Seminar: Irish Studies, 535
Meeting Date: April 7, 2006
Chair: Mary McGlynn
Speaker: Prof. Barbara Suess
Asst. Prof. of English, William Paterson University
Title of Talk: “Pearse’s ‘Scientific’ Prose”
Rapporteur: Cóilín Parsons
Attendees: Frank Naughton (Kean University); Alice Naughton; Diane
Menagh (Fairfield University, Connecticut); Maria McGarrity (Long
Island University); Martin J. Burke (CUNY Graduate Center and Lehman
College); Barbara Young (Molloy College); Elizabeth Martin (CUNY
Graduate Center); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham
University); Terry Byrne (The College of New Jersey); Ken Monteith
(Fordham University); Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College).
“Pearse’s ‘Scientific’ Prose”
A copy of the paper that Prof. Suess gave has been deposited with
University Seminars. The following is a synopsis.
Pádraic Pearse’s anti-materialist, messianic,
and sacrificial nationalism became especially focussed after he
probably joined the IRB in 1913. His romantic rhetoric is well
documented, but there remains a question about why so many of the
metaphors that were central to his vision drew from materialist
science, and it is on that question that Prof. Suess’ paper focussed,
tracing the connections between science and political prose.
Pearse uses both organicist and materialist
metaphors in his pamphlets. His anti-materialist stance, however,
is aided by metaphors drawn, ironically, from Marxist materialism,
while his organicist discourse rejects such materialism. His
vision of a nation as an organic entity characterises the country as 1)
whole, 2) inherently alive, and 3) transcendent. This emphasis on
wholeness was, of course, a reflection of the political situation in
Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century, when even what
constituted the whole of Ireland was in question. The quality of
being alive was often described with (positive) biological metaphors
and (negative) mechanical metaphors, as in Pearse’s discussion of the
educational system in “The Murder Machine.” Finally, the question of
transcendence is related to Ireland’s spiritual past, which is only
temporarily subjugated to a materialist present. Pearse was not a
Marxist, but he relaxed in his attitude at least towards socialism,
thanks to his association with Connolly, and much of the rhetoric of
his later pamphlets consciously or unconsciously echoes Marx, despite
Pearse’s anti-materialism. Ultimately, much of Pearse’s
organicist rhetoric dovetails, paradoxically, with Marxist/materialist
Pearse’s writings also have much in common with the
discourses of phrenology and physiognomy, especially in their concern
for what constitutes an individual, and the play between the part and
whole of the individual. The nation is, of course, also treated
in the same way by Pearse, who thought of the nation as an organic
unity that is more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it.
Q. I am struck by the resemblance of Pearse’s writing to that of
Herbert Spencer, in terms of the evolution of societies over time, and
their organic nature. Is there any reference to Spenser? He
was certainly educated at a time when Spencer’s work would have been
A. I haven’t seen any, but I haven’t done enough research in the
biographical materials to tell what Pearse read. This is one section of
a larger project that traces the discourse of organicism through
Huxley, Tyndall, Darwin, Yeats, Wilde, and others. Yeats makes an
argument that is similar to Pearse’s, but he despises materialism.
Q. Do Connolly, AE, or James Stephens make similar arguments?
Stephens wrote a lot about the relationship of the part to the whole.
A. I haven’t thought about Stephens in that connection; I started this
project from teaching Victorian literature classes and noticing the
number of scientific metaphors.
Q. Coleridge is writing about fiction specifically, whereas you are
concentrating on non-fiction. Is the generic distinction
important? Would Coleridge have conflated the two?
A. No he wouldn’t! I agree that the connection back to Coleridge
is not the closest, but Coleridge was also a writer of
non-fiction. I have found that in the period that I am writing
about the divisions between genres were not as pronounced, and many of
the figures I am interested in were writers of fiction and non-fiction.
Q. Regarding the category of materialism; materialism can be a
philosophic project, and critiques of it work on many different levels,
which can be seen in his earlier writing. The Roman Catholic
church was part of a critique of materialism as well. You’d need
to be able to map out carefully the multiple metaphors of materialism
that surface in his work.
A. I agree; it is all quite confused in my mind right now. I am,
of course, not making the argument that he was a Marxist; there are
many strands of discourses of anti-materialism.
Q. Stephens’ rhetoric changes dramatically after 1919; the materialism
drops out of his language entirely.
A. Most of Pearse’s essays that I am writing about were written between
1913 and 1916, which is when he was in closest contact with Connolly,
and he was interested briefly in socialism in some way, which is
strange. There are lots of contradictions; he both fights against
and dismisses as irrelevant materialism.
Q. Your work gets to the deeply inchoate nature of the Irish
nationalist discourse of the time. You are also historicising a
A. Yes, he very complex, yet also an icon, and it is challenging to try
and think about the complexities of one who has reached iconic status.
Q. How does G.B. Shaw’s socialism relate to all this, or does it?
A. Shaw is not as complex as these characters; his socialism is very
didactic. Pearse appears to be very clear, but he is more complex
underneath the bluster about sacrifice.
Q. Isn’t that what Yeats is saying in ‘Easter 1916?” That all the
complexities have been stilled by the rising? The phrase
“terrible beauty” acknowledges the complexity of the run-up to that one