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10 Nov

This Man Had Kept A School – Pearse’s educational philosophy

St Éanna's hurling team

A hurling team from St Éanna’s
from “The Story of a Success” (1917)

Pádraic Pearse is, of course, best known as the leader of the Easter Rising in 1916, the man who read out the proclamation in front of the GPO. Born on 10th November 1879 at 27 Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse St) in Dublin, he gained a love of Irish from his mother and from his education from the Christian Brothers in Westland Row. He joined the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) in 1895 aged 16, rising quickly through the ranks to become editor of its newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis (“The Sword of Light”) in 1903. He graduated from the Royal College Dublin (now UCD) in 1901 (Flanaghan, p. 276).

Writing in An Claidheamh Soluis from 1903 to 1909, Pearse repeatedly emphasised the need for education reform to secure the intellectual and political independence of Ireland. The Irish language was key: Pearse believed that the personality of a nation is reflected in its language and “by coming into touch with the language, we come into touch with that personality” (Ó Buachalla, p. 73 quoted in Flanaghan, p. 276).

Padraig Pearse

Pádraic Pearse
from “The Story of a Success” (1917)

A visit to Belgium in 1904 was inspirational; there he saw a bilingual education in action in the schools of Flanders (Cooke), and he wrote extensively on this system in two articles between 1905 and 1907. For Pearse, language was “the largest and most important of all the elements that go up to make a nation” (Ó Buachalla, p. 133 quoted in Flanaghan, p. 277), a position he justified via a theory of language as the self-expression of the nation (Flanaghan, p. 277).

Language was necessary but not sufficient to the reforms Pearse had in mind. The key to education for Pearse lies in a secure sense of identity. The entire system of education, from nursery to university, should “in spirit and complexion, be Irish and national” (Ó Buachalla, p. 51 quoted in Flanaghan, p. 77). This is far from the education system Ireland had. In The Murder Machine, his last and most extensive work on education, Pearse attacks the Irish education system as education in name only. It is aimed at repressing and weakening Irish people: “[t]he education system here was designed by our masters in order to make us willing or at least manageable slaves” (Pearse, pp. 7-8). He points out that even our educational language is that of the factory (Pearse, p. 12)

Our common parlance has become impressed with the conception of education as some sort of manufacturing process. Our children are the ‘raw material’; we desiderate for their education ‘modern methods’ which must be efficient but cheap; we send them to Clongowes to be ‘finished’; when finished they are ‘turned out’; specialists ‘grind’ them for the English Civil Service and the so-called liberal professions

Against this, Pearse sets an idea of education as fostering growth (Pearse, p. 13):

the Irish school system of the future should give freedom—freedom to the individual school, freedom to the individual teacher, freedom as far as may be to the individual pupil. Without freedom there can be no right growth; and education is properly the fostering of the right growth of a personality. Our school system must bring, too, some gallant inspiration. And with the inspiration it must bring a certain hardening.

He advocated that religion, patriotism, literature, art and science should all play a part in education but noted that was not the case in Ireland. “There are no ideas there, no love of beauty, no love of books, no love of knowledge, no heroic inspiration” (Pearse, p. 14). Education in Ireland is a dead thing. Neither does Pearse want a “modern education” – instead he invokes the past ( Pearse, p. 21):

To the old Irish the teacher was aite, ‘fosterer’, the pupil was dalta, ‘foster-child’, the system was aiteachas, ‘fosterage’; words which we still retain as oide, dalta, oideachas.
And is it not the precise aim of education to ‘foster’? Not to inform, to indoctrinate, to conduct through a course of studies (though these be the dictionary meanings of the word), but first and last to ‘foster’ the elements of character native to a soul, to help to bring these to their full perfection rather than to implant exotic excellences.

