Pearse, MacDonagh, and Plunkett: An Appreciation

By Professor Arthur E. Clery

Originally published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Volume 6, Number 22, June 1917.

" . . . . Plunkett, MacDonagh, and Pearse, Sweet was the sound of their verse. ....''--Ballad.

JUVENAL'S famous sarcasm about Cicero, that had he confined his efforts to poetry, he would never have been put to death, could not be applied to the men of letters who perished in the republican cause in Ireland. They claim rank as true poets. What that rank is to be a later age must determine; we are too near them, our minds too much moved by the circumstances of their end, to judge their work impartially. Even to weigh them one against the other is not easy for us. Popular opinion gives Pearse the highest place; and one skilled in all the technique of verse, and himself no mean poet, agreed with this judgment. To me the vision of Plunkett, his breadth of imagination, the intensity of his passion make the strongest appeal; the expert, however, set him down as wanting in the skill of the art. As a poet MacDonagh perhaps receives least praise. Yet Yeats is said to put him in the first place. And I know a poet of some fame who, differing from all others to whom I have spoken, looks upon Kettle as a better poet than either Pearse or Plunkett or MacDonagh; surely a faulty judgment.

The three poets were of very different character. The qualities which they had in common were a real religion, a deep devotion to Ireland, much "grit" and determination, a keen sense of fun. In most other things they were unlike. MacDonagh came nearest to the Englishman's conception of an Irishman. He had a touch of the Gascon in his composition. He would inevitably be styled a "Celt." He was sanguine, talkative, good-humoured, kindly, adventurous, egotistical but in a way that somehow never hurt you. Like most men of this character, he probably had hours of lonely anguish, but he kept his gloom to himself. He was very popular, especially with his students, partly perhaps because he was generally irrelevant. I have never met a man who knew him and really disliked him, save one, a Dutchman, who found him too loquacious. Though MacDonagh held no low opinion of his own parts or his achievements, he was, as it were, pleasantly vain. He had that complete absence of "side" which ensures popularity. But a man of this temperament seldom gets credit for his abilities during life. One with half MacDonagh's achievements in learning and letters, but blessed (or cursed) with a self-assertive solemnity, would have made twice the figure he did during his normal life. People with a fraction of his capacity were inclined to smile at him, and they laughed outright when for the first time, at the Rossa funeral, he described himself as "General." Yet, it is understood that for an amateur he showed no little military capacity; and he certainly gained far more respect in volunteer circles than he had ever enjoyed in any other. Affection he had always equally won in all. Again he was in many ways an original and a broadminded man. He had, for instance, a sympathy with the poor, unusual among learned people in Dublin.

MacDonagh's academic work, principally in English and Anglo-Irish metrics, was so much out of the beaten track and beyond the limit of commonplace poetic study that it has never been properly appreciated. It was for this work that the University, having submitted his thesis to a great living authority, awarded him its highest distinction; he was not then on its staff. Certainly his propositions

(1) that quantity, not accent, is the real basis of English verse--song verse being distinguished from epic verse by the recurrence of the same quantitative system; and

(2) that accent is relatively unimportant (owing to the peculiarities of Irish pronunciation) in Anglo-Irish verse,

if they are not entirely wrong, are among the most important contributions ever made to the study of English poetry. They have an interest for the whole English-reading world. He was master both of the classical and modern languages, especially Irish. Of his poetry it is not attempted to give any account, still less to set a value on it. It may suffice to repeat two sentences written of his first volume many years ago when he was an unknown man: "One feels always that, if he is not a great creator of ideals, yet he has lived with the ideal. There ever clings to his lines the fragrance of beauty." I was to meet him soon afterwards; he was then a secondary teacher in Fermoy (of Classics, I think), greatly interested in the Gaelic League. We had many a pleasant walk together by the river, while he discoursed gaily and learnedly on all sorts of subjects. He changed very little in the years that intervened; neither marriage nor promotion affected him. He was the same gay, quick-minded, decent sort of soul to the end.

