Padraig Pearse was willing to die for Ireland but his less famous brother wanted to live through his creative works.
By Róisín Ní Ghairbhí
Willie Pearse, brother of Padraig Pearse, was a sculptor, actor, and schoolteacher.
He was born in November 1881 to an English father, James, a monumental church sculptor who was sympathetic to Irish nationalism, and a Dublin-born mother, Margaret Brady, who had family connections to radical republicanism. Willie was executed along with three other rebels on May 4, 1916, on the second day of the Kilmainham executions.
In an account entitled ‘Two Brothers’, published in the Irish Press in May 1940, Mary Brigid Pearse contrasted the motivations of her two brothers for participating in the Rising:
“All Pat’s life had been a preparation for that fateful Easter week… but for Willie it meant a rude awakening from his long dreams, the consummation of all his cherished hopes. His sacrifice was therefore more complete and more bitter than that of his brother, his abnegation more entire, his courage even more fine… Pat wished to die for Ireland and in a sense was impatient at the tardy coming of death… But Willie wanted to live for Ireland, to give her through his creative works the best that he had to give.”
Mary Brigid believed that the dreams harboured by the younger, less famous Pearse brother “were more matter of fact, more definite, and dealt with the realities of life and of the rich fulfilment of a noble ambition… His dream was to give to the world beautiful works of art through which he expressed his soul.”
Willie was a sculptor and he moved in Dublin’s creative and artistic circles: He had a 15-year period of association with the Metropolitan School of Art from 1897 to 1912. During some of this period he also worked for the family business in monumental stone carving.
Willie was known for his long hair and cravats: He looked the part of an artist. In a brief but strangely haunting description Geraldine Plunkett, sister of Joseph, wrote how she used to see Willie in the National Library and loved to “watch his quiet face and beautiful hands”.
Universally liked, Willie was known for his gentleness and modesty, and many of those who knew him were shocked when they heard of his participation in the Rising.
While researching my book on Willie, I was introduced to a woman working in the National Library whose grandad, Larry Fleming, delivered milk to the Pearses. Larry spent his whole life imitating Willie Pearse’s mannerly voice and could not fathom how a “mammy’s boy” with the hair in his eyes “was mixed up in the rebellion”.
TK Moylan, who knew Willie through the School of Art, believed that “Willie was such a quiet, plodding, inoffensive, unaggressive individual, one could not associate him with bloodshed”.
Willie’s early politicisation is evident from a series of documents from 1903 preserved in the Pearse Museum collection. These show how the young artist took a stand for language rights by insisting on his right to sign his name on the School of Art register in Irish. Willie was an active member of the Gaelic League and a leading figure in the School of Art’s Gaelic Society and in its Students Union, in whose plays he acted.
He also exhibited at the Oireachtas Art Exhibitions and the annual Sinn Féin Aonach, while the family firm took part in the annual Irish Language processions organised by the Gaelic League. He sold at least some work through the Irish Art Companions, who had ongoing links to nationalism and the Gaelic League.
Willie’s modesty does not seem to have stopped him becoming a very successful organiser of social and cultural events associated with his language activism and his theatre work. The networking skills honed in the pre-Rising years undoubtedly equipped him for his later role of aide de camp to his brother.
While the School of Art and the Dublin art scene had close connections with Dublin Castle, Willie also knew radical artists like Jack Morrow. His sculpture teacher, Oliver Sheppard, was a friend of the old Fenian, John O’Leary. His work with the family firm also brought him into contact with some radical clerics.
It seems Willie found his own path to revolutionary politics: By 1912, both he and Jack Morrow were both members of the Wolfe Tone and United Irishmen Memorial Association Committee — a radical organisation which was a front for the underground republican organisation the IRB.
While Willie’s teaching work at his brother’s school, Scoil Éanna, eventually diverted his energies from his sculpture, e still found time for theatre, acting in both English and Irish language plays. He was also closely involved in the preparation of Scoil Éanna plays and pageants.
He was Padraig’s trusted confidante and apparently was the only person whose advice Patrick always ceded to.
Willie helped with the preparation of munitions in the months prior to the Rising. Although not a signatory to the Proclamation, as his brother’s right-hand man, Willie was privy to the secret plans for the Rising, even issuing orders as acting chief-of-staff in Padraig’s absence.
The courage shown by Willie in the hours and days after the Rising is particularly striking; he was prominent in organising the dignified surrender and, alone among the rebels, he pleaded guilty at his court martial.
As his sister attested, Willie’s life is striking for his adherence to an artistic calling. His overlapping interests and social circles remind us also of strong links which existed between the art world of the early twentieth century and the Gaelic Revival.
Meanwhile, Willie’s involvement in various cultural and language movements and organisations remind us how an alternative space for culture and identity was mapped out by cultural nationalists long before the Tricolour was raised on Easter Monday.
Róisín Ní Ghairbhí is a lecturer in Roinn na Gaeilge, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and author of ‘Willie Pearse’ in the 16 Lives series from O’Brien Press