BOOK REVIEW by Robert Butler
Rόisín Ní Ghairbhí, 16 Lives Willie Pearse, The O’Brien Press, Dublin, 2015
RRP: €12.99; epub €10.99.
In the early hours of 4 May 1916, Willie Pearse and three of his colleagues were executed by firing squad for their part in the Easter Rising. His more famous brother, Patrick, had been executed with two others on the previous day and, in total, sixteen of the rebels met their deaths in the same way. The easy assumption is often made that Willie’s relationship to his older brother was a significant factor in his death sentence and that his participation in the rebellion was a consequence of this familial relationship. But was this the case? In this book, one of a series of biographies of the sixteen men who met their deaths after the Rising, the author explores the life of Willie Pearse and the influences that led, no doubt, to his involvement in the Easter rebellion.
The first half of the book, in dealing with the early life and subsequent career of Willie Pearse, provides an comprehensive account of the growth of the arts in Ireland, including the establishment of a number of artistic organisations in which Willie was an active member. This lesser-known Pearse was an accomplished sculptor, actor and teacher in addition to, at the age of eighteen, assuming a management role with his half-brother, James Vincent Pearse, in the family ecclesiastical and architectural sculpture business, upon the death of their father.
The father, the English-born James Pearse, was himself a more than competent sculptor and was a keen student of art, religion, Irish history and politics. Notwithstanding his country of origin, he was a strong advocate for Home Rule and, no doubt, his views provided some nurture for the subsequent political stance taken by his two younger sons.
At the same time that Willie began his apprenticeship in the family business, he was enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. Although the School was essentially pro-British, it was here that Willie first encountered a number of individuals who were sympathetic to the nationalist cause. An early indication of the strength of his own personal convictions arose at the School in 1903 when he, together with two colleagues, insisted on signing their names in Irish in the attendance register. The School initially ruled that such outrageous behaviour was to result in their non-admission to classes but eventually backed down.
Although Willie followed the example of his brother in becoming involved in the Gaelic League and the New Ireland Literary Society, he was an active participant in his own right. He was a regular sculpture exhibitor in a number of Art and Craft Exhibitions in those times of increasing development of the national arts scene. He had a love of live theatre and took part initially as a choreographer and later featured in many performances as an actor. He also became involved in education, taking a teaching position at St Enda’s, the school established by his brother, Patrick, while still continuing his management role in the family business.
Willie’s involvement in the arts and theatre brought him into contact with a number of individuals of a militant nationalistic bent, including the revolutionary Countess Constance Markievicz, Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) member and political activist John Bulmer Hobson, and a future colleague who was also executed after the Rising, Éamonn Ceannt. In 1912, Willie was a member of the All Purposes subcommittee of the Wolfe Tone and United Irishmen Memorial Committee which was a front for the IRB. On this subcommittee, in addition to Bulmer Hobson and Patrick McCartan, he also worked with Seán MacDiarmada and John MacBride, the latter pair also to be executed following the Easter Rising.
While Willie was not involved in the group which plotted the Rising, he accompanied his brother and others on a Volunteer march in Limerick and, in August 1915, he was promoted to Captain, serving as an aide de camp to his brother on the operational staff. He later acted as Chief of Staff and his participation in the Easter Rising was at a senior level. Following the cessation of hostilities and the futile attempt by Patrick Pearse to seek unconditional surrender, after which he was apprehended, Willie took a prominent part in the organisation of the formal surrender which followed. In the subsequent court martial, Willie pleaded guilty to the charge of taking part in
an armed rebellion and in the waging of war against his Majesty the King, such act being of such a nature to be prejudicial to the Defence of the Realm and being done with the intention and for the purpose of assisting the enemy.
It is not known why Willie pleaded guilty and the word had been passed around to some of his colleagues that the tail end of this charge was sufficient justification for a plea of not guilty. A plea of guilty to aiding the enemy (Germany) would have been a significant factor in singling him out to join those who were to be executed.
The author has researched her subject well and provides sufficient data to question the old belief that Willie was just a simple, gentle soul who followed his brother into trouble. Apart from an “outside of” (grrr!), it is well-written and the biography will make a valuable contribution to the history of this event of Easter 1916 and the individuals who were associated with it.