A colleague of MacDonagh, and in my time a pupil of Pearse, with Plunkett I had little more than a formal acquaintance; my knowledge of him is for the most part derived from intimate hearsay. Though he was the friend and pupil of MacDonagh, he seems to have been almost the opposed type. If MacDonagh was the Irishman of tradition, Plunkett came nearer to the type with which Shaw has made the world familiar, that sort of Irishman which the English are wont to lay claim to as one of themselves--the Parnell-Wellington type--cold and reserved in ordinary intercourse, brilliant and expansive only among intimates; intellectual, determined, somewhat ruthless. Like Parnell, he received much of his education in England. Various absurd stories have been circulated to defame his moral character. In actual fact, like Pearse and MacDonagh and Kettle, he had the purity of the Irish Catholic. He was true to the two romances of his life that form the subject of his poems--the one long-drawn and utterly hopeless, a poet's unrequited passion; the other brief and glorious, ending in the epithalamium of death. Meeting him casually, one saw nothing attractive, or even striking, either in his appearance or his manner, nothing to show the depth of his emotion, the vision of his poet's soul. He was not handsome. It required an artist to sec the beauty of his hands.

The glory of his verse has been so finely expressed by Mr. McBrien[1] that it would be an impertinence for me to attempt any appraisement. It is nearly all the poetry of love, of his first unhappy love. What a love it was he offered! Like another poet, he came to give his dreams, and his dreams were the sky and the seven stars and Heaven itself. But in real life, I have heard, he was the clumsiest, shyest, and least moving of lovers. Very little of his verse, it may be noticed, is political. It is the note of the poets of 1916, as distinguished from those of 1848, that their verse is not propagandist. Yeats and his colleagues in the modern Irish movement had set themselves against that tradition of Irish political verse, in which (as they said) poetry perished in rhetoric. Yeats's Kathleen ni Houlihan is written in prose. The younger poets accepted this judgment and were content to make prose the vehicle of their political propaganda. God and Love and Beauty are the subjects of their verse. It is only occasionally, as intertwined with these ideals, that their national aspirations appear in their writings. And this is most notable in Plunkett. Young in poetry and young in politics, one might have expected him to combine the two. But he did not. His verse is indeed never sufficiently popular to have any propagandist value.

Probably the best description ever given of Patrick Pearse was given by a person whose knowledge of him must have been of the slightest, the present Provost of Trinity College. On a certain famous public occasion he called him "a man." And somehow that description, to which so many are technically and so few really entitled, inevitably summons up his image to those who knew him. His was a big expansive temperament that fitted the big broad-shouldered body in which it was contained. How far there was any English element in it, inherited from his English father, need not now be discussed. He had a certain strain of the prophet in him, and none of that cynicism that is native in so many Irishmen. He was accustomed to set out and do things rather than to blame other people for not doing them--the latter is far the more popular accomplishment. There was, indeed, nothing specially new in his notions. Thousands of people had being talking and writing of Irish republics, hundreds of thousands of genuine Irish education, before his time. Pearse founded St. Enda's. He had Sertorius' idea of education as a political driving force. I can only speak of St. Enda's from meeting its past pupils. But whether they became British officers or insurgents, they all alike speak well of it.[2]

Training for examinations has been carried to such a fine point in Ireland, that Pearse could scarcely hope to compete against the numerous and well-equipped "exhibition" factories already in existence. Whether the technical side of education, apart from the examination test, was well looked after at his school I cannot say; his past pupils have certainly shown no deficiency in learning or acquirements. Strength of character rather than refinement, and in any case refinement of mind rather than refinement of manners, was what Pearse aimed at. What his past pupils value most is, as it were, a spark of fire implanted in them, lit at the burning spirit of their master; this and the recollection of his broad love, his mighty heart.

