“My eyes have been wet with the tears of children.”
As we round the corner toward the centennial celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising, the beginning of Ireland’s fight for independence from Britain and the release of EXILE ON BRIDGE STREET (March, 2016, THREE ROOMS PRESS), one name stands above all the rest: Pádraig Anraí Mac Piarais, more commonly known by his anglicized name, Patrick Pearse (1879-1916).
Pearse was the mind behind the Easter Rising. A teacher and writer, he brought together different factions in Irish society before the Rising. A monumental task in an inherently divided people. And after he was executed by British authorities, brought the entire country into balance. In the words of one of his famous poems which foresaw the independence movement,
“I say to my people that they are holy,
that they are august,
despite their chains…
That they have but need of courage.”
No better literary foreshadowing could ever have been laid out.
Although Pearse is famous in Ireland as a poet and a leader, he is virtually unknown outside the island nation. This, I believe, is a grave mistake. The world should know and celebrate Pearse as a great poet. One of the world’s greatest.
There are a few reasons why Pearse is not considered a poet outside of Ireland. I will attempt to outline them, but in doing so I believe the reasons he is excluded are at the same time, reasons he should be included.
He chose sides – Unlike Seamus Heaney, one of Ireland’s greatest poets or W.B. Yeats, Pearse took a very clear stance against the British as his people’s greatest oppressor. Both Heaney and Yeats were on the side of Ireland, there is no mistaking that, but Pearse took an active role. This turns him into much more than just a poet, which leads to the second point.
The Rebel – I have already referenced Pearse’s poem The Rebel, which to me is his best and most definitive work. Pearse took this label to a very bloody culmination. Why rebels are never considered famous poets is a topic for another story, but Pearse would have to be one of its main references. Traditional society requests the poet to stand back and watch with an objective eye. Pearse was anything but objective. He wanted to give his blood to start a revolution. Then he did give up his blood, and the revolution soon followed. This makes him a rebel, which is to say a believer in anti-establishment. But considering what Britain had been doing to Ireland for seven hundred years (again, a topic for another story), to fight as a rebel for his people against an establishment that was based on the repression of religion, language and culture made legal by the laws of invaders is, to my point, the greatest and most patriotic lover of establishmentarianism. But it’d be quite a task to convince a British citizen of this, and since Britain has a long history of making and breaking those who carry the label of “poet,” Pearse won’t soon be considered. He broke the law, it can be argued. This makes him a criminal or a member of a secret society or, even worse, a Fenian. Therefore, Pearse will remain a mere rebel in the establishment’s perspective.
A close up of Patrick Pearse at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa, August 1, 1915.
Other works – Pearse not only wrote poetry and other works of art, he also wrote Ireland’s Proclamation of Independence and read it aloud to bewildered passersby one April afternoon after he and some 1,200 militant rebels quietly overtook strategic points in Dublin while British colonial forces were at the races. This is not the work of a poet, one might say. But Ireland’s call for independence, in the form of this proclamation, is in itself ground breaking and thoroughly poetic. Irish people are known for their love of words, and in this work of art Pearse did not let down. Phrases such as “august destiny” and the summoning of God and “the dead generations” who fought for freedom against Britain in the past, along with references to the diaspora in American cities as “Exiled children in America,” this independence movement was not just demanded, it was inspired by the work of a poet. Pearse also became famous for a fiery speech he gave at the funeral of an old Irish rebel (O’Donovan Rossa) that had been banished from Ireland and organized Fenian strikes and secret organizations from New York City. Again, these are not the actions of a traditional poet.
There are a number of people I believe should be considered poets, but because they were a rebel or a socialist, a felon or even a rock singer, they won’t be entered into the vaunted, saintly category of poet due to their means.
As you come across news reports in the coming months concerning Ireland’s Easter Rising, you will undoubtedly hear the name Patrick Pearse along with James Connolly, Thomas Clarke and others, please think of the poet, Patrick Pearse. A poet who took action against terrible wrongs and organized cruelty, instead of retiring to a desk and complaining through academic, feeble poetic “plaints.” Pearse was a man who injected life into his words. A poet of vigorous soul.
What else but a poet could understand the powerful use of symbolism than he who chooses Easter, the Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of god’s son from the dead, as the time of year for a rebellion?
Below I have attached a Youtube video of Ronnie Drew, the famous Irish singer from The Dubliners reciting Patrick Pearse’s poem, The Rebel. The actual poem is copied below.
I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow,
That have no treasure but hope,
No riches laid up but a memory
Of an Ancient glory.
My mother bore me in bondage, in bondage my mother was born,
I am of the blood of serfs;
The children with whom I have played, the men and women with whom I have eaten,
Have had masters over them, have been under the lash of masters,
And, though gentle, have served churls;
The hands that have touched mine, the dear hands whose touch is familiar to me,
Have worn shameful manacles, have been bitten at the wrist by manacles,
Have grown hard with the manacles and the task-work of strangers,
I am flesh of the flesh of these lowly, I am bone of their bone,
I that have never submitted;
I that have a soul greater than the souls of my people’s masters,
I that have vision and prophecy and the gift of fiery speech,
I that have spoken with God on the top of His holy hill.
And because I am of the people, I understand the people,
I am sorrowful with their sorrow, I am hungry with their desire:
My heart has been heavy with the grief of mothers,
My eyes have been wet with the tears of children,
I have yearned with old wistful men,
And laughed or cursed with young men;
Their shame is my shame, and I have reddened for it,
Reddened for that they have served, they who should be free,
Reddened for that they have gone in want, while others have been full,
Reddened for that they have walked in fear of lawyers and of their jailors
With their writs of summons and their handcuffs,
Men mean and cruel!
I could have borne stripes on my body rather than this shame of my people.
And now I speak, being full of vision;
I speak to my people, and I speak in my people’s name to the masters of my people.
I say to my people that they are holy, that they are august, despite their chains,
That they are greater than those that hold them, and stronger and purer,
That they have but need of courage, and to call on the name of their God,
God the unforgetting, the dear God that loves the peoples
For whom He died naked, suffering shame.
And I say to my people’s masters: Beware,
Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people,
Who shall take what ye would not give.
Did ye think to conquer the people,
Or that Law is stronger than life and than men’s desire to be free?
We will try it out with you, ye that have harried and held,
Ye that have bullied and bribed, tyrants, hypocrites, liars!