In an unpublished autobiography, Patrick Pearse described himself as the ‘strange thing that I am’. So intimately was he to become associated with the Easter Rising that it has become almost impossible for historians since to ‘see the man’.
He was born in Dublin, the son of a self-educated, free-thinking sculptor from England who specialised in ecclesiastical work. Intelligent and industrious, he won a scholarship to the Royal University where he studied law and was later called to the bar. He had joined the Gaelic League on leaving school and had become single-mindedly committed to the revival of the Irish Language and to educational reform. Initially he regarded the latter as more important than political independence. In 1908 he established an independent Irish-speaking school for boys in Dublin, St. Enda’s; its pupils were to "work hard … for their fatherland, and if it should ever be necessary … die for it".
Up to 1912, Pearse had appeared on home rule platforms but came increasingly to support physical force republicanism and the necessity for a ‘blood sacrifice’. He joined the Irish Volunteer Force at its foundation in November 1913 and gained rapid promotion to its headquarters staff. His speeches at the commemoration of Wolfe Tone’s death (1913) and at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa (1915) impressed those who were secretly organising the Easter Rising. In May 1915 he was made a member of the IRB Military Council which was planning it. Pearse played an active role in the subsequent preparations: arranging for the landing of German arms; negotiating with Connolly; instructing and sending despatches to the volunteers; lulling the British authorities and deceiving Eoin MacNeill. He also wrote copiously to justify and explain the insurrection. On 23rd April, the Military Council appointed him Commandant-General of the Army of the Irish Republic and President of the Provisional Government to be proclaimed next day.
During Easter week Pearse served at the rebellion headquarters, the GPO, where he was in titular command only. It is unlikely that he fired a single shot. Throughout he exuded a calm confidence. He interpreted his role as that of offering encouragement, addressing the men to sustain morale and occasionally also the public, most famously by reading the Proclamation on Easter Monday. Privately, he agonised over the moral rectitude of what they had undertaken. He assumed defeat stating: "When we are all wiped out, people will blame us. …In a few years they will see the meaning of what we tried to do." As fire swept the Post Office on 28th April, he helped organise its evacuation and was amongst the last to leave. At noon next day, he accepted the majority view of the leadership that they negotiate with British troops to prevent further slaughter of civilians and save the lives of their followers. At 2:30 pm he surrendered unconditionally on behalf of the Volunteers and later issued orders to this effect.
Pearse was court-martialled at Richmond Barracks on 2nd May. At his trial he, if anything, exaggerated his role in the Rising, pleading that the lives of the men should be spared and he himself executed. He was found guilty, sentenced to death and was transferred to Kilmainham Gaol that evening. There he completed his correspondence, further explaining and justifying the Rising. Though his role in planning the Rising had been secondary, he became through his writings and the offices he held in Easter week, its incarnation, icon and public image. His executioners enabled him to fulfil his wish for martyrdom. He wrote to his mother ‘This is the death I should have asked for if God had given me the choice of all deaths’. Pearse faced the firing squad at between 3:30-4:00 am, 3 May, and was buried at Arbour Hill Barracks alongside Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh who had also been executed that day.