For the present I have said enough to indicate that when my father and mother married there came together two very widely remote traditions—English and Puritan and mechanic on the one hand, Gaelic and Catholic and peasant on the other: freedom loving both, and neither without its strain of poetry and its experience of spiritual and other adventure. And these two traditions worked in me and fused together by a certain fire proper to myself…made me the strange thing I am. - Patrick Pearse (Autobiography)
James Pearce, father of Irish revolutionaries Patrick and William Pearse was born on 8 December 1839 in Bloomsbury an affluent part of London; he was the second son of a frame maker. The Pearses were a distinctly English family. The family Bible records four generations, the earliest being a colonel in the Army, most likely an officer in the model Army of Oliver Cromwell. In 1847 the family moved to Birmingham which was an expanding industrial city at the time. Economic conditions forced the move. His father, also James, found Birmingham the “City of a Thousand Trades” an easier place to earn a living. James would spend the rest of his childhood, adolescence and early adult life developing his skills, Arts and political philosophy in that city.
James left school early and took menial jobs, one of them in a chain factory; he always had an interest in art particularly sculpture and he taught himself drawing from an early age, eventually entering art school. He served an apprenticeship as a sculptor, with a first class Birmingham company. He would travel the length and breadth of England working on churches establishing this name. He eventually arrived in Dublin around 1857, only to find his employer send him to London to carve the 26 princesses for the Queen's robbing room in the House of Lords. He would set up his own business, with various partners in Dublin. He went on to win a first class award at the Dublin Exhibition of 1882.
Work in Dublin was quite lucrative and in demand, as the Catholic Church was extensively building throughout the country. This was after the famine and the earlier implementation of the Emancipation Act in 1829 that gave them and other religious groupings, including the Unitarians, Presbyterians, Quakers and Jews Emancipation, except with regards to entering the monarchy by way of marriage.
James' mother Mary was a devout Unitarian and attempted to raise her children as such. Her husband was not so religious and encouraged his children to read widely. James began his reading in a Unitarian Sunday school, only to be expelled around the aged 14 for questioning the existence of the divinity.
Around this time industrial Birmingham was the centre of radical thinking in these islands. This was mainly based around the radical liberal Member of Parliament for Northampton, Charles Bradlaugh. Bradlaugh was an advocate of trade unionism, republicanism, anti-war, and universal suffrage to include women's suffrage. He was opposed to socialism as it interfered with liberal individualism, a supporter of home rule for Ireland, feminism and birth control. He was not allowed take a seat in the House of Commons when elected as he refused to take the oath to a Queen or a God. He was ejected forcibly, arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, but eventually after many years of campaigning and massive support succeeded in gaining entry and participated as a parliamentarian.
James Pearse's father and brothers, William and Harry, were members of that artistic radical wing of Birmingham’s artesian intelligentsia at that time. They studied Bradlaugh pamphlets and his weekly newspaper the National Reformer at weekly meetings. This group was known as the “earnest minority “which was a movement of working class men and women in Birmingham who wanted to break the upper-class monopoly on education and knowledge by self-study and group participation. They were named the Improvements Societies which organised evening and weekend classes on political and religious orthodoxies, including the Koran. Birmingham had a large Quaker as well Unitarian presence at that time. There is still an area near central Birmingham called Bornville which to this day is almost exclusively Quaker. Many of the Pearse’s Unitarian colleagues were members of this group.
James Pearse’s life in Dublin had mixed fortunes. He had married Emily Fox, an 18-year-old in 1863 in Birmingham in an Anglican Church. Emily may have been Irish but that cannot be verified. They had four children, one of whom died at an early age and another is said to have been institutionalised in a mental institution. Around 1870 the entire family were christened into the Catholic Church. This was clearly out of convenience and not conviction, as Catholic sculptors were complaining about James receiving church contacts. Emily died in 1876 at the age of 30 years. James was to marry Margaret Brady, a nineteen-year-old 15 months later and have four more children with her: Margaret, Patrick, William and Brighid. The Bradys were Gaelic speakers from County Meath, deeply involved in Irish culture and folklore who, especially the Aunt Margaret, educated the children of the second marriage with a broad understanding of Irish history and mythology.
James was an atheist even after his marriage in a Catholic Church to his second wife Margaret Brady. His friends would say old Pearse did not believe in anything or go anywhere and he was known to work on Sundays. He took out a large debenture of £50 with the Freethought Publishing committee in 1889. Pamphlets under the pseudonym Humanitas were published at that time and are said to be his. The first two pamphlets published under this name are, Is God the First Cause? and The Follies of the Lord's Prayer. It's believed he advertised in two agnostic magazines the Freethinker and the Agnostic Journal during the 1880s. In reality James lived a double life in Dublin.
James like Charles Bradlaugh was a staunch Republican. Charles Bradlaugh was no supporter of physical force movements in Britain or Ireland. Nevertheless in 1867 Bradlaugh helped draft the manifesto for the Fenians. James fell foul of the Fenians in 1882 after the assassinations in the Phoenix Park, which he denounced and felt that all English people in Ireland after that event would be under threat. James bought two revolvers for his own protection. He informed his family in Birmingham that an assassination attempt on him had taken place and he was saved only when his wife managed to drag him away from the door. After that he became involved in Irish politics and supported the Home Rule movement. He particularly liked Michael Davitt. All this helped him bond with his wife's family as the Bradys where staunch Irish Nationalists. He published a pamphlet in his own name disputing the arguments of Thomas Maguire Prof of Modern Philosophy at Trinity College who was opposed to home rule. It is also said that he collected 7000 signatures from the Protestant community in support of the arguments for home rule.
The Pearses would suffer financial difficulties during the 1890s, mainly from difficulties arising with James Pearse's business partners. The family lived for a time in Sandymount was the children attend private school. They later moved back to the city centre, where the boys went to Westland Row and the girl’s Holy Faith convent school. James at this time seriously considers moving back to Birmingham with his family. He had inherited his father's shop in Bristol Street near the city centre and had an architect draw plans for it to be converted into a newsagent and domestic dwelling. He intended to retire and live in the city that he considers to be the best city in the world. His wife made strong objections to this and would not leave Ireland. It was in Birmingham in 1900 James collapsed with a brain tumour. He was accompanied on this trip by his wife and son Patrick. Margaret sent for a Catholic priest and placed a death notice in the newspapers saying he was fortified by the rites of the Roman Catholic Faith. None of James' family or close friends and particularly those in Birmingham believe that.
James had a perfectly good relationship with all of his children. He encouraged them all to develop their individual skills and the son closest to his particular talents was William, who would go on to be a sculptor. His son James from his first marriage was also a talented sculptor, but seems to have become estranged from the rest of the family after his father's death. He is said to have died in poverty in the 1920s. Margaret took over the business after her husband died and managed it most successfully; she had been dealing with the bookkeeping for years previous to that. Bookkeeping was not James' strong point.
This outstanding Englishman made an enormous contribution to Irish history, which is ignored by most academic Irish historians to this day. He brought out the best in the Irish while expounding or at less recognised or understood facet of English society - English Republicanism.
James two sons Patrick and William were executed by Crown forces after attempting to establish an Irish Republic.
⏭ Bill O'Brien is an independent republican.