Discovered: 1916 Easter Rising’s Padraig Pearse’s Birmingham roots
As the man who read the proclamation of the Irish Republic on the steps of the GPO during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 Padraig Pearse is perhaps the best known of the rebel leaders but many might not be aware of his Birmingham roots.
Although Pearse and his siblings were born in Dublin, his father James father hailed from England’s Second City.
James Pearse was born into a poor family in London in 1839 and when he was around eight years old the family moved to Birmingham.
Records reveal him to be an unsettled child who made a name for himself for the wrong reasons at his local Sunday school, where he was described as “an atheist”.
His rejection of religion at a young age stayed with him throughout his life and though he was nominally a protestant (Unitarian) he later converted to Catholicism – though this is thought to have been for business rather than spiritual reasons.
After a succession of jobs which he did not settle in he eventually became a sculptor’s apprentice which was to prove the foundation of his subsequent career.
Despite his limited education he was clearly an intelligent and a well-read man and he collected books on a wide variety of subjects, including art and architecture, history, theology, philosophy, current affairs and even religion.
Pearse said of his father: “Working in the daytime and in the art school every evening, he read books by night and came to know most of English literature well and some of it better than most men who have lived in universities.”
James settled in Dublin in the 1860s with his English wife, Emily Suzanna Fox, who he had married in Birmingham.
He set up a stonemason’s business in Great Brunswick Street, which was later renamed Pearse Street in honour of Padraig Pearse.
The business went on to be a great success, though in 1876 his wife died, leaving him a widower with two young children.
He married Margaret Brady the following year and set up home over his Dublin premises. Padraig was born in November 1879, the second of their four children.
Padraig Pearse himself inherited more than just an English blood line and it is said he was teased at school because of his ‘slight’ Birmingham accent.
He respected the traditions that made him who he was and once said: “For the present I have said enough to indicate that when my father and mother married there came together two very widely remote traditions—English and Puritan and mechanic on the one hand, Gaelic and Catholic and peasant on the other: freedom loving both, and neither without its strain of poetry and its experience of spiritual and other adventure. And these two traditions worked in me and fused together by a certain fire proper to myself . . . made me the strange thing I am.”
James Pearse was a follower of the freethinker Charles Bradlaugh MP, a renowned republican and a champion of many of the controversial political issues of the day.
He supported universal suffrage, votes for women, birth control, land reform, workers’ rights and the rights of subject peoples in the British Empire.
James became active in Irish politics too and wrote pamphlets on political matters. He certainly supported Irish independence, though more via Home Rule than violent rebellion. It is said he gather a petition of 7,000 Protestants in support of home rule.
In the 1890s he wanted to return to Birmingham, which he believed to be “the best city in the world” and retire there, having inherited his father’s shop in Bristol Street, though his wife is thought to have put paid to the idea.
James Pearse died suddenly on September 5 1900, while staying in his brother’s home in Birmingham, Padraig was with him on the trip.
He left an estate valued at £1,470–17s–6d. The stonemasonry business, Pearse and Sons, was wound up in 1910 and the capital was used to fund Padraig Pearse’s school, St Enda’s in Rathfarnham.
Not only did the money he left help found the school but James Pearse’s books stocked the library and his engravings and sculptures formed part of the school’s art collection.
Padraig Pearse took some of his father’s free thinking on board at the school and part of its philosophy was that boys would “develop independent minds and a genuine love of learning”.
Although Padraig Pearse will forever be seen as the figurehead of the rebellion, his involvement in organising it was minimal.
He also most likely had a clear expectation of its outcome and famously said: “When we are all wiped out, people will blame us. …In a few years they will see the meaning of what we tried to do.”
When he concurred with the leadership that it was time to call a halt to the rebellion on April 28 to prevent further slaughter he most likely knew his fate too.
Court-martialed at Richmond Barracks on May 2 Pearse was found guilty, sentenced to death and transferred to Kilmainham Gaol.
He was executed on May 3. In his final correspondence to his mother he wrote: “This is the death I should have asked for if God had given me the choice of all deaths.”