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Pearse’s Christmas Ghosts, 1915
Patrick Pearse drew inspiration from the ghosts of past revolutionary generations in his poetic writing. Photo: National Library of Ireland, KE 097

Pearse’s Christmas Ghosts, 1915

By Ed Mulhall

‘Here be ghosts that I have raised this Christmas tide, ghosts of dead men that have bequeathed a trust to us living men. Ghosts are troublesome things in a house (or a family), as we knew even before Ibsen taught us. There is only one way to appease a ghost .You must do the things it asks you. The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask very big things; and they must be appeased whatever the cost. Of the shade of the Norwegian dramatist I beg forgiveness for a plagiaristic, but inevitable title.

P.H. Pearse.
St. Endas’ College
Christmas Day, 1915.’

The title was deliberately chosen, its source acknowledged. The date of composition carefully noted, with symbolic purpose. The aim, ambitious, this was to be the first of four pamphlets and their purpose was to define for a new generation the concept of the Irish Nation. Finally, there was a hidden motive to the exercise, evident only in retrospect by its publication plan. The series was to be complete and available to be read by Holy Week, 1916, after that there would be no more to be said, the time for action would have arrived. These words were to provide not just a rationale or a context for those actions, but a legitimacy, derived from the inspirational figures of the dead generations, the custodians of the spirit of the Nation, the Ghosts.

When Patrick Pearse finished his pamphlet Ghosts on Christmas day 1915 the plans for a Rising were well in train. A decision to rise during the War had already been taken by the IRB and a secret military council established to make plans for the insurrection. By December the military council had expanded to five with the senior figures Tom Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada joining Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Éamonn Ceannt. Plunkett had returned to Germany and had already drawn up a potential plan of action. Beside this secret activity, both the Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army had engaged in preparatory manoeuvres as well as major public demonstrations such as that at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa or at the many anti-conscription meetings. The rhetoric had also become more charged. James Connolly’s statements had become so militant that there were fears among the IRB that his Citizen Army might strike prematurely. Pearse who had delivered the most prominent declaration of intent so far in his oration at the O’Donovan Rossa funeral had maintained the momentum with a number of similar statements at Volunteer meetings around the country.

RTÉ coverage of the State Commemoration of the funeral of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery on 1 August 2015.

In December writing anonymously in the periodical The Spark, he moved the rhetoric to a new level of vehemence:

‘The last sixteen months have been the most glorious in the history of Europe. On whatever side the men who rule the peoples have marshalled them. It is policy that moves the governments; it is patriotism that stirs the peoples. It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed by the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.’ (The Spark, December 1915, later published as 'Peace and the Gael')

Connolly was not impressed and he wrote in response in the Workers Republic:

‘...nor do we think that the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with red wine of millions of lives. We think anyone who does is a blithering idiot. We are sick of such teaching, and the world is sick of such teaching.’ (James Connolly, Worker’s Republic, December 1915)

In Ghosts, however, Pearse had a less rhetorical aim. He sought to write a manifesto for Irish Freedom and Nationality. He began with the stark statement: ‘There has been nothing more terrible in Irish history than the failure of the last generation.’ His condemnation was direct, fundamental and bitter: ‘The men who have led Ireland for twenty-five years have done evil, and they are bankrupt. They are bankrupt in policy, bankrupt in credit, bankrupt now even in words. They have nothing to propose to Ireland, no way of wisdom, no counsel of courage. When they speak they speak only untruth and blasphemy. Their utterances are no longer the utterances of men. They are the mumblings and gibberings of lost souls.’

This direct condemnation of the Irish political leadership using almost biblical terms leads Pearse to raise his first Ghost: ‘Does the Ghost of Parnell hunt them to their damnation?’ By claiming Parnell at the onset and by putting him in sharp contradiction of his parliamentary successors Pearse was at once reopening the more political split of recent times and preparing a direct line of succession backwards from Parnell but forward to himself and his comrades.

