“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 may 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?”
– Pádraig Pearse
What is a warrior poet? A warrior poet is a man who is capable of mixing strength and erudition, of being able to physically fight while also being able to write a beautiful poem about nature, to be ready to pick up arms and defend his country and yet be described as sweet and gentile by many, to stand up to tyranny and still have a childlike innocence about himself. This is exactly what Pádraig Pease was and is why I believe the title Warrior Poet fits him so eloquently.
Pearse started out as a literary warrior. He joined the Gaelic League in 1896 and became the editor of its newspaper, An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), where he wrote articles in both Irish and English. Sword of Light is a good description of what he stood for as the light of Irish culture. Suffering and sacrifice were the main themes of his writings, strongly influenced by Catholic imagery and idealism. He soon realised that intellect alone would not get England out of Irish affairs, shown by a fitting quote from the Home Life of Pádraig Pearse: “Pat, though studious, and far from athletic in his young days, made up his mind that it is a duty on the part of man to be physically as well as mentally fit: so he determined to become so.” Pearse became involved in militant groups as both a poet and a warrior and quickly became the face of the coming revolution.
The recreation of a chivalry in Ireland was one of Pearse’s main goals. He left the office of An Claidheamh Soluis and went about setting up an all boy’s school to put into practice his ideas of a proper Irish education. He bought a large house in Rathmines known as Cullenswood House and opened a secondary school there named St. Enda’s. Two years later, he moved the boys school to a larger site, a mansion known as The Hermitage in Rathfarnham, with an all girls’ school, St. Ida’s, replacing it in Rathmines. These were the only two lay Catholic schools in Ireland at the time. In the hall of Cullenswood House there was a fresco representing Cú Chulainn taking up arms. Surrounding the fresco, in Old Irish, was a quote from Cú Chulainn: “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.” This was the mindset which Pearse wanted to inspire in his boys. He wrote reviews for both schools occasionally in An Macaomh (The Youth) where he hoped it would become “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.”
In 1913 he was one of the founders of the Irish Volunteers, which would evolve into the Irish Republican Army. He was now willing to die for his beloved country, to die a rebel fighting against tyranny and to make a blood sacrifice for freedom. “Blood 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!” A few months after the formation of the Volunteers, war broke out in Europe. In December 1913, Pearse was sworn into the Irish Republican Brother (IRB), a secret organisation dedicated to getting Britain out of Ireland and implementing an Irish Republic. By 1914, he was already the highest ranking Volunteer in the IRB as Volunteers’ Director of Military Organisation and by 1915, he was on the IRB’s Supreme Council, and its secret Military Council, the core group that began planning for a rising while war raged on the European Western Front.
When it comes to Pease’s poetry, “The Rebel” is the one which is his most important. It was written in 1915 and inspired Pearse’s compatriots to take up arms for the Easter Rising of 1916. Any young Irish man with the smallest bit of knowledge of their own history should get goosebumps when they read this. How could they not after reading a line such as “Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people who shall take what ye would not give.” Pearse possessed the ability to talk to his people and not down to them as he relates to their struggle as it is also his struggle: “And because I am of the people, I understand the people, I am sorrowful with their sorrow, I am hungry with their desire.” Just like Pearse’s writings for An Claidheamh Soluis, his poetry was full of vivid Catholic imagery: “I that have spoken with God on top of his holy hill.” And like any true Warrior Poet, he was not afraid to call out his enemies directly: “we will try it out with you, ye that have harried and held, ye that have bullied and bribed, tyrants, hypocrites, liars!”
“The Fool” was written after Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s death and was read out by Pearse at his funeral. One of Pearse’s most quoted lines came from this poem “O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?” I’m sure every Nationalist today has had people try and make them out to be a fool for saying things out of love for one’s country. “Since the wise men have not spoken, I speak that am only a fool” After finishing reading the poem at his friend’s graveside, Pearse famously said “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”
Pearse wrote “The Mother” in May 1916 while awaiting execution in Kilmainham Gaol. In his final letter to his mother, he said “You asked me to write a little poem which would seem to be said by you about me. I have written it, and a copy is in Arbour Hill Barracks with other papers and Father Aloysius is taking care of another copy of it.” The poem is about the sufferings Pearse’s mother goes through after losing her two sons. She is torn between grief and exultation. “To break their strength and die, they and a few, in bloody protest for a glorious thing.”
“The Wayfarer” was Pearse’s final poem and was written on the eve of his execution in May 1916. It’s a poignant poem about a man who knows he’s facing imminent death. He comments how joyful simple things in life can be and shares memories of old Ireland. “Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy to see a leaping squirrel in a tree, or a red lady-bird upon a stalk, or little rabbits in a field at evening, lit by a slanting sun… or children with bare feet upon the sands of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets of little towns in Connacht.” The ending of the poem would bring a tear to any man’s eye: “And then my heart hath told me: these will pass, will pass and change, will die and be no more, things bright and green, things young and happy; and I have gone upon my way sorrowful.” Pearse was executed on May 3rd 1916 by firing squad. General Blackadder, who was in charge of the rebel’s trials, told a friend afterwards: “I have just performed one of the hardest tasks I ever had to do. Condemned to death one of the finest characters I ever came across. A man named Pearse. Must be something very wrong in the state of things, must there not, that makes a man like that a rebel?” Pádraig Pearse to this day continues to be the face of Irish Nationalism. I hope his works and life can inspire a new wave of Warrior Poets for this generation’s battle.