A boy dressed as a Celtic hero

Desmond Carney in “An Ri”, 1912
from “The Story of a Success” (1917)

This argument was advanced by Pearse as early as 1909, when he first established St Éanna’s, a school meant to be an exemplar of how Irish education should be run. “The philosophy of education is preached now, but it was practised by the founders of the Gaelic system two thousand years ago” (Ryan, p. 29). Pearse advocated that the teacher recognises in each student “an individual human soul, distinct and different from every other human soul” (Ryan, p. 30). He outlined the ideal education with reference to an old Irish story, where children were fostered to the king and the greatest in the land taught them. Pearse noted wryly, “I can imagine how blue Dr. Hyde, Mr. Yeats, and Mr. MacNeill would look if their friends informed them that they were about to send them their children to be fostered” (Ryan, p. 35). The school Pearse created instead attempted to include the best principles that he believed had existed in the ancient Irish system.

As so often in the time of the Gaelic Revival, the principles discovered in the past were also the principles fostered in the 20th century. Pearse’s school, with its child centred education and wide curriculum was in step with advanced thinking on education in Europe and the US. His use of pageants and dramas based on historical themes was also part of European practice at this time. The education at St Éanna’s was as progressive as it was nationalistic, in parallel with innovations by educators like Dewey or Montessori (Augusteijn):

His actual policies were developed slowly by the study of educational theory and the practices in other countries. The special place he gave to the inculcation of patriotism was, for instance, the result of his study of the educational system in the USA. Much of his emphasis on the direct method and his use of modern teaching aids such as cut-out figures were directly inspired by his visit to Belgian schools in 1905.

In 1914 Douglas Hyde said of Pearse, “‘His philosophy is the philosophy of all who are concerned with the creation of what might be called an Irish Ireland, as distinct from an imitation English Ireland.’ (‘Patrick Pearse is reviving the nation’). However it can argued that running the school was one of the background factors that led to the politicisation of Pearse. Though the school was successful, the move to the Hermitage in Rathfarnham led to financial crisis for the enterprise by 1912. The cultural project to which Pearse had pinned his hopes appeared to be failing. In November 1913 he joined the Irish Volunteers and from then quickly made the transition from cultural nationalist to a member of the IRB, committed to changing the political situation in Ireland (Cooke). Creating an Irish Ireland was no longer enough, English control had to be removed.

By 1915 he was on the IRB’s Supreme Council and its secret Military Council, which planned a rising to take place while the Great War raged. Pearse led the Rising which took place on 24th April, 1916. Afterwards he was arrested, sentenced to death, and executed on 3rd May 1916. Yeats remembers him in the poem Easter 1916 as a poet and educator: “This man had kept a school/And rode our winged horse.” Pearse’s vision for Irish education did not survive him: “after Pearse there was no one who had the breadth of vision, or the generosity of spirit, to carry on the struggle for a humanizing system of education” (Flanaghan, p. 278). St Eanna’s itself closed in 1935.

References and Further Reading

Frank Flanaghan (2004) “Pearse, Patrick” in Thomas Duddy (ed) The Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes.

Desmond Ryan (ed) and Pádraic Pearse (1917) Collected Works of Pádraic H. Pearse: The Story of a Success Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co. (archive.org)

Pádraic Pearse (1924) “The Murder Machine” in Political Writings and Speeches. Dublin: Phoenix Publishing Co. Ltd., pp 5–50 (first published 1916, available on UCC Celt)

Joost Augusteijn (2010) “Patrick Pearse: proto-fascist eccentric or mainstream European thinker?” in History Ireland, Volume 18, Issue 6 (available online)

Pat Cook (2014) Politicising Pearse (video, 3min 16sec) RTE: Century Ireland

‘Patrick Pearse is reviving the nation’: Douglas Hyde has praised the work of the principal of St Enda’s College, RTE – Century Ireland (text from 1914 report)

Elaine Sisson (2013) “What if the Dream Came True: Pearse, Ideology and the Republic” in McGill Summer School: Archive (online).

UCC: Celt listing for Pearse’s works

Pádraic Pearse (1922) The King: A Morality Dublin: Mausell & Roberts (archive.org) – an English version of “An Rí”, published for the use of schools.

Other works by Pádraic Pearse on archive.org.

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