December is usually a lively month at the Museum with school tours, live theatre, musical events and people bringing their Christmas visitors to see their local museum. Last year, in the best tradition of St. Enda’s School, the Museum was a hive of seasonal theatrical activity. In early December 2019, we hosted the Rathfarnham Theatre Group for five sell-out performances of The Dead by James Joyce. In January, it was the turn of the young thespians of the Betty Ann Norton Theatre School to tread the boards of the Museum’s historic rooms. This was a promenade production, “The Importance of Being Wilde”. In spite of a threat posed by Storm Brendan, the show went on under the indomitable direction of Betty Ann. Sadly, she died some months later in June. Her show was our only live event of 2020.
This year, not surprisingly, was very different. We were thrilled to have been able to re-open on December 2nd with a strict limit on the number of visitors but our doors closed again just before Christmas. Anybody who managed to fit in a visit enjoyed quite an exclusive experience due to social distancing strictures. The Pearse family crib went on display as usual in mid-December and, in fact, is still here. It, like the rest of us, is suffering a version of lockdown but will be packed carefully away for another year by the time we reopen. If you have not already seen it, you will have to wait until next year to see if you can spot who is missing from our crib!
Our only theatrical milestone this year was the acquisition of a play-bill from The Irish Theatre on Harwicke Street, featuring Willie Pearse, brother of Patrick Pearse and a teacher at St. Enda’s. The four plays on the bill ran from 27 December 1915 to 01 January 1916, just a few months before the Easter Rising. The plays included an Irish language play by Padraