The Educational Philosophy of Patrick H Pearse

By Frank M Flanagan 


Gaelic League Emblem

The late 19th and early 20th century saw an explosion of nationalist, separatist activity in Ireland. The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884, the Gaelic League in 1893 and Sinn Féin in 1905. The individuals who dominated the cultural, literary and political life of the time have become national icons: Yeats, Gogarty, Douglas Hyde, George Moore, Lady Gregory, James Larkin, Countess Markievicz, George Russel, Sean O’Casey, James Stephens, Arthur Griffith, James Connolly, Eoin MacNeill, Maude Gonne. There was an atmosphere of revival or renaissance which infused every aspect of national life. The Gaelic League was the main cultural wing of the nationalist separatist movement.

Out of the Gaelic League’s interest in Irish language and literature grew radical political and educational policies. Foremost among the theoreticians and polemicists of the League was Patrick H Pearse.


Padraig Pearse

Pearse was born of an English father and an Irish mother in 1879. He was a Dubliner through and through. Born in Great Brunswick Street he went to school at Westland Row CBS and later attended University College Dublin (UCD). Although he qualified as a barrister, his interest in legal practice was slight. He lectured in Irish at UCD and taught at Alexandra College. He joined the Gaelic League in 1895. At the time of his death by firing squad in 1916, he was Commander in Chief of the Irish Volunteer Army and President of the Provisional Government of Ireland.

Pearse’s earliest critiques of the educational situation in Ireland were articulated in An Claidheamh Soluis, the weekly bilingual paper of the Gaelic League. He served as editor of An Claidheamh from 1903 to 1909. Again and again he stressed the primary importance of educational reform in securing the intellectual and political independence of Ireland, saying:

Take-up the Irish problem at what point you may, you inevitably find yourself in the end back at the education question. The prostitution of education in this land has led to many other prostitutions. Poisoned at its source, the whole stream of national life has stagnated and grown foul. The divorce of education from the soil has extended from the tiniest National School on a Kerry mountainside up to the high academic places of the land.


Pearse’s editorship of An Claidheamh allowed him the opportunity to refine his knowledge of education and his skill as an educational debater. He developed a political programme which was at root a programme for educational reform:

Of course, we all know in a general way what we want; we have got to Irishise education in this country from the smallest National School on a western mountainside, through all the stages of primary, intermediate, and university education, religious and secular, literary, scientific, professional and technical up to the highest educational institutions in the land.

Central to the political programme of the Gaelic League was the language question. Pearse was adamant that the language movement was not trivial or marginal:

Learn Irish square_0The Gaelic League stands for the intellectual independence of Ireland. That sums up its programme in a sentence. This is no mere academic movement, no mere literary cult. This is a movement which touches the nation’s life. No academic movement, no literary cult, has ever had at its back the passion, the stark earnestness, the brave self-sacrifice that have characterised the language movement … Seeing that the language of a nation … is indelibly stamped with the personality of the nation, it is obvious that by coming into touch with the language, we come into touch with that personality. We cannot come into touch with the language without coming into touch with the mind of the nation, nor can we come into touch with the mind of the nation otherwise than through its language.

Despite these sentiments Pearse never advocated a mono-lingual Ireland – in fact he rejected it specifically though not, occasionally, without a wry regret:

the prospect of the children of Sandy Row being taught to curse the Pope in Irish is rich and soul-satisfying

Pearse’s nationalism was neither narrow nor xenophobic. He had a broad European outlook but this did not blind him to certain historical and political realities. His views on language teaching were not chauvinistic: he fully realised that Ireland could have the best of both worlds (economically and culturally) by pursuing a policy of bilingualism.

If we (in the Gaelic League) had the direction of education in this country we should make all education bilingual, and should require the teaching of at least two languages to every child in every school in the country.

He never envisaged or advocated supplanting English by Irish or the establishment of a mono-lingual Irish state: he was far too informed and cultured for such a proposal. Indeed he was at pains to point out repeatedly that bilingualism was as necessary a policy for children in Gaeltacht areas as it was for children from English-speaking homes. What did he mean by bilingualism?

The essential feature of (a bilingual) system is the teaching of two languages side-by-side … the pupil’s knowledge of the one language being constantly utilised to help him in the acquisition of the other. … Its aim is simply to educate the child through the medium of both Irish and English, applying to him a double intellectual stimulus, bringing him into contact with a two-fold culture, placing before him a view-point at once healthily national and broadly human. The object … is the education of the child in two languages. The system does not merely contemplate that Irish should be utilised in the teaching of English. Its object is the teaching of Irish just as much as the teaching of English, and the teaching of English just as much as the teaching of Irish; or, to be more accurate, its object is not so much the teaching of Irish or of English, as the education of the child through the medium of both Irish and English.

He continually stresses the importance of the Belgian experience in the matter of bilingual teaching. He had visited Belgium and studied the philosophy and practice of their language teaching and pedagogical programmes and methods. He reported extensively on the system in two series of articles in An Claidheamh Soluis.

Despite his commitment to bilingualism, however, Pearse believed passionately in the principle ‘Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam‘ (‘A land without language is a land without soul’). It is important to realise that for Pearse this was no empty slogan but an indispensable feature of his educational and political philosophy:

A language is evolved by a nation for the purpose of expressing its thought. Thus a nation’s speech is, in a real sense, the creation of that nation. A nation’s language – fashioned as it is by the nation itself for the purpose of expressing its thought, conditioned by the nation’s peculiarities, mental and physical, which, in turn, are conditioned by the nation’s past history, expressive of the nation’s point of view, working by methods peculiar to the nation, and imposing that point of view and those methods on whomsoever uses it – it will be evident, we say, that this language is an essential part of the nation’s nationality. … it is the largest and most important of all the elements which go to make up a nationality.

One could come to a full understanding of the nation only through understanding the language. Consequently the bilingualism which he advocated must include Irish as one of the languages:

66fa0592b6df449b49a1440ec93408be(Language) is a preservative not merely of the literature and the folklore of the nation, but of the nation’s habits of thought, the nation’s popular beliefs, the nation’s manifold bents, prepossessions, idiosyncrasies of various sorts. It is a preservative also of nationalism in art, in industry, in pastimes, in social and civic customs. It is further, partly through its function in keeping the nation in touch with its past, partly through the fact of its enshrining the national literature and lore, the well-spring from which artists and industrialists and publicists draw inspiration.

Pearse’s own writing in the English language gives the lie to any suspicion that he might be antagonistic towards that language: his style is invariably clear, succinct and respectful of the subtleties of the language. He uses English as a man who regards language, any language, as a delicate instrument for reason and persuasion, not as a cudgel to threaten and bully. His prose is elegant, measured and restrained. He writes like a thinker, not like a demagogue.

Pearse’s philosophy of education is informed by one simple idea: the necessity for a secure sense of identity. Without a secure sense of identity we are adrift, individually and collectively. And this sense of identity needs to be reinforced to the highest levels of the educational system:

(An Irish education system must be) based on a primary system, national not merely in name, but in fact and essence … and it must culminate in a university which, whatever its form – and that, to us, is a matter of supreme indifference – shall in spirit and complexion, be Irish and national.

Was this narrow? Was this chauvinistic? Or vitally necessary, given the premise in which Pearse believed passionately – that the national identity was in danger of going under and being lost forever?

He advocated a Board for education which would be democratic and representative of all aspects of Irish life.

(A new Board) must be composed of men and women in touch with Irish life generally and with the work of Irish education in particular; it must be answerable to Irish public opinion; it must be free from the control of any person or body not responsible to that opinion; and it must be entrusted with the general superintendence of Irish education in all its grades.

The education system of the time had left the Irish people without the kind of leadership they needed:

The ghastly failure of the primary and secondary educational systems is largely due to the non-existence, for all practical purposes, of a thinking and cultured class, informed with a national spirit and with its eyes fixed on the realities of Irish life. Most of those amongst us who have been ‘educated’ have been ‘educated’ foreignwards; those who are in contact with Irish traditions are, for the most part, not educated at all.

Pearse reserved his most vitriolic and impassioned language for his final broadside against the English system of education in Ireland. The Murder Machine drew together Pearse’s thoughts on education, both positive and negative. It was first published early in the fateful year of 1916.

