It must be agonizing for a parent to outlive their child. It goes against the natural order of the universe and has to be absolutely devastating. For many, it usually involves anger and hopelessness. Margaret Pearse knew that suffering better than most, for she didn’t lose one son, but two—at once—both executed at the hands of the British for their roles in the Easter Rising of 1916. Despite this, she steadfastly refused to give in to despair and she spent the rest of her life fighting for the free Ireland that her sons had died for.
Margaret was born on this day, Feb. 12th, in 1857. Twenty years later she married and began a family. All of her children were infused with a deep love for their homeland at an early age. Margaret also taught them about equality and respect for women, and it’s pretty safe to say that without their mother, Patrick and Willie Pearse would not have been the fair-minded men they were born to be. They saw the plight of the suffragist through the prism of their mother and as a result, believed in equality themselves. Eventually, when they opened a school, they taught their students to believe in it as well.
St. Enda’s School was Patrick’s dream. It was a Nationalist school and the boys who attended it were taught the Irish language and Irish history first and foremost. Their studies also emphasized fine arts and writing. But as the headmaster’s fervent politics increasingly showed in his curriculum, some parents removed their children from the school and finances became quite a problem. Margaret Pearse worked tirelessly to garner students and funds for St. Enda’s. Without the help of his brother, his mom, and his good friend and fellow teacher Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick’s school would have collapsed.
His politics also caused trouble at home. The Pearse house was frequently raided and the family weathered the intrusions as best they could. Margaret Pearse had to pick up the pieces of her house on numerous occasions, after another visit from the soldiers. Willie, who could have followed in his father’s artistic footsteps, instead followed his older brother into the heart of the Irish Republican movement, never straying far from his side. As the rebellion drew ever closer and the brothers became even more involved, Margaret Pearse must have known that things could end very badly for her family, but she did not deter them. Instead, she helped them however she could. This is not to say that there weren’t some intense conversations at the dinner table–I’m sure there were–but Margaret Pearse knew what was important to her sons and did not try to change or stop them.
After the Easter Rising, her sons were imprisoned, secretly tried, and executed by the Crown. Patrick had guessed that would happen even as he began the fight, but there are many who think that Willie was killed in retaliation, rather than for any role he had actually played. To be sure, he was in the GPO with his brother–he never left Patrick’s side if he could help it–but it was the petulant anger of the British and his own exaggerations during their secret trials that may have sealed his fate. The Pearse house on the grounds of the school was destroyed in retaliation for the rebellion as well. Margaret Pearse lost a home and her sons, but was immortalized forever in Patrick’s poem, The Mother.
After their deaths, Mrs. Pearse immediately set about preserving her sons’ legacies and quickly joined the fight herself. She and the widows of 1916 became a powerful symbol and they used their new status in all that they did. They quickly formed an organization that distributed funds to other families that were bereaved by the rebellion and many, including Margaret, went into politics. Her own loss must have been crippling but she wouldn’t give the authorities the satisfaction of seeing her grief. Instead, she became an active member of Sinn Fein and a powerful political force who lent her name and her support to Nationalist candidates in the 1921 elections. She was also elected to the Dáil Éireann. She was solidly against the Anglo-Irish Treaty and maintained that the ghosts of her sons would haunt her if she supported it. When she publicly rejected the treaty she stated proudly, “It has been said here on several occasions that Patrick Pearse would have accepted this Treaty. I deny it. As his mother I deny it, and on his account I will not accept it.”
When she left Sinn Fein, she became a founding member of Fianna Fáil. In her spare time, she toured the United States lecturing and raising funds for Republican causes and St. Enda’s. The funds poured in as never before, due to her sons’ fame and martyrdom and she was able to buy property and reopen the school. It remained open until 1935, a few years after her death, and it stands as a museum to this day.
Margaret Pearse’s daughter, Mary Margaret Pearse, also joined Fianna Fáil and went into politics. All of Margaret’s children devoted themselves to a free Ireland and at least some of their fervor was their strong mother’s influence. She spent her whole life supporting their causes and guaranteeing their legacy forevermore. She was at least partially responsible for the inclusion of women’s equality in her son’s Irish Proclamation and for his acceptance of women as fighters during the rebellion. The amazing fortitude of Margaret Pearse is inspiring and humbling. She was one of the most important women behind the men who led the Rising, and her place in history should be right beside them.
Happy birthday, Mother.