In honor of Margaret Pearse who died 84 years ago today I thought I’d share the bit I wrote about her in my book, Petticoats, Patriots, and Partition. Many women suffered incredible loss during Ireland’s revolutionary period, but Margaret had a special kind of pain, losing both of her only sons. We are days away from their commemoration times and remembrances, so I thought Margaret should have hers too.
It goes against the natural order of the universe for a parent to outlive their children and for many; the loss of a child usually involves rage, hopelessness, and an urge to give up. Margaret Pearse knew that suffering better than most because she didn’t lose just one son, she lost two. Both of her sons were executed at the hands of the English for their leading roles in the Easter Rising of 1916. Despite this heartbreak, she 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’s children were infused with a deep love for their homeland at an early age. She also taught them about equality and respect for women, and without their mother’s influence, Patrick and Willie Pearse might not have been the fair-minded men they grew up to be. They saw the plight of the suffragist through the prism of their own mother and as a result, they believed in equality themselves. Eventually, when they opened a school, albeit one only for boys, their mother’s influence ensured that they taught their students to believe in equality as well.
St. Enda’s School was Patrick’s dream and one that his mother supported in many ways. It was a Nationalist school and the students were taught the Irish language and Irish history first and foremost. Their studies also emphasized fine arts and writing. But as the headmaster’s increasingly extreme politics began to show in his curriculum, some parents removed their children from the school. Finances became quite a problem. Margaret Pearse worked tirelessly to garner students and funds for St. Enda’s. Without her help and the efforts of 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 yet another visit from English 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 uprising drew ever closer and the brothers became even more involved, their mother 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. Margaret knew what was important to her sons and did not try to change 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. He was in the headquarters of the Rising with his brother—he never left Patrick’s side if he could help it—but it was the petulant anger of the English and his own exaggerations during their secret trials that may have sealed his fate. The Pearse house on the grounds of St. Enda’s was destroyed as well. Margaret Pearse lost a home and both of her sons in the aftermath of the Rising.
Margaret immediately set about preserving her sons’ legacies after they were executed, and she quickly took up their fight herself. She and the widows of the other leaders 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 who were left grieving or destitute by the uprising and many of them, including Margaret, went into politics. Her own loss was crippling but she wouldn’t give the authorities the satisfaction of watching her suffer. 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 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 it 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, another political party. 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 due to their strong mother’s influence. She spent the rest of her life guaranteeing their legacy forevermore. She was one of the most important women in the world to some of the men who led the Rising, and her place in history should be right beside them.
Like what you read? There’s plenty more where that came from. Check it out!! (and get a paper copy – the kindle didn’t format well)