His denunciation of the English educational system in Ireland is ferocious:

I have spent the greater part of my life in immediate contemplation of the most grotesque and horrible of the English inventions for the debasement of Ireland. I mean their education system.

In fact he acknowledges that there is no education system in Ireland: what the imposed system does is contrary to what the aims of a truly educational system should accomplish:

The English have established the simulacrum of an education system, but its object is the precise contrary of the object of an education system. Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame. Education should harden; this education is meant to enervate. The English are too wise a people to attempt to educate the Irish, in any worthy sense. As well expect them to arm us.

The system which the English have set up is a machine which is without pity, or remorse. It goes about its intended task of emasculating Irish men and women so that they become slaves to the needs of English imperialism. The first prerequisite which Pearse demanded for any education system for a new Ireland was freedom – freedom for schools, for teachers and for pupils.

In particular I would urge that the Irish school system of the future should give freedom – freedom to the individual school, freedom to the individual teacher, freedom as far as may be to the individual pupil. Without freedom there can be no right growth; and education is properly the fostering of the right growth of a personality.

Schools should be free from the tyranny of programmes which are centrally formulated and locally imposed. Pearse found it absurd that the education provided in schools would not reflect local needs, local conditions, local aspirations. He urged that individual teachers should be free to impart their own individuality, their own gifts, their own enthusiasms to the work of education. Lastly he called for freedom for pupils to be able to follow their own strengths, interests and capacities:

I knew a boy of whom his father said to me: ‘He is not good at books, he is no good at work; he is good at nothing but playing the tin whistle. What am I to do with him?’ I shocked the worthy man by replying (though really it was the obvious thing to reply): ‘Buy a tin whistle for him’.

As well as pedagogical freedom, he also advocated organisational freedom – allowing for the participation by teachers and pupils in the running and organisation of the school:

I would promote the idea of freedom by the very organisation of the school itself, giving a certain autonomy not only to the school, but to the particular parts of the school: to the various sub-divisions of the pupils. I do not plead for anarchy. I plead for freedom within the law, for liberty, not licence, for that true freedom which can exist only where there is discipline, which exists in fact because each, valuing his own freedom, respects also the freedom of others.

The education which Pearse advocated would be child centred in the best sense:

The primary office of the teacher is to foster that of ‘good’ which is native to the soul of his pupil, striving to bring its inborn excellence to ripeness rather than to implant in it excellences exotic to its nature. It comes to this then, that the education of a child is greatly a matter, in the first place, of congenial environment and, next to this, of a wise and loving watchfulness whose chief appeal will be to the finest instincts of the child itself.

In addition the schools must foster a religious spirit, a love of ideas, of beauty, of books, of knowledge as well as provide the heroic inspiration of the Irish sagas. He denounces the contemporary practice of using the manufacturing process as a metaphor for education:

Education has not to do with the manufacture of things, but with fostering the growth of things. And the conditions we should strive to bring about in our education system are not the conditions favourable to the rapid and cheap manufacture of readymades, but the conditions favourable to the growth of living organisms.

Pearse set himself against the contemporary idea of modernism as an inspiration for education. Although he urged that manual work should be part of the programme of every school, he abhorred the functionalism of the education systems of his time. This functionalism was a central feature of what was referred to as a ‘sound modern education’:

‘A sound modern education’ is a vile phrase – one of the vilest I know. And yet we find it in nearly every school prospectus, and it comes naturally to the lips of nearly everyone who writes or talks about schools. … We are really too fond of clapping ourselves on the back because we live in modern times, and we preen ourselves quite ridiculously and unnecessarily on our modern progress. There is of course such a thing as modern progress – but it has been won at how great a cost? How many precious things have we flung from us that we might lighten ourselves for that race?

A good question, and as relevant to today’s education as to the schools of Pearse’s time.

Pearse found the inspiration for his educational philosophy in his hugely idealised conception of the old Gaelic system of fosterage:

The very words our forefathers used when speaking of education show that they had gripped the heart of the problem. Their word for ‘education’ was the same of their word for ‘fostering’ – the teacher was a ‘fosterer’ and the pupil was a ‘foster-child’. Now to ‘foster’ is exactly the function of the teacher, not primarily to ‘lead up’, to ‘guide’, to ‘conduct through a course of studies’, and still less to ‘indoctrinate’, to ‘inform’, to ‘coach’, but primarily to ‘foster’ the elements of character already present.

