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2 March 2012 Edition

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The politicisation of Pádraig Mac Piarais

Remembering the Past

While often portrayed as remote idealist, Mac Piarais had a very practical side when it came to the internal politics of the League and steering the organisation through the choppy waters of Irish nationalist politics

PÁDRAIG Mac PIARAIS (PH Pearse) grew up in a comfortable middleclass family in Dublin but one which influenced the revolutionary direction of his politics. From an aunt in County Meath he heard stories and songs of Irish nationalism, 1798 and the Fenians. His father, an English sculptor, was radical in politics. And the young man matured during Ireland’s cultural revival, quickly becoming a leader in the Gaelic League.

Between 1899 and 1909, Mac Piarais was immersed in the work of the League. He was editor of the League’s weekly bilingual paper, An Claidheamh Soluis, between 1903 and 1909 and showed a natural flair for journalism and propaganda, turning the paper into a lively promoter of the Irish language and the varied activities and campaigns of the League.

While often portrayed as a remote idealist, Mac Piarais had a very practical side when it came to the internal politics of the League and steering the organisation through the choppy waters of Irish nationalist politics. He surprised some by his support for the Irish Council Bill of 1907, a British Government proposal which fell short of even limited Home Rule. But Mac Piarais, like Traolach Mac Suibhne (Terence Mac Swiney), argued that it could be used to gain more and would give the Irish people control over their education system.

In 1908, Mac Piarais founded Scoil Éanna, a school for boys which pioneered progressive educational methods and strongly emphasised Irish culture. He moved Scoil Éanna to The Hermitage in Rathfarnham in 1910 and founded Scoil Íde for girls. His politics were becoming more radical and this became clear in 1912.

It seemed in that year that Home Rule was very likely to come about, with the British Liberal Government pledged to deliver it as it relied on the votes of John Redmond’s Irish Party in Westminster. The trade union movement was preparing to elect members to the new Irish parliament.

Mac Piarais took a similar initiative when in February 1912 he wrote to Seán T Ó Ceallaigh proposing a new political grouping made up of Irish speakers. “If a Home Rule statute is implemented, Irish-speaking members will be needed in the Irish parliament and if Home Rule is not introduced a sustained agitation will be needed, in which we must ensure that the battlecry is not sounded in the foreign tongue,” wrote Mac Piarais.

Out of this emerged the short-lived political society Cumann na Saoirse. Members included Mac Piarais, Éamon Ceannt, Con Colbert and The O’Rahilly (all of whom died in the 1916 Rising) and Cathal Brugha (who died in the Civil War).

The most significant result of this initiative was the publication by Mac Piarais of a weekly political journal in Irish, An Barr Bua. This lasted for 12 weekly issues from 16 March 1912. In this paper, Mac Piarais challenged Redmond and the Irish Party for their repeated pledges of loyalty to the British Empire. He also reiterated the centrality of the Irish language, writing in one editorial: “Dá gcaillí an Ghaeilge chaillfí Éire” (“If the Irish language is lost, Ireland will be lost”).

The tone of the paper was set in the first editorial which said: “Is amhlaigh atá Gaeil na haimsire seo agus a bhformhór ceannaithe ag Gaill.” (“Most of the Irish of our time have been bought by the English”). Mac Piarais stressed the importance of United Irish leader Theobald Wolfe Tone.

In common with other militant nationalists, Mac Piarais was now watching to see if Home Rule would be granted. He did not rule out the use of physical force if Home Rule was denied. He was one of the speakers at a mass rally in support of Home Rule in O’Connell Street, Dublin on 31 March 1912 at which Redmond also spoke. Mac Piarais concluded his speech:

“Tuigeadh Gaill má fealltar orainn ar’s go mbeidh ina chogadh craorag ar fud na hÉireann.” (“Let the English understand if we are betrayed again there will be red war throughout Ireland”).

These words were prophetic. The British Liberal Government was to back down in the face of Tory/unionist threats of violence, setting in train the events that led to the 1916 Rising led by Pádraig Mac Piarais, President of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.

A significant stage in the politicisation of Pádraig Mac Piarais and in the development of Irish nationalism was reached 100 years ago, in March 1912.

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