Review of Teresa and Mary Louise O’Donnell, Sisters of the Revolutionaries



Reviewed by Catherine Healy

To be remembered because of a sibling is a prospect some might abhor. Familial fame is not without its opportunities, though, as this book on Margaret and Mary Brigid Pearse makes clear. The two sisters lived much of their adult lives in the shadows of their brothers, the executed 1916 revolutionaries Patrick and Willie, but their link to the Easter Rising at times also provided a valuable form of social capital. Margaret, the eldest sibling, took up the mantle of Pearse spokesperson following her mother’s death, representing the family at commemorations, and enjoying a political career “built solely on the Pearse connection”, as authors (and sisters themselves) Teresa and Mary Louise O’Donnell describe it. Mary Brigid, a musician, writer and the youngest of the four, recounted their shared childhood in her best-known work, titled The Home Life of Pádraig Pearse, which, the O’Donnells perceptively note, excluded sections of Patrick’s autobiography manuscript referring to the family’s humble beginnings. Still, she chose to mostly remain away from public life after the Rising, and wrote on one occasion of being disappointed that her publishers seemingly only took an interest in her book because of the Pearse surname. 

Sisters of the Revolutionariesis a laudable attempt to recover the voices of the two Pearse sisters, but presents little material on how either felt about matters beyond family politics. The book’s introduction states that both, along with Willie, “played an integral part in the creation of the complex, multifaceted man that was Patrick Pearse”, with Margaret in particular taking responsibility for promoting the cult of her martyred brother. Examining their lives, the authors stress, “provides a new perspective on how Patrick managed to realise so many of his pedagogical and cultural ambitions”. This the O’Donnells focus on to the neglect of Margaret and Mary Brigid as subjects in their own right, producing what Gerda Lerner has termed “contribution history”, or history judged according to male standards, made to fit into categories in which men are the primary measure of relevance.

 While the book might be limited in scope – no doubt because of the nature of available sources, for which the authors can hardly be blamed – brief glimpses of individual personality do still emerge. Mary Brigid was the more complex sister, uneasy about her affiliation to the Pearse brand, and clearly not always mentally well. Though financially supported by her family, she remained aloof from the politics of commemoration. One letter in 1924 warned that “any mention of politics” at a gathering in her home would result in “removal by Civic Guard”. Readers hoping for an insight into Mary Brigid’s inner life, however, will go wanting. Her personal troubles are only considered more than fleetingly in a description of a disastrous family holiday to Rosmuc, where she found herself “bordering on a complete nervous breakdown”, as she herself later described it. We later learn of the existence of a woman named Lillian Byrne, a “carer/companion” to Mary Brigid, but no further explanation of their relationship is provided.

 Margaret enjoyed more favourable health than her sister, keeping herself busy with politics, religion and management duties at St Enda’s, Patrick’s bilingual school for boys. Her four great loves, we’re told, were “her God, her country, her ‘chief’ (de Valera) and her alma mater, the Holy Faith School, Clarendon Street”. She was a member of several Catholic organisations, and friends from school remembered her “steadfast devotion to the Pope and all he represented”. Margaret’s educational ideals were an important influence on Patrick, moreover, since she had set up her own preparatory school a year before the opening of St Enda’s. Fianna Fáil provided another lifetime passion: she served as a party TD from 1933 until 1937, and then sat in the Seanad from 1938 until her death in 1968. Just a few months before her passing, in a mark of her status as elder stateswoman, she was taken by ambulance from her nursing home to Áras an Uachtaráin to share afternoon tea with the de Valeras and their then guests, the King and Queen of Belgium. Mary Brigid, by contrast, suffered from consecutive setbacks in her writing career, receiving a series of rejection letters from publishers in Ireland and England, the O’Donnells note. She wanted, according to the authors, “to be carefree like a child and to be cared for and cosseted”. The book rightly highlights her prodigious output, including lengthy extracts from her literary writings, but too many gaps in her own story remain.

 Sisters of the Revolutionaries is firmer in tracing the difficulties between Margaret and Mary Brigid, which escalated, in typical Irish fashion, with a falling out over Mrs Pearse’s will. The sisters quarrelled over stocks, shares, rental income and royalties left to them after their mother’s death, and relations only worsened with the publication of The Home Life of Pádraig Pearse, whose distribution was held up by objections from Margaret. The idyllic childhood story presented in that book stood in stark opposition to the chilliness of their later relationship, the O’Donnells point out. Family money disputes are all too rarely probed in Irish revolutionary histories, and the authors are to be commended here for developing a clear picture of the Pearses’ financial affairs. Despite their troubles, as they acknowledge, neither Margaret nor Mary Brigid were “compelled to eke out a living through paid employment”.

The book concludes on something of a sombre note. Mary Brigid, according to the authors, “spent much of her life trying to reconcile why her beloved Patrick would abandon a loving family for his political ideals”. Margaret, an unfailing champion of the Easter Rising legacy, is described as having “relinquished her personal ambitions” as an educationalist by subscribing to Patrick’s view of sacrifice as a crucial element of nationalism. She too remained unmarried, and in the final years of her life was said to have feared that “‘old retainers and relatives’ were waiting for her demise” so they could comb through the contents of St Enda’s. One wonders about those frustrated aspirations, about the burden of their surname and all the expectations that came with it. Might either sister ever be defined on her own terms? This book is nonetheless an important contribution to the history of the Pearse family, and will serve, one hopes, as a stepping stone to further research on the two sisters.

Catherine Healy is a PhD candidate at the Department of History in Trinity College Dublin, supported by an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship.