Pádraig Mac Piarais and the poetic imagination

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Pearse is a very unfashionable figure these days, indeed for decades past. Although there are plenty of people who would love to claim the banner of Connolly, sometimes by gutting his ideas and sometimes by ascribing to him an ultra-radicalism he didn’t have, Pearse would be nearly forgotten had he not got the station named after him. This reflects, I think, a deep ambivalence towards 1916, such a significant event that it still makes our political establishment uneasy 91 years later, but also in a basic lack of ambivalence in Pearse’s mode of expression. Connolly can be, and has been, reinvented as a Labourite, a Stickie, a Fianna Fáiler, a Provo, even someone close to the esoteric ideology of the Socialist Party, but Pearse is harder to bend to a foreign purpose. Possibly that’s why few people today bother to ask the question, what did Pearse think he was doing?

The great martyr has been particularly badly served by our historical revisionists, who like to write him off as a virtual madman, something you can get away with by throwing around cant terms like “atavism”. Often this is given a theological gloss by reference to mystical ideas of “blood sacrifice”, which shows a basic lack of knowledge of Catholic theology. It’s true that Irish Catholicism, and its colonial offshoot in Scotland, are deeply weird from the standpoint of Vatican orthodoxy, but they still don’t find much of a place for “blood sacrifice”. In any case, the man was not a mad Catholic theocrat in the Maria Duce mould, but basically a Rousseauist political thinker.

What sets Pearse apart, and renders him difficult for a lot of people to understand, is that he was not only a revolutionary but also a poet, a combination that used to be a lot more common than it is these days. Not only that, but he had an intimate knowledge of a Gaelic canon that is unfamiliar to most modern readers, not least because a big chunk of our society believe that having no Irish at all is the mark of a sophisticate. If you’ve even a passing acquaintance with the old literature, and even with my horrible Irish – like the Myles na gCopaleen character, I have no Gaelic only Ulster Gaelic, and not a fierce amount of that – I do my best, then what is obscure becomes clear.

It’s worth remembering the basic transformative element of the aisling genre, a patriotic verse form that Pearse was steeped in, whereby the cailleach (hag) becomes the spéirbhean (goddess or woman of great beauty). This is a very old theme in folklore, and a sanitised version appears in European fairy tales in which a girl kisses a frog, whereupon it magically transforms into a handsome prince. In the old Irish versions, not only are the gender roles reversed, but, as Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill is fond of reminding us, the hero doesn’t get away with just demure kissing – no, he has to sleep with the hag. Damn, those old Gaels were a racy bunch. The aisling poems of later centuries tend to be more elevated in tone than the Old Irish texts, as befits their identification of the cailleach-spéirbhean transformation with the cause of national rebirth, but nonetheless they build on the original.

Let us then turn to Pearse’s most famous poem:

Mise Éire:
Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra.
Mór mo ghlóir:
Mé a rug Cú Chulainn cróga.
Mór mo náire:
Mo chlann féin a dhíol a máthair.
Mór mo phian:
Bithnaimhde do mo shíorchiapadh.
Mór mo bhrón:
D’éag an dream inar chuireas dóchas.
Mise Éire:
Uaigní mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra.

Incidentally, Bernie McAliskey does a great recitation of “Mise Éire”, though she may prefer to sing some Leonard Cohen, as she did last time I was at a meeting with her. But to return to the point, what is Pearse saying here? It’s well known that he is lamenting the state of the nation, but what’s crucial here is the aisling convention – having identified Ireland with the Hag of Béarra, as night follows day, the cailleach must inevitably become the spéirbhean. But to accomplish that, one needs a heroic intervention.

So, in place of the blood sacrifice, do we then have 1916 as a symbolic act of sexual intercourse? That may strike the literalist reader as weirder still. But we are talking about allegory layered upon allegory: the sex is not sex, but symbolic of the self-sacrifice of the hero. Semiology, how are you. It’s a particularly difficult point for those whose cultural background is basically written rather than oral, as evidenced by the Austrian policemen in 1914 who laughed when the Sarajevo assassins described themselves as junaci (heroes). Had the Austrians known the nuanced meaning of junak in Serbian patriotic poetry, where the term equates pretty well to our fian, the assassins’ self-description might not have sounded so, well, incongruous.

Incongruous, of course, is how it appears to our soi-disant rationalists, who find it bizarre that anyone, outside of the wilder reaches of Islamic fundamentalism, could be inspired to drastic political action by poetic imagery. The power of the poetic archetype as a way of describing our current situation and pointing towards the future passes by those who see the flip soundbite as the mark of the great communicator. But this just goes to show that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the logical positivist mind.

20 Comments

  1. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 27, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    OK, let’s cut to the chase. Is there any evidence at all to suggest that he was a paedophile? Someone once told me that someone else who’s grandmother ran a brothel said that amongst her customers was Pearse, who would dress up in tight tweed outfits and read ancient Irish legends to young boys. Is there any truth in this whatsoever?

  2. Ciarán said,

    June 27, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    I think that Mac Piarais’ “Mise Éire” is written in the mold of Aogán Ó Rathaille’s “Mac an Cheannaí”. In both cases the cailleach will never become the spéirbhean because the hero is dead, or gone in some other way. In Ó Rathaille’s case it was the final defeat of the Jacobite cause, in Mac Piarais’ case it may have been Redmond acting as a recruiting agent for the imperialist slaughter of the First World War or another similar event of the period. The comparison is interesting as well because Mac Piarais updated the Jacobite song “Óró Sé do Bheatha ’Bhaile” to apply to the political scene of his day.

    I think this viewpoint may eventually have led to him making the statement, “They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools…”

    Mac Piarais may well have been a propagandist in his poetry. There’s no doubt about his knowledge of Gaelic lore, and the pen was used in many different ways by many people, Connolly included, to inspire others to get up and do something about the situation they found themselves in, whether it be the working class or the Gael, or the working class Gael.

  3. Ciarán said,

    June 27, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    Idris: “OK, let’s cut to the chase. Is there any evidence at all to suggest that he was a paedophile? Someone once told me that someone else who’s grandmother ran a brothel said that amongst her customers was Pearse, who would dress up in tight tweed outfits and read ancient Irish legends to young boys. Is there any truth in this whatsoever?

    There’s no evidence at all that Mac Piarais was a paedophile, and Christ even Ruth Dudley Edwards never mentioned that brothel story.

  4. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 27, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    I heard the story from a man in a pub. I was honestly not taking the piss, it’s just something I wanted to ask.

    I once saw Pearse’s political writings on sale in a corner shop in Bandon, about 20 years ago. Can you still get them?

  5. aonghus said,

    June 27, 2007 at 7:22 pm

    The paedophile/homosexual theory is based on a single poem, “whether the 17th century version of John 1:1 strikes you as “more beautiful” than the modern version?” where the voice in the poem talks of its lover as “he”

    A mhic bhig na gcleas,
    Is maith is feas dom,
    Go ndearnais míghníomh:
    Can go fíor do locht.

    Maithim duit, a linbh
    An bhéil deirg bhoig:
    Ní daorfar liom neach
    Ar pheaca nár thuig.

    Do cheann maiseach tóg
    Go bpógad do bhéal:
    Más fearrde aon dínn sin,
    Is fearrde mise é.

    Tá cumhracht I d’phóig
    Nachar fríth fós liom.
    I bpógaibh na mban
    Ná i mbalsam a gcorp.

    A mhic na rosc nglas,
    An lasair sin id’ ghnúis
    De m’uamhan bheadh bán
    Dá léifeá mo rúin.

    An té’ gá bhfuil mo rúin,
    Ní fiú é teagmháil leat:
    Nach trua an dáil sin,
    A mhic bhig na gcleas?

  6. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 27, 2007 at 8:19 pm

    On the broader issue, he was a remarkable person. I was at a lecture the week before last about the Proclaimation and it was stated that he actually had a highly pragmatic approach to the use of Irish, hence the Proclaimation is entirely in English in order to be understood as widely as possible, bar the text at the top, Poblacht na h Eireann. I wondered during the lecture, whether that was accurate. Anyone know?

    As regards his reputation, well, there was much that was progressive, some aspects not so great, but the ‘stories’ put about appear entirely dubious and without foundation.

  7. Ciarán said,

    June 27, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    The Proclamation was printed on the eve of the Rising on a printing press in the basement of Liberty Hall. They had trouble even printing the English version as a lack of letters meant they had to do it in two parts, so it’s possible that doing an Irish version (whether with Gaelic font of Roman font) would have been an extremely difficult task.

    Unfortunately I don’t think there’s any way we can know that he only ever intended for there to be an English version of the Proclamation. It does make sense in that Dublin was the most English city in Ireland and there were few people who’d have understood Irish, but what would that mean for the Volunteers around the country? There may have been an Irish version intended for stronger Irish-speaking areas that was never printed, which makes sense as well because many people (especially along the west coast) were still monolingual Irish speakers.

    Six of the seven signatories were members of the Gaelic League (Connolly was the only exception, who was sypmathetic to the language cause but had made it clear that “you can’t teach a tarving man Gaelic”) so there may have been agreement that referring to Poblacht na hÉireann gave Irish enough place in the English version, to go along with an intended Irish version. But as I said, unfortunately we’ll probably never know for sure.

  8. Danny said,

    June 27, 2007 at 10:07 pm

    I’m curious how Irish (and therefore ‘Scottish’) Catholicism is different from Vatican orthodoxy. Any further explanations?

  9. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 28, 2007 at 10:36 am

    I presume the Splintered One is thinking of the pagan elements that are reputed to lurk beneath the apparently calm waters of orthodoxy.

    As for Pearse, would it be fair to say that he would have made an interesting minister of education?

    I’d also like to know more about the ‘Rousseauist’ angle to his though. F.S.L. Lyons’ claimed that at least some of the 1916 leaders considered offering the throne of Ireland to a German prince – which is not very republican, now is it?

  10. Ciarán said,

    June 28, 2007 at 11:13 am

    I don’t think that “A Mhic Bhig na gCleas” is necessarily referring to a lover. I remember reading a good analysis of the poem (unfortunately the site that hosted it is now down) in which the argument made was that the poem is about a headmaster dealing with a mischievous student. The reviewer then tied it into Mac Piarais’ concept of education, which even today can still be considered revolutionary.

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 28, 2007 at 11:31 am

    I think he would have been the ideal education minister for the new state… as for Irish Catholicism, I’m thinking of cultural rather than doctrinal distinctiveness. As you would expect with Vatican influence being pretty tenuous up to the 12th or 13th century, and hardly getting established before having several centuries of colonialism to deal with. Not just an underlay of paganism but an overlay of Protestantism then.

  12. aonghus said,

    June 28, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Scríobh Ciarán “I don’t think that “A Mhic Bhig na gCleas” is necessarily referring to a lover”

    Nor do I. But afaik, this is the only “evidence” ever claimed to justify claims that Perase was homosexual or paedophile.

    A single poem; where there isn’t even any reason to suppose the speaker and the poet are identical.
    And where considerable jaundice is required to read into it what is being claimed.

  13. Danny said,

    June 28, 2007 at 5:30 pm

    ‘Scottish’ Catholicism seems to have had a bit of a class split re pagan/protestantism.

    The working class congregations certainly were more ‘pagan’, certainly before Vatican 2 in the west of scotland if my family is anything to go by. Praying primarily to Our Lady and St Jude/Anthony etc ra

    The hierarchy were/are more calvinist though and played up their Scottish connections, as part of a strategic wish I guess to be the established Church once more.

    Assimilating the flock was part of that strategy, and has had some success too.

    Sorry for the diversion but its an intersesting subject in itself

  14. Ciarán said,

    June 28, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    Arsa Aonghus: “Nor do I. But afaik, this is the only “evidence” ever claimed to justify claims that Perase was homosexual or paedophile.

    The only other issue I’ve heard being raised is that he only had one relationship that anyone’s aware of, with a woman called Eveleen Nicholls, and even then some people have suggested this was invented posthumously. But if you consider that Mac Piarais’ standing was untouchable until at least the early 70s, why would there have been a need to invent a lover when his reputation was ‘untarnished’?

  15. Idris of Dungiven said,

    June 29, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    OK, let’s assume that a lot of the mud flung at Pearse was not fairly flung at all (and if Ruth Dudley Edwards is one of your critics you must be doing something right).

    That still leaves us with (and I quote from memory) ‘the earth needed to be watered with the blood of young men’.

    If PP is to be fully rehabilitated we’re going to have find some sort of credible explanation for that one, i.e. an explanation that doesn’t explain it in terms of a strongly militaristic outlook on life of the sort the Freikorps and cognate organisations would have recognised a few years later.

  16. Ciarán said,

    June 29, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    That pieces comes from “Peace and the Gael”, and it’s that’s been quoted rather selectively by people for a while now. To get a better tase of what he actually meant:

    The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. Heroism has come back to the earth. On whichever side the men who rule the peoples have marshalled them, whether with England to uphold her tyranny of the seas, or with Germany to break that tyranny, the people themselves have gone into battle because to each the old voice that speaks out of the soil of a nation has spoken anew. Each fights for the fatherland. It is policy that moves the governments; it is patriotism that stirs the peoples. Belgium defending her soil is heroic, and so is Turkey fighting with her back to Constantinople.

    It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

    War is a terrible thing, and this is the most terrible of wars. But this war is not more terrible than the evils which it will end or help to end. It is not more terrible than the exploitation of the English masses by cruel plutocrats; it is not more terrible than the infidelity of the French masses to their old spiritual ideals; it is not more terrible than the enslavement of the Poles by Russia, than the enslavement of the Irish by England. What if the war kindles in the slow breasts of English toilers a wrath like the wrath of the French in 1789? What if the war brings France back to her altars, as sorrow brings back broken men and women to God? What if the war sets Poland and Ireland free? If the war does these things, will not the war have been worth while?

    There’s a lot above I have problems with, especially the reference to bringing the French back to the altar (considering Pearse’s nationalism if not secular was very much “pluralist”, but of course he was always a strongly religious person). What’s written above could potentially be interpreted in a number of ways, but I personally don’t think it’s as bloodthirsty as some have suggested.

  17. ejh said,

    June 30, 2007 at 8:01 am

    Of course perorations on the greatness of patriotism and the glory of war were not at all unusual at the time. In cureent mainstream Irish commentary are other contemporary figures who said the same sort of things pathologised for it in the way that Pearce is – or only those who are connected to the Easter Rising?

  18. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 30, 2007 at 10:14 am

    Yes, it’s not very different from the sort of thing d’Annunzio was writing at the time. As for pathologising the historical figures, I think Pearse is in a league of his own. Tone for example still gets lip service from lots of people who’ve never read him, and Connolly remains popular even if that means rejigging history to “save” Connolly from his own record.

  19. ejh said,

    June 30, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Well, I wasn’t even thinking of d’Annunzio, who was a dubious individual even by the standards of Italian fascism. I was thinking of mainstream politicans (if I can use that term). I’d doubt that they had much to say about patriotism other than it was good or about war other than it was glorious – and if this is so, I wonder if their sentiments are not normally judged by the standards of the time.

  20. Robert said,

    December 9, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    In honour of Padraig Pearse and his comrades and also those who now rebel against the Empire of the West:

    The eagle flies from belfry to belfry
    Even to the Twin Towers of Notre Dame
    Past the golden spires of Cascadia’s bridge
    Over sea and under sky to the great bay’s gate
    Merovingian’s frozen core melts under the warmth of his shadow
    The dead bird falls
    The cross of Spartacus does rise
    Even to the Twin Towers of Notre Dame


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