The Progressive Credentials of Patrick Henry Pearse: A Response to David Limond (1)

By Walsh, Brendan J. | History of Education Review, July 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Progressive Credentials of Patrick Henry Pearse: A Response to David Limond (1)

Walsh, Brendan J., History of Education Review


David Limond's article that appeared in History of Education Review in 2005, raises again, a number of pertinent and controversial questions about the educational thought and work of the Irish nationalist Patrick Pearse. The article draws the now customary picture of Pearse's school, St. Enda's, as militaristic and inward looking overseen by a doctrinaire disciplinarian of uncertain sexual predilection. Limond concludes that there was little progressive in Pearse's educational work but his argument rests upon a number of unsustainable observations.

This article argues that Pearse's educational thought and work was informed by the tenets of progressivism and predated the work of later thinkers such as A.S. Neill (1883-1973), founder of Summerhill school. Pearse's work is identified as belonging to the child-centred movement of the late nineteenth-century and the article details the many aspects of life at St. Enda's that reflected his advocacy of enlightened methodology. Finally, the article argues that Pearse developed a unique conceptualisation of schooling as a radical form of political and cultural dissent in pre-1916 Ireland and that, in doing so, prefigured the work of seminal thinkers such as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Henry Giroux (b. 1943) and Paulo Freire (1921-1997). Aspects of Pearse's thought that are evidently problematic are highlighted and the article suggests that discussions of his work might benefit from moving to these more substantial and germane areas.

The teacher as polemicist: approaching Pearse

In pointing to the ambiguity of Pearse's contemporary status Limond reflects a recent observation that to admit to writing on Pearse 'presupposes that the idea is either to debunk the myths of martyrdom or to reinforce him as an icon of the past'. (2) Pearse's political legacy is likely to remain contentious and the discourse surrounding it traditionally partisan. What is more uncertain, as Limond observes, is his contribution to educational thought and practise and in particular, whether the claim that Pearse was a 'truly progressive educationalist or educator' is sustainable. (3)

Limond's point of departure for his critique is Seamas O Buachalla's assertion that Pearse's work was 'significant, original, extensive and progressive' (4) and he contends that 'neither in theory nor practice, was Pearse truly a progressive educationalist ...' (5) Any such position rests on the definition of 'progressive', a notion that is both historically bound and changeable. Turn of the century bohemian desire for co-education, for example, may not strike the contemporary mind as particularly progressive. The practice of establishing student councils, which existed, for example at St. Enda's, Dartington Hall and Summerhill School, is now an accepted feature of school life. (6)

Pearse's understanding of the nature and purpose of schooling developed over a considerable period. Upon leaving school he acted as a monitor teacher at Westland Row Christian Brothers School and later taught Irish at Alexandra College (a prestigious Protestant school for girls) and University College, Dublin. His interest in education pre-dated his becoming editor of An Claidheamh Soluis, the weekly organ of the Irish language organisation, the Gaelic League. (7) His period as editor was characterised by significant and informed promulgation of Irish language teaching methodology. His many articles concerning the renewal of the Irish language were often couched in the language of the propagandist. Indeed meaningful critical engagement with the writings of Pearse is only possible when the reader is cognisant of the tools and purposes of his prose. The ever present need to initiate and perpetuate publicity resulted in often pugnacious journalism. As editor of An Claidheamh Soluis, his writing on teaching and education, while never flippant, was often polemical and by 1909, when he retired as editor, Pearse had developed the keen pugilistic tone he was to employ in The Murder Machine.

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