It was these last qualities that gave Pearse at times the orator's fire. A poet is seldom an orator. And on the smaller occasions of life Pearse had an over-seriousness that, though it gave the effect of earnestness, often made him unduly heavy. He had also, it must be said, a hearty good humour, and could thoroughly enjoy a joke. He was popular with his fellow-students at King's Inns. But in ordinary affairs he lacked the lighter touch of a speaker like Kettle, for instance. Yet he could rise to a great occasion. He could speak greatly on a great theme. It was then the grandeur of his soul showed itself. One such speech was already famous in his life-time, and it is certain to live. Quite a different quality, a certain delicate sensitiveness of feeling, a great capacity for sympathy, sympathy with children, with people in anguish, gives his verse and his short stories--they are rather pictures than stories--their peculiar charm. Did he inherit anything of this from the English side? We Irish are inclined to be somewhat harsh in these matters. He wrote both in English and Irish. Although almost the last act of his life was to compose a short poem in English, he has left but little verse in that language. I once heard him say that many men with a capacity for writing English verse, had refrained from using their powers out of a duty to the Irish language movement. And I knew he spoke chiefly of himself, but not through vanity, for he had none. He could have made a considerable figure in English verse had he been so inclined. He made a sacrifice. His devotion to the Irish language cause is so well known that it need not be dwelt upon. He lived in the flood tide of the Gaelic revival, and, indeed, one seldom thinks of that revival without thinking of him. Eoin MacNeill's name and his own, though they will be remembered for much else as well, must inevitably be linked with it. St. Enda's was, of course, the great practical proof of his devotion. Pearse was, however, at his weakest in the commercial and business side. His school was perpetually in difficulties; indeed the enterprise was one of extraordinary difficulty. But with unfaltering determination he kept it going to the end.

As in other cases, it may have been the fact that he was partly of alien descent, that made him so eager to bathe in the full tide of Irish national life and sentiment. He was at once more Irish than the Irish themselves, and yet one of themselves. In the corrupt dreary end of the last century the Gaelic League was a wonderful awakening for the spirit. To one who had long marched over the parched sands of Irish Intermediate education the new land of the Gael loomed up a land of promise, a country of dream, full of song and dance, and magic trees and undefiled streams. Patrick Pearse was among the first voyagers to enter it.

Pearse's love of his country and its language must have been in great part due to his being educated at the Christian Schools. As Pearse himself set so much store by education, it may be worth while to point out that each of the three poets showed very clearly the characteristic marks of their early training. Pearse's personal virtue, his intense religion, his unquestioning faith are qualities perpetually found in the pupils of the Christian Brothers. Plunkett and MacDonagh were good Catholics, too, but in quite a different way. MacDonagh's ease of manner, his cheerfulness, his complete absence of "side" or affectation, his practical capacity are qualities which the Holy Ghost Fathers seem to be able to impart to their pupils in an especial degree. Plunkett had been educated by Marists, and later by Irish and English Jesuits. A devotion to Art, a fineness of mind, an intellectual courage, which could look without trembling even on the throne of God, a greatness of conception, an elevation of spirit, a grandeur of passion undefiled; these were his qualities, and some, at least, of them may be credited to the circumstances of his education.

In politics also the history of the three was different. Pearse was always an extremist, even when nobody else was, always yearning for a blood offering, while others laughed at him. In those days it seemed highly improbable that he could ever appear at the head of fifteen men, much less fifteen hundred. Ulster and MacNeill were destined to give him his opportunity. Plunkett and MacDonagh, on the other hand, began life as loyal members of the Irish Party organisation, the United Irish League. They belonged to the Young Ireland Branch--the branch founded by Kettle. And Plunkett had in those days, according to all accounts, the deepest admiration and affection for Kettle. Kettle's sympathy with the poor greatly moved Plunkett. Kettle and he were first brought together upon the "Peace Committee," a well-intentioned but, in the event, rather ineffective body organised by Kettle to attempt a settlement of the great Larkin-Murphy Labour Dispute. This was Plunkett's first entry into public affairs. I can still remember someone sneering at him as being only a first year student. He was enthusiastic and worked hard, taking up the secretaryship, if I remember aright, but the efforts of the body were destined to failure. MacDonagh also took up a very pronounced stand on the side of the workers. At that time most of the official Sinn Feiners were if possible less friendly to the workers than the Irish Party. But Pearse had Larkin's son at his school. The experiences of all three at this period must have influenced them later on. Plunkett and MacDonagh passed from the Party organisation into the Volunteers, as nearly every active spirit in the Party organisation then did. When the "split" came, they sided with the more extreme and active section that followed Eoin MacNeill. The rest of the story is known to all.

