A man called Pearse

Pearse croppedThe Trinity College Gaelic Society planned to stage an event in October 1914 to mark the centenary of the birth of nationalist icon Thomas Davis, the poet and journalist who had founded the Young Ireland movement in the 1840s. Davis was a Trinity alumnus and a figure to whom Trinity nationalists, who were a minority, looked up to. The Gaelic Society, which was founded by language enthusiasts in 1907, had by 1914 become a hub for student radicals.

For the Davis event, the Gaelic Society invited and received confirmations from two speakers, the poet W.B. Yeats and the educationalist and Irish language enthusiast Patrick Pearse. The vice-provost, John Pentland Mahaffy, initially agreed to chair the event. However, following the outbreak of the First World War in August, Pearse had begun agitating against recruitment in the British Army. The College was committed to supporting the war. As a traditionally unionist institution with strong ties to the British Empire, most members of the College community saw their best interests as served by support for the war effort, and men enthusiastically volunteered in the opening months of the conflict. By the end of 1914, 725 students, staff, and alumni had volunteered for active service. Pearse’s anti-war stance was intolerable to Mahaffy who forbade the meeting taking place in Trinity, writing to the society that ‘a man called Pearse’ was not welcome to disseminate his ‘traitorous views’ in Trinity College.

The society decided to release their correspondence with Mahaffy to the Irish Times. This act of dissent was brutally punished, and the College Board swiftly and unanimously resolved that ‘the Dublin University Gaelic Society be suppressed.’ The Davis centenary meeting ultimately went ahead on 20 November, not in Trinity but in the rooms of the nearby Antient Concert Hall. At the event itself, Yeats criticised Mahaffy for having broken ‘the truce of the Muses’, and expressed his disappointment that politics could not have been put to one side for the sake of literature.

In total, over 3,000 students, staff, and alumni of Trinity served in the First World War, with 471 losing their lives. Pearse led the 1916 Easter Rising during which Mahaffy, now Provost of TCD, turned the College over to the British forces as they sought to repress it. Following the Rising, with Pearse martyred and radical nationalism on the upsurge, Mahaffy’s words became legendary, providing the title for a 1919 biography of Pearse, and exemplifying Trinity’s disconnectedness from nationalist Ireland following the war and establishment of the Free State. The Gaelic Society’s meeting of November 1914 was one of the most famous student events in Irish history, demonstrating Trinity’s overwhelming commitment to the war effort at the time.

Tomás Irish

Associate Director, Centre for War Studies Postdoctoral Research Fellow in History & Provost’s Advisor on Decade of Commemorations

Dr Tomás Irish will present a talk entitled ‘Trinity College Dublin and the First World War’ on 27 November at 5.15pm in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, D’Olier Street. This lecture is offered free of charge however pre-booking is advisable. To book a place contact: Jeni Ryan ryanjen@tcd.ie.

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