He marks as the opponent anyone who compromises with the cause of Irish Freedom, a freedom that he argues requires separation. Here, his clearly nominates John Redmond as the principle villain: ‘The man who, in return for the promise of a thing which is not merely less than Separation, but which denies Separation and makes the Union perpetual, the man who, in return for this declares peace between Ireland and England and sacrifices to England as a peace holocaust the blood of fifty thousand Irishmen, is guilty of so immense a crime against the Irish nation, that one can only say of him that it were better for the man (as it were certainly better for his country) that he had not been born.’ The reference to the horror of the war could have been a reaction to Connolly’s published criticism of his earlier statement. In his draft of this section, Pearse had included one extra elaboration - ‘one bows ones head in shame at the recollection that you ever trusted him’ - but this admission of his own earlier support for Home Rule was too personal and the sentence was erased.

Pearse is clear that his concept of Nationality goes beyond the political and throughout the pamphlet he continually uses the language of religion. In the manuscript there is evidence of him supplementing the text with this emphasis: ‘corporal, catholicity, Credo, chattel, a flame that seared, a sword that stabbed, blood holocaust.’ He sees national freedom like a divine religion bearing the marks of ‘unity, of sanctity, of catholicity, of apostolic succession'.

His nation is a spiritual one and so the freedom it requires must be unqualified:

‘Irish nationality is an ancient spiritual tradition, one of the oldest and most august traditions in the world. Politically, Ireland’s claim has been for freedom in order to the full and perpetual life of that tradition. The generations of Ireland have gone into battle for no other thing. To the Irish mind for more than a thousand years freedom has had but one definition. It has meant not a limited freedom, a freedom conditioned by the interests of another nation, a freedom compatible with the suzerain authority of a foreign parliament, but absolute freedom, the sovereign control of Irish destinies. It has meant not the freedom of a class but a freedom of a people. It has meant not the freedom of a geographical fragment of Ireland, but the freedom of all Ireland, of every sod of Ireland.

And the freedom thus defined has seemed to the Irish the most desirable of all earthly things. They have valued it more than land, more than wealth, more than ease, more than empire.’

In this definition, Pearse is beginning to move into the language of the later Proclamation of the Republic. And though he begins by linking this concept back to tradition through the Celtic poets he is moving toward expressing it as an Irish nation not necessarily as in his O’Donovan Rossa speech as ‘gaelic as well’. This is seen in the manuscript as he replaces ‘Gaelic’ with ‘Irish’ on a number of occasions.

Patrick Pearse addressing a crowd of members of the Gaelic League, the flagship organisation of the Gaelic revival, at the Colmcille at Towerfield House Ground, Dolphins Barn in 1915. (Image: Bureau of Military History 1913-1921, Military Archives)

Defining it in this way as a ‘historic claim for Separation’ Pearse traces the Separatist tradition of Nationalism back through history. He distinguishes as opponents those who stand firm for Separatism and those prepared to compromise: ‘The first man who spoke, or seemed to speak for Ireland, who was not a Separatist was Henry Grattan and it was against Henry Grattan’s Constitution that Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen rose.’

‘Robert Emmet was a Separatist. O’Connell was not a Separatist: but as the United Irishmen revolted against Grattan, Young Ireland revolted against O’Connell. And Young Ireland, in its final development, was Separatist… the Fenians were Separatists.’

He added to his draft manuscript: ‘They guarded themselves against future representation by calling themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood’, the final link made. Each generation had repudiated a leader who had taken up a contrary positon to Separatism just as the ‘Volunteers repudiated Redmond'.

The ‘Ghosts’ are those who developed this concept of an Irish Nation, as a principle, involving the idea of ‘Independence, Separation, a distinct and unfettered national existence’. There were four: Theobold Wolfe Tone, Thomas Davis, James Fintan Lalor, and John Mitchel.

To be included, they had to be not just leaders but teachers who developed the philosophy. O’Connell is thus excluded, Emmet and James Stephens too and the great political thinkers of Anglo-Ireland, Berkeley, Swift and Burke had Separatist ideas but were not ‘authentically’ of the Irish Struggle. Only Parnell, makes the standard for inclusion and his ‘pale and angry ghost’ stands by the four others.

