Born in Dublin on Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), he was educated by the Christian Brothers at Westland Row, before taking a scholarship to the Royal University (University College Dublin) to study law.
He was one of only 30 people to know that the Rising would take place in the days building up to Easter 1916. Pearse, who had been secretly planning the insurrection for two years beforehand, even kept his plans hidden from the highest leaders in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, including Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the IRB.
When the Easter Rising eventually began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, it was Pearse who read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic from outside the General Post Office, the headquarters of the Rising. Pearse was the person most responsible for drafting the Proclamation, and he was chosen as President of the Republic.
After six days of fighting, heavy civilian casualties and great destruction of property, Pearse issued the order to surrender.
Pearse and fourteen other leaders, including his brother Willie, were court-martialled and executed by firing squad. Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh and Pearse himself were the first of the rebels to be executed, on the morning of 3 May 1916. Pearse was 36 years old at the time of his death. Roger Casement, who had tried unsuccessfully to recruit an insurgent force among Irish-born prisoners of war from the Irish Brigade in Germany, was hanged in London the following August.
On May 1st, 2 days before his execution Pearse wrote the following letter to his Mother.
“My dear Mother, You will I know have been longing to hear from me. I do not know how much you have heard since the last note I sent you from the G.P.O.
On Friday evening the Post Office was set on fire and we had to abandon it. We dashed into Moore Street and remained in the houses in Moore St. on Saturday evening? We then found that we were surrounded by troops and that we had practically no food.
We decided in order to prevent further slaughter of the civilian population and in the hope of saving the lives of our followers, to ask the General Commanding the British Forces to discuss terms. He replied that he would receive me only if I surrendered unconditionally and this I did. I was taken to the Headquarters of the British Command in Ireland and there I wrote and signed an order to our men to lay down their arms.
All this I did in accordance with the decision of our Provisional Government who were with us in Moore St. My own opinion was in favour of one more desperate sally before opening negotiations, but I yielded to the majority, and I think now the majority was right, as the sally would have resulted only in losing the lives of perhaps 50 or 100 of our men, and we should have had to surrender in the long run as we were without food.
I was brought in here on Saturday evening and later all the men with us in Moore St. were brought here. Those in the other parts of the City have, I understand, been taken to other barracks and prisons. All here are safe and well. Willie and all the St. Enda’s boys are here. I have not seen them since Saturday, but I believe they are all well and that they are not now in any danger. Our hope and belief is that the Government will spare the lives of all our followers, but we do not expect that they will spare the lives of the leaders. We are ready to die and we shall die cheerfully and proudly. Personally I do not hope or even desire to live, but I do hope and desire and believe that the lives of all our followers will be saved including the lives dear to you and me (my own excepted) and this will be a great consolation to me when dying.
You must not grieve for all this. We have preserved Ireland’s honour and our own. Our deeds of last week are the most splendid in Ireland’s history. People will say hard things of us now, but we shall be remembered by posterity and blessed by unborn generations. You too will be blessed because you were my mother.
If you feel you would like to see me, I think you will be allowed to visit me by applying to the Headquarters, Irish Command, near the Park. I shall I hope have another opportunity of writing to you.
Love to W.W., MB., Miss Byrne, . . . and your own dear self. P.
P.S. I understand that the German expedition which I was counting on actually set sail but was defeated by the British.”
The letter to his Mother weren’t his last written words. On the day of his execution he wrote a poem called the Wayfarer.
The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way
The executioner claimed that Pearse whistled as he came out of the cell.
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