St Enda’s: A Vision for Irish Education

Pearse in his headmaster's robes. OPW.

Through his work for the Gaelic League Pearse became convinced that the key to reviving the Irish language was education. For this purpose, he set up his own school, St. Enda’s, in Cullenswood House, Ranelagh in 1908. St. Enda’s was to have an “Irish standpoint and ‘atmosphere’” and be based on what he saw as the two key characteristics of the ancient Irish system of education: freedom for the individual student and inspirational teaching.

Pearse was also influenced by the most modern educational theories of his time, such as those of Maria Montessori and in particular the ‘Direct Method’ of language teaching which he had seen being practised in the bilingual schools of Belgium. Classes were to be taught in both Irish and English, with Irish as the everyday language of the school. A St Enda’s education was to be an adventure in which the pupils’ imaginations would be stimulated and their individual talents developed.

“I dwell on the importance of the personal element in education. I would have every child not merely a unit in a school attendance, but in some intimate personal way the pupil of a teacher, or to use more expressive words, the disciple of a master … the main objective in education is to help the child to be his own true and best self. What the teacher should bring to his pupil is not a set of readymade opinions, or a stock of cut-and-dried information, but an inspiration and an example…”

– Patrick Pearse, The Murder Machine, 1916.

School Life

Seventy boys attended the school in its first year, both boarders and day-pupils. In addition to the conventional subjects, great emphasis was placed on modern practical subjects like science, nature study and European languages. Sports, drama, music and Irish dancing were also encouraged. Corporal punishment was rare, and boys were only prepared for the State Intermediate exam if their parents requested it.

Art held a key place in the life of the school. The school was adorned with impressive pieces of contemporary Irish art, including works by Beatrice Elvery, George Russell, and Jack B. Yeats. William Pearse taught art. Among his pupils was Patrick Tuohy, who later became one of the leading Irish painters of the twentieth century. Pearse was fortunate in the charismatic and energetic teachers he was able to employ, among whom were the poets Thomas MacDonagh and Padraic Colum. In addition, the school hosted lectures by some of the leading Irish cultural figures of the time, including Douglas Hyde, Maude Gonne and W.B. Yeats.

“… I claim that the ancient Irish system possessed pre-eminently two characteristics: first, freedom of the individual and, secondly, an adequate inspiration. Without these two things you cannot have education, no matter how well you may elaborate educational machinery, no matter how you may multiply educational programmes.”

– Patrick Pearse, Education Under Home Rule.

William Pearse, centre, and some St Enda's pupils performing Fionn, A Dramatic Spectacle in the school grounds. OPW.

A School for Heroes

The boys were encouraged to aspire to the values of heroism, patriotism and nobility. Life in the school was filled with references to ancient Irish heroic figures, such as Fionn MacCumhaill and Cúchulainn, as well more modern figures like the patriot and revolutionary, Robert Emmet. The plays and pageants Pearse wrote for the boys centred around heroic figures capable of grand gestures and acts of self-sacrifice.

Pearse was a passionate idealist. He believed that a school with the “highest aim in education” needed the “worthiest home”. He re-located St Enda’s here to The Hermitage in 1910. He was captivated by the grand eighteenth-century house and extensive grounds nestling under Kilmashogue Mountain. It would connect the boys with the natural world and provide the atmosphere necessary for the moulding of heroes. In addition, Robert Emmet was said to have had secret meetings in these grounds with his sweetheart, Sarah Curran, prior to his failed rebellion in 1803. After the move, it was Emmet who was to be the chief inspiration for both Pearse and his school.

“A heroic tale is more essentially a factor in education than a proposition in Euclid. The story of Joan of Arc or the story of young Napoleon means more for boys and girls than all the algebra in all the books. What the modern world wants more than anything else, what Ireland wants beyond all other modern countries, is a new birth of the heroic spirit.”

Pearse, The Murder Machine, 1916.

Eamon Bulfin as Cairbre in The Coming of Fionn by Standish O'Grady. Bulfin went on to fight in the 1916 Rising. OPW.
Patrick and William Pearse deep in conversation at a St Enda's event in 1914. The school was under considerable financial strain at this time. OPW.

Financial Crisis

The cost of running the Hermitage proved crippling. Despite the more magnificent surroundings, pupil numbers fell following the move out to Rathfarnham causing a decline in income from school fees. It was simply too far away from the city for many of the day pupils. The decline in revenue, combined with the school’s existing debts and the extra expense of renting the Hermitage, brought the school to the brink of bankruptcy on many occasions.

The constant struggle to keep his school going brought about a fundamental shift in Pearse’s own vision for Ireland. It became clear to him that an idealistic and innovative school like St Enda’s could only thrive in a society which was independent both politically and culturally. His main focus now shifted to the arena of revolutionary politics.

“In most of the enterprises of life a fund of faith is a more valuable asset than a sum in Consols.”

– Patrick Pearse, An Macaomh, Christmas 1910.

1916 and St Enda’s

Given the school’s emphasis on patriotism and heroism, it is hardly surprising that many former pupils took part in the fighting. One group of ex-pupils, known as ‘the Dogs’, lived on in the school while attending University and secretly manufactured bombs in the basement. For these pupils it was their admiration of Pearse, as much as their love of Ireland, which led them to fight in the Rebellion. Thomas MacDonagh and Con Colbert, who had taught in the school, were also key figures in the Rising and were among those executed in its aftermath.

While none of the boys attending the school in 1916 took part in the Rising, they could not escape its effects. St Enda’s was the location of many of the key meetings leading up to the Rising and the grounds were frequently used for drilling by the Irish Volunteers.

“The teacher who cannot, if he wishes, arouse a patriotic spirit in the breasts of Irish boys and girls is not worth his salt.”

– Patrick Pearse, An Claidheamh Soluis, 1908.

“Yet when Padraig passed to his reward the school was neglected and forgotten. Indeed, during his life it never got the measure of support which would enable it to live and develop. But it has been worse, very much worse, since his death, until many people have forgotten its existence.”

– “Cu Uladh”, Let St. Enda’s Flourish.

A group of ex-pupils in Irish Volunteer uniforms at St. Enda's on Easter Sunday, 1916. Standing, back row: Eamonn Bulfin, Conor McGinley, Desmond Ryan, Fintan Murphy and Peter Slattery. Front row, kneeling: Brian Joyce, Frank Burke, Eunan McGinley and Joseph Sweeney.
Mrs. Pearse in San Francisco, 1924. OPW.

St Enda’s After Pearse

The school closed after the 1916 Rising. However, with the help of well-wishers, ex-pupils and teachers, it re-opened later that year in Cullenswood House. Joseph MacDonagh, a brother of Thomas, was appointed headmaster. St Enda’s eventually moved back to the Hermitage in 1919 and was purchased on Mrs Pearse’s behalf in 1920 with money raised largely in the US by the Save St Enda’s Fund.

But St Enda’s did not thrive. Without Patrick Pearse it lacked the dynamism and vision which had made it so unique and inspiring. Neither Mrs. Pearse nor her daughter Margaret possessed the qualifications or ability to run the school successfully. Academic standards declined, as did pupil numbers. The school finally closed in 1935.

Read about the role played by St Enda's in the 1916 Rising.