Mugshot Martyr

Posted on: 10th December, 2018

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History.

“If I am a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being immensely over-educated.” – Oscar Wilde

Pádraig Pearse was a poet, writer, barrister, republican, revolutionary and for one week he was the President of the Irish Republic. He was born at 27 Great Brunswick Street, Dublin. This street is now named after him. He has a vast catalogue of poems written in English and Irish. He has a considerable cache of plays, written in both English and Irish also. He is credited with saving the Irish language and bringing about its revival. He was a gaeilgeoir, as were many others in his family. He was so committed to the Irish language’s revival that he created his own bilingual school for boys in Dublin called St. Enda’s and was involved with creating the same for girls, called St. Ita’s. As a barrister he defended only one case. Pearse represented Neil McBride, a poet from Donegal who had been fined for displaying ‘illegible’ writing (Irish) on his donkey cart. Pearse lost the case. He proclaimed the Irish Republic on the steps of the GPO and six days later he gave the surrender order. For this act, Pearse and his brother Willie were shot by firing squad. Making Pearse a martyr. From this stemmed possibly the most iconic picture of the Irish revolutionary period and certainly the most recognisable portrait of all the rebels. The remarkable side portrait picture of Padraig Pearse.

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Instantly recognisable as Pearse, this image has been published and broadcast the world over. Have you ever wondered why you never see a front facing shot of Pearse? Ever asked yourself why his picture is always in profile? Try to find a front-facing photograph; it is quite difficult. The reason is Pearse had a strabismus. A strabismus is colloquially known as a squint. Pearse had it from birth but it got progressively worse throughout his life and by the time he had reached adulthood it had become very pronounced. Pearse was inherently self-conscious of it and would not allow himself to be photographed head on. Even in group photographs, you’ll see that Pearse has turned to his side before the camera flash. Despite being immensely embarrassed by his condition it obviously never held him back. He was a unique character in many ways but also in the fact that despite being of a shy nature, he was still capable of giving rousing speeches in front of crowds, like at O’Donovan-Rossa’s graveside oration, when needed. It could be argued that there was something prophetic in Pearse only wanting to be photographed in profile. Did he have a quiet confidence that he was to do great deeds and be the orchestrator of many pivotal moments in Irish history. He did not want the future public to discredit his work or take him any less seriously because of an eye defect. An eye defect that in no way inhibited him, but an eye defect that he considered to be detrimental to his character all the same. Or at least to how he was perceived.

He was concurrently director of military operation of the Irish Volunteers and a member of the Military Committee of the IRB. Such prominence was the culmination of years of assiduous often-secret activity. An admirer from his early days of Wolfe Tone’s republican philosophy and Robert Emmet’s irrepressible commitment to revolutionary action, the muscular social radicalism of Michael Davitt and James Fintan-Lalor were extolled in his later pamphlets.

By no means a man of narrow political vision, Pearse developed a sense of Irish destiny, which contemporaries of the calibre of Tom Clarke, James Connolly and Seán MacDiarmada appreciated. Three years prior to the Rising, in December 1913, he hailed the Fenians who had risen in arms in 1867 and claimed that those who rescued two leaders from a Manchester prison van that year had created; “The most memorable moment in recent Irish history: and that the ring of Irishmen spitting fire from revolver barrels, which an English mob cowered out of range, might well serve as a symbol of the Ireland that should be; of the Ireland that shall be.”

In March 1914 his prowess as an orator in New York City, where he regaled audiences with upbeat reports of the Irish Volunteers, did much to convince the Clan na Gael leadership to furnish substantial resources. Despite having what Pearse felt was a debilitating and embarrassing birth defect, he continually progressed and stringently stuck to his goals and what it was he wanted to achieve. Even though he was a shy man, he was capable of standing sure-footed in front of vast crowds of people and to express himself with a wide ranging vocabulary. He was an ordinary man, with the ability to perform extraordinary acts, such as founding bilingual schools for boys and girls, as well as tireless work in order to keep the Irish language alive. He was a quiet, reserved man who was embarrassed by something he had no control over, a man that for a brief moment in time was the President of the Irish republic. He is now known throughout the world and revered in Ireland. He is immortalised because of his deeds and accomplishments, regardless of the obvious adversity he faced. There is a lesson in that.

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