For his ideal to come into being it would be necessary to radically rethink the role and function of the teacher. Pearse consistently acknowledged the centrality of the role of the teacher in any education system:


Pearse and staff member at St Enda’s

The most important factor in moulding the character of the education given in a school is the teacher … the thing which matters most is the living personality of the teacher. It is possible for a good teacher to impart a sound and stimulating education under the worst programme that could be conceived: whilst no programme and no rules will galvanise into life and vigour the school system of a teacher who either does not know or does not love his work.


Pearse never lost sight of the child and of the teacher as the irreducible realities of an education system. His definition of the teacher/pupil relationship was based on the model of the master/disciple relationship. He invokes examples from the middle ages, from ancient Ireland, from early Christian Ireland and, centrally, the example of Jesus and His disciples.

images-1I dwell on the importance of the personal element in education. I would have every child not merely a unit in a school attendance, but in some intimate personal way the pupil of a teacher, or, to use more expressive words, the disciple of a master … (whose) main qualification should be .. so infectious an enthusiasm as shall kindle new enthusiasm.

Patrick Pearse wrote before the ideals of sacrifice and nationalism, of nobility and commitment to a cause, had become irretrievably tarnished by the bloody shambles of the European battlefields in the first world war. He must be evaluated in terms of his own milieu and not with the benefit of a simplistic hindsight.


Pearse was not just a gifted theoretician but a practitioner of note. His school, St Enda’s, which he established in 1908, was intended to embody his educational theories.
St. Enda’s school was founded with the object of providing an elementary and secondary education distinctively Irish in complexion, bilingual in method, and of a high modern type generally, for Irish Catholic boys. St. Enda’s has brought the experience of its founders to bear on an effort to extend the scope and improve the methods of secondary education in this country.


Headmaster’s Study

The central purpose of the school is not so much the mere imparting of knowledge … as the formation of its pupils’ characters, eliciting the development of the individual bents and traits of each, the kindling of their imaginations, the placing before them of a high standard of conduct and duty, in a word, the training up of those entrusted to its care to be strong and noble and useful men.

St. Enda’s was originally located at Cullenswood House in Ranelagh but later moved to the Hermitage in Rathfarnham. It was a school for Catholic boys and attracted 40 pupils in its first year. As a private venture it had, of course, to be fee paying, a circumstance which limited its appeal and its potential for innovation. The move from Cullenswood to the Hermitage sealed its fate: Pearse ran into financial difficulties which no amount of idealism could overcome. Although St Enda’s was not a business success it has never been suggested that during its short institutional life it was not an educational success.

St-Endas-pupils-1912-back-row-Joseph-Sweeney-Peter-Butler-A.-Geary-front-row-Eunan-McGinley-Callaghan.-OPWOur main success must be looked for in the characters and daily lives of our boys, for the teaching that does no affect conduct is only so much empty breath. So I hope that what Mr. Eoin MacNeil said of us will always remain true, that St Enda’s has been a success, not only in its classrooms and on its playing fields, but firstly and chiefly, in the homes of its pupils.

What do people generally know about Patrick Pearse apart from the fact that he was one of the leaders of the 1916 rebellion and that he was executed as a result? Not a lot. If his critique of the conventional education of his time and of its relation to colonial oppression had been taken more seriously in the early days of the Irish Free State it could have become a model for other colonised societies. But after Pearse there was no one who had the breadth of vision, or the generosity of spirit, to carry on the struggle for a humanising system of education. After his execution the President of the Courts Martial which had condemned Pearse to death said:

I have just done one of the hardest tasks I have ever had to do. I have had to condemn to death one of the finest characters I have ever come across. There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that a rebel. I don’t wonder that his pupils adored him.


Frank M Flanagan

Frank M Flanagan is a native of Westport, Co Mayo. He lives in Limerick. He is the author of The Greatest Educators Ever (2005) and Confucius the Analects and Western Education (2011) both published by Bloomsbury. Contact at”

© Frank M Flanagan 1994