It is not proposed to enter here upon any discussion of the political causes, merits, demerits, or effects of the Insurrection. Such discussions, added to much inaccurate information, have already furnished forth a number of volumes. One aspect must, however, be dealt with, it bears so much upon the personal character of the men themselves. To speak of a Catholic Revolution is practically an oxymoron. Yet Pearse's movement inevitably claims the epithet. Since the days of the Chouans so many practising and believing Catholics, aided by so few who were not, never set out to combat an established government. Plunkett's marriage might almost be taken from the pages of Balzac. And--what would be if possible less believable to a continental observer--the Freemasons were found well-nigh to a man on the side of constituted authority engaged in putting down the insurrection. These facts have an important bearing upon the literary and intellectual movement of which Pearse, Plunkett, and MacDonagh were the centre. It has been rather the tradition during the last century that new developments in poetry, literature, and thought should be away from Christianity. One thinks of Maeterlinck and D'Annunzio and (of course) Nietzsche, whose wickedness was only discovered quite lately. Even in Ireland the same tendency existed. That Christian marriage, for instance, should be the culmination of a poet's dream was the unbelievable thing. But the writings with which we are dealing represent a Christian intellectual movement, a movement founded on the older motives of beauty and pity and self-sacrifice, as against those ideals of brutality, ugliness, and ruthless self-development, new in literature, but by no means new in life, which writers from Nietzsche to Ibsen were making the common thought of man. Politics apart, the ordinary decent man in England or France or Italy would find far more in our poets in harmony with his thought than in the mass of later nineteenth century literature and its twentieth century derivatives. One might almost compare these ancient days when Christianity, on its intellectual side, took refuge in our island.

Pearse's movement was, as has been said, Catholic; but it must not be taken to have been so in any intolerant sense; there were, as a matter of fact, a few Protestants in it, one or two in positions of authority. Religious bitterness is not the vice of such a man. Political extremists have, as a rule, lofty ideals, are rather inclined to substitute in their minds what they would like to be for what is, and seldom come down to take an objective view of, say, Dr. Bernard. But if religious tolerance be a virtue, Pearse and those who worked with him had it in an abounding degree. No one has suggested, not even the liars, that as much as a cross word was offered to any one during Easter week, on account of his religious opinions. As normal religious and political opinions coincide in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred Irishmen, the point is rather one of theory; but to some minds it seems all-important. At any rate there was, in this respect, no blot upon the character of these Catholic poets. They had a love broad and full enough to embrace their bitterest enemies. A time may come when even these enemies will see it.

I have written only of the poet dead. Theirs is a linked tragedy. A dead poet is a flower plucked by the roots, a still beauty, a withering sadness. What a nightmare is the reality of life, thrusting itself into the country of golden dream.



[1] Studies, December, 1916.

[2] I have a vivid recollection of a visit paid to St. Enda's one Sunday, a bright, fresh day. I was brought there, strange though it seem, by one who is now a British officer in France, one of the most brilliant intellectually of St. Enda's past students. I could still remember his enacting Cuchulain or some like part at Cullenswood, shouting out Irish in an English accent. The boys were playing hurley in front of the school, in its mountain surroundings. MacDonagh met us, genial and high-spirited as ever. Pearse was cleaning a rifle with a pull-through --it was the early days of the older volunteers--and said, "We are thinking of nothing but rifles now." Both were in high spirits. A play was in preparation. They brought us in to tea. Afterwards they both walked bare-headed round the grounds with us, making much fun of some apocryphal antiquities to be found there. Afterwards we climbed over a sluice with them into the rougher part of the grounds, which Pearse told us was out of bounds for the boys. I think it was then he informed us how some of the boys wanted upon one occasion to play cricket. He left it to the vote of the whole The decision was not long in doubt.