But it is through the original four, in the rest of this pamphlet and in the three pamphlets that follow, that Pearse makes his case. Four were chosen – perhaps to echo tradition, the Four Masters – but also to have that biblical symmetry with the Gospels.

From each, key phrases were chosen.

From Tone:

‘To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter…’

From Davis:

‘Ireland’s aspiration is for unbounded nationality.’

From Lalor:

‘Ireland her own – Ireland her own, and all therein, from the sod to the sky. The soil of Ireland for the people of Ireland, to have and hold from God alone who gave it – to have and hold to them and their heirs for ever without suit or service, faith or fealty, rent or render to any power under Heaven.’

From Mitchel:

‘…an aspiration of King David haunts my memory when I think of Ireland and her wrongs: that thy foot may be dipped in the blood of thine enemies, and that they be tongue of thy dogs be red through the same.’

Pearse concludes: ‘Thus Tone, thus Davis, thus Lalor, thus Mitchel, thus Parnell. Methinks I have raised some ghosts that will take a little laying.’

In the days following the completion of Ghosts Pearse also compiled together his writings on education into a pamphlet to be called The Murder Machine. It consisted of two pieces on the Irish education system published in the Irish Review in 1913 and 1914 and a collation of notes from a lecture delivered in 1912. This pulling together of his writing could be seen as a tidying of his desk, his last play. A Singer was completed in late 1915. The three pamphlets linked to Ghosts followed. The Separatist Idea elaborated on the work of Tone and was finished on 1 February, 1916. The Spiritual Nation focussing on Thomas Davis was completed on 13 February.

The final pamphlet on the Irish definition of freedom and featuring the the writings of both Lalor and Mitchell was finalised on 31 March. On its opening page Pearse wrote:

‘This pamphlet concludes the examination of the Irish definition of freedom which I promised in “Ghosts”. For my part I have no more to say. P.H. Pearse, St. Enda’s College, Rathfarnham, 31st March 1916.’

He sent a letter to his publisher Whelan and Son with a special request:

‘I sent you MS of Sovereign people yesterday (Thursday) with a hurried note. I had written you a letter but left it behind me at Headquarters and just scribbled a note in the Post Office.

I want to ask you as a personal favour to me to rush these two last pamphlets through. Please tell printer to send me proof of Spiritual Nation at once. I will send it back to him direct, with instructions to print off (which you would confirm), and will not ask to see to revise, so as to save time. In the meantime, put the Sovereign People in hands and runs it through, so timing things to have the Sovereign People, the last of the series, on sale by Monday April 17th. I ask you to do this for me and you will later appreciate the reason and regard it as sufficient. If any extra cost is involved I will see it paid.’ (P.H. Pearse to J. Whelan, 31 March, 1916)

The ‘sufficient reason’ is evident to history. Pearse’s intent was perhaps heralded too by a short poem he titled 'Christmas 1915':

‘O King that was born
To set bondsmen free,
In the coming battle,
Help thy Gael!’

These writings and that battle were his claim to join those Ghosts of Christmas past.

Ed Mulhall is a former Managing Director of RTÉ News & Current Affairs and Editorial Advisor to Century Ireland



All quotes from Ghosts by P. H. Pearse from:
Patrick Pearse, The Coming Revolution: The Political Writings and Speeches of Patrick Pearse, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.
Ghosts, National Library of Ireland, MS 21061 (1)
Original text of Ghosts as published see: CELT, Corpus of Electronic Text Edition, UC (other pamphlets available in same series). Ghosts here:

Letters quoted:

The Letters of P.H. Pearse, edited by Seamus O Buachalla, Gerrard’s Cross, 1980.
Poem in Pádraig Pearse: Collected Works of Pádraig H. Pearse, Volume 2, Dublin, 1919.

See also:

Ruth Dudley Edwards, Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure, London, 1990
Joost Augustein, Patrick Pearse: The Making of a Revolutionary, New York, 2010
Charles Townshend, Easter 1916, London, 2006
J.J. Lee, In Search of Patrick Pearse in Revising the Rising, edited by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha and Theo Dorgan, Derry,1991
Donal Nevin, James Connolly: A Full Life, Dublin, 2005



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