shaun MacDermott, “kindly Irish of the Irish,” and with the upright Eamonn Ceantt, who with them signed the declaration, they have passed away from our sight, and they have become part of the memory of Ireland.

In the poems here given of the poets mentioned; in the two poems by Roger Casement, and in the three translations made by Padraic Pearse, there is a unity. These are poems by Combatants. Their combat is passionate, intellectual, spiritual; in the end it exists for a country, and, to paraphrase the last line of Casement’s sonnet, to win a rock where Celtic faith should bide its vow.

No attempt need be made to estimate the achievement of the poets of this anthology. An Irishman knows well how those who met their deaths will be regarded;

“They shall be remembered for ever; they shall be speaking for ever; the people shall hear them for ever.”



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