Patrick Pearse is one of the most important people in Irish history. He was one of the seven leaders of the Easter Rising and the one chosen to be named as the first ever Irish President when the rebels seized the General Post Office.
Pearse was a fine orator and the speech he gave at the funeral of Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915 is one of the most significant of the time.
He galvanised the Irish nationalists and over the next eight months he and the other leaders planned and carried out the Easter Rising.
Following the Rising, Pearse and his fellow leaders were killed by firing squad. Their legacy lives on as they changed the course of Irish history forever. Their actions set in motion the path that led to Ireland finally becoming an independent nation after nearly 800 years of British rule.
Pearse’s great grandniece Robin Pearse Stetler was born in Camp (Ft.) Polk, Vernon Parish, Louisiana, USA. She has visited Ireland three times as she has come to learn more about how Patrick’s actions helped to shape the Ireland we know today.
She has spoken to Ireland Calling about the huge impact that her illustrious relative had on Ireland – as well as what he means to her and how it feels to be related to such an important historical figure.
Ireland Calling: When and how did you first become aware that you were related to Patrick Pearse?
Robin Pearse Stetler: I was about 13 or 14 years old, living in the Washington DC area. A play came to town called the Pearse Motel, or the Patrick Pearse Motel. Because my father had always told me the spelling of my last name was unique and that anyone with that particular spelling would probably be related to me, I naturally inquired if this play had anything to do with my family. This is when I started learning about my Irish roots and who Patrick Pearse was.
How did you react when you were told?
This began a lifelong quest for information about my Irish ancestry. I read and researched as much as I could find out about Patrick Pearse, which led to the discovery of the events of the 1916 Easter Uprising and what part he played in it. But it was not until I was an adult, living and working in Boston, that I was able to explore my heritage in Ireland by taking my first of three trips. I was able to spend the first day in Dublin where I visited Pearse St. and the home he and William grew up in. I also got an earful of information from the people I met at Graystone Equestrian Centre and in Monahan.
On my second trip, I was able to spend a week searching for everything I could find out about Padraig. We went to Kilmainham Goal, St. Enda’s School and Park (I think that is what it was called 25 years ago). Truthfully, I am sure his spirit guided that trip as we ended up in a B & B in Salt Hill near Galway called Lishnamara (sp). A home I was told he named, “Fortress by the Sea,” and where he stayed with Father Griffin who was in hiding, while also planning the Uprising. The owner also showed me the hidden staircase and cellar under the dining room table and Oriental rug. There were still artefacts and old wine bottles there. She told me the story of how they sussed Father Griffin out of hiding by telling him one of his parishioners was ill and dying. The next day I got a private tour of Padraig’s lake home in Connemara by the caretaker, who was more than happy to open up his home, even though it was closed to the public at that time, for us to see.
The most recent trip, this past September, I went with my daughter. Our first night in Dublin we walked to Pearse Street and saw his childhood home again. The next day we went to Kilmainham Goal which has changed considerably from my last visit, and after a two hour wait, had an excellent tour where we learned so much about the Uprising and the men who led it. Later in the trip we returned to the Pearse Museum, which had also changed, in the past 25 years, for the better. We enjoyed walking the grounds, having tea and viewing all the artefacts, particularly Willie Pearse’s sculptures. Then again to Pearse Street where we were able to go inside the Pearse home, which now houses The Ireland Institute for Historical and Cultural Studies. We stayed our last night in Dublin at the Maldron Hotel, formerly the Pearse Hotel. The hotel was very nice and it was walking distance to many things such as the Padraig Pearse Pub, Pearse station, and of course his childhood home.
What did your parents tell you about Patrick?
They told me of the part he played in the 1916 Easter Uprising to bring about home rule in Ireland and that he was one of Ireland’s greatest patriots.
What are the stories about your relative’s role that you most cherish?
I have many, but I believe the book he wrote called the Murder Machine, about how the British education system tried to obliterate Irish history in the minds of the Irish youth and instead instil British history, is one that I admire greatly. How he started St. Enda’s Boys School with the ideals that encouraged young Irish men to learn Irish history and learn it at the feet of great masters like W.B. Yeats.
Was it something that was discussed a lot in your family as you were growing up?
From time to time it was. My brother in particular was very interested in Patrick Pearse’s life. I feel like he was a guiding force on our trip this past September.
Were your parents politically active themselves?
We always kept abreast of current events, and had lively dinner conversations. We lived in DC during the race riots and Vietnam anti-war rallies, so there was always a lot to talk about.
Did your connection to Patrick make you more interested in the events of 1916?
Absolutely it did! As a young career woman, I worked in Boston and was very involved with Joe Kennedy and his activism around the hunger strikes.
Did you visit key sites, locations etc. involving your relative?
I visited Pearse Street and the town home he grew up in. In 1990, my second trip, I spent a week visiting any location I could find. Starting with the Kilmainham Goal, then to St. Enda’s, which was a national park I believe. Then to his home in Connemara. The last trip, we again visited the town home on Pearse street, Kilmainham Goal, and the Pearse Museum.
How has being related to Patrick affected your life, if at all?
I believe it has created a passion in me to learn about my Irish ancestry and has resulted in three trips to Ireland.
Have you told your children about their illustrious ancestor? What was their reaction?
Yes, my daughter has become very interested in her Irish Heritage because I have talked about Patrick with her. But her interest has increased in the past few years. She was passionate, about learning of her heritage on our trip. I named my son Patrick to honor my ancestor. Also, my niece named her daughter Pearse to honor the family name.
What were your feelings towards Patrick now as you look back at what he did and what he achieved?
I believe Patrick to be an idealist whose love of Ireland, the language, history and folklore, was so great that he believed he was doing the right thing for his country….in fact did the right thing for Ireland, even if doing so meant signing his death warrant. The title of the book by Ruth Dudley Edwards “The Triumph of Failure,” is a phrase that resonates to me what the Rising meant to Ireland. He gave his last full measure of devotion to his country.
What are your views looking back on the Easter Rising as a whole?
This is perhaps the hardest question to answer…but I think Yeats summed it up in a quote from his poem “A Terrible Beauty is Born.” It saddens me that the single most important event of modern day Ireland would not be supported by the Irish people…to only come around to support the Provisional Government after the execution of 16 noble men is disheartening.
What are the thoughts on the centenary commemorations? Will you be taking part?
I’m glad that what happened in 1916 is now being given the place in history that it deserves, and the men that gave their lives for what Ireland now enjoys are receiving the recognition they deserve, I would love to be a part of it, but I don’t know that I’ll be able to travel to Ireland.
Thanks Robin, could you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live now and where you have spent most of your life?
Currently I live in Tallahassee, Florida, but I was raised in a military family, so have spent most of my life traveling from base to base. After Ft. Polk, we went to Missouri, then Germany, Governors Island in the New York Harbor, then Alexandria in Virginia, Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland, finally Walter Reed in Washington DC, where my father retired.
Have you had any involvement in Easter Rising issues such as celebrations, commemorative events etc?
No, I have not, but would love to.
What is or was your job or profession?
Currently I work for the State of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in the Florida Youth Conservation Centers Network. It strikes me as uncanny that my current profession is working for the division that is responsible for introducing the youth of Florida to the outdoors and outdoor activities. It is very much in line with Pearse’s ideals for St. Enda’s School. To quote Padraig Pearse, in the Triumph of Failure, when he spoke about his move to the Hermitage in Rathfarnham. “The city was too near; the hills were too far. The house itself, beautiful and roomy though it was, was not large enough for our swelling numbers. The playfield, though our boys had trained themselves there to be the cleverest hurlers in Dublin, gave no scope for that spacious outdoor life, that intercourse with the wild things of the woods and the waters (the only things in Ireland that know what Freedom is), that daily adventure face to face with elemental Life and Force, with its moral discipline, with its physical hardening, which ought to play so large a part in the education of a boy.”
Prior to that I was a realtor in the South Florida area, for 14 plus years. Before that, I was the Assistant Director of the Massachusetts Mortgage Bankers Association, in Boston, which is where I came into contact with people of Irish decent, such as Joe Kennedy and Cardinal Law, and where my interest in Padraig Pearse and the Uprising was flamed.
A big thank you to Robin for taking the time answer our questions and giving such a fascinating insight into the perspective of a relative of an Easter Rising leader.
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