Shayla Walmsley reviews Pearse’s Patriots: St Enda’s and the Cult of Boyhood by Elaine Sisson, Cork University Press 2004, ISBN 1 85918 325 5, £30.00 hbk
ANYONE WHO was anyone in the first decade of Ireland’s twentieth century was associated with St Enda’s. Of the executed leaders of the Easter Rising, five taught there.
The context – especially the imperial context – Sisson does well. Pearce’s vision of a re-virilised Ireland drew not only on Ireland’s past (and Irelands past) but on Wagner’s pagan Celticism and Nordic myth via William Morris.
There are, too, some delightful details in this book. On Pearse as a teacher, for instance: James Joyce found the Irish classes he gave at Jesuit University College so boring he chose Norwegian instead (better to understand Ibsen).
Sisson is strong, too, on iconographies of gender and the marginalisation of women as political protagonists. ‘The female image of nationalist Ireland,’ she says, ‘is largely an image of dispossession, of disenfranchisement, of marginality and of victimized oppression.’
But it’s Pearce’s vision of the ‘remasculinization of Ireland’ that is, perhaps, the central problem with Pearce’s Patriots. Undoubtedly, Pearce wanted to repair the damage done by an imperial English education system that had left Irish males ‘mental castrates’. Undoubtedly, too, he created in St Enda’s a ‘homosocial’ idyll.
But what was, precisely, his relationship with these boys? ‘Certainly there has always been a cloud, if not a cloud, then a shadow, hanging over the question of Pearce’s attachment to boys’ culture,’ says Sisson. She echoes Foucault’s criticism of misleading claims that sexuality gives us the ‘truth’ about someone as her reason not to dwell on ‘Pearce’s undeniably eroticized view of young boys’ before giving this very view the best part of a chapter. (Her conclusion: he had sexual feelings for boys but he was no practising pederast.)
In any case, the cult of boyhood gave way after 1916 to the cult of motherhood, but Pearce’s revivalism eventually resulted, if not in radically progressive education, in Irish appearing on the national curriculum after 1921. Pearce restored Irish as a ‘real’ language from a general perception that it was, in Sisson’s words, ‘not quite respectable, that ‘real’ literacy meant English literacy’.
So what of St Enda’s? It was, as the author claims, "a radical experiment in education". But you’re left wanting more, please, of this education. There was the drama – "even cynical Gaels were moved by the spectacle of the St Enda’s pupils in costume" – and the negligible Irish its pupils came out speaking. There is, too, the eventual, slow and sad decline beginning even before Pearce’s death. By 1917, the school "taught zealous catechism and little else". But what went on, day-to-day, to donate no fewer than 30 St Enda’s alumni to the GPO in 1916 and to attract praise from the principal rebels of the hour? Surely more than costume drama. Perhaps Sisson has it right when she says:
"St Enda’s represented the future of Ireland… a mixture of educational nous and sentimental vision, both of which were amply provided by the imagination and passion of Patrick Pearse."
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Copyright © 2004 Shayla Warmsley