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Bloodlust of Pearse was a driving force of IRA terrorism

By Patrick J Roche

Published 17/02/2016

Patrick Pearse
Patrick Pearse

Ruth Dudley Edwards states in a recent Belfast Telegraph column that Patrick Pearse's "rhetoric unwittingly inspired a century of political violence".

The relevant sense of the word "unwittingly" in this statement is "unintentionally". But, contrary to Ruth Dudley Edwards, the precise intention of Pearse was to inspire political violence without moral constraint and his commitment to violence was certainly not rhetorical.

Pearse claimed, in The Coming Revolution, that "bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing and a nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood".

The clear import of this statement is that Pearse was an advocate of "bloodshed" not merely as a means for the achievement of his political objective, but as an end in itself - and an end that Pearse understood to be intrinsically good because it "cleansed" and "sanctified" the perpetrator and commitment to "bloodshed" was (in Pearse's understanding) a test of the perpetrator's "manhood".

But once "bloodshed" is understood to be an end that is intrinsically good, then "bloodshed" can be pursued without moral constraint.

Pearse introduced into contemporary Irish nationalism a "political theology" that was, in essence, a cult of death. He attempted to legitimise a cult of "bloodshed" and death by the appropriation of the Christian understanding of redemption through sacrificial death to the extent of, in effect, identifying himself as a Christ figure.

This appropriation by Pearse of the Christian theology of redemption was in fact a sacrilegious distortion of Christian understanding, which was criticised as "aggressively unorthodox" by the Jesuit scholar Fr Francis Shaw in an article written for the 1966 commemoration of the Easter Rising.

Pearse's political philosophy provided the essential ingredients of IRA terrorism. The terrorist kills without moral constraint - the use of the car bomb or the shooting of a father in his own home in front of his wife and children are classic examples of terrorism entirely divorced from moral constraint.

But resort to murder without moral constraint requires the driving force of hatred - hatred destroys the sensibilities of compassion and sympathy that constrain human beings from violence and brutality.

The dynamic of hatred in the human psyche is one route to moral depravity exemplified by every action of the IRA and its leaders over a 30-year period.

To what extent can Pearse be held accountable for the IRA terrorism directed against the unionist community? The connection was well stated by Conor Cruise O'Brien in Ancestral Voices: "The reality is that the atavistic national-religious forces which moved Pearse and became articulate in him move the IRA, also. They have their mandate from the patriot dead. The IRA hear the ghosts that call for blood and they obey the call." Pearse is the most dominant of the "ghosts" to whom O'Brien refers.

Pearse's "aggressively unorthodox" and morally corrupt "political theology" bequeathed a legacy to Ireland - what O'Brien (in States Of Ireland) referred to as "the mystique of the gunman as the predominant political theme in Irish politics", which will no doubt be reiterated as a dominant theme during the commemoration of the Easter Rising in 2016.

Ruth Dudley Edwards is a fearless critic of the IRA and a sympathetic friend of unionism and the author of a rightly acclaimed biography of Pearse.

But, on this particular occasion, she may, in her appropriate castigation of Sean 'The Surgeon' Hughes, have been "unwittingly" too sympathetic to Pearse.

Patrick J Roche was MLA for Lagan Valley from 1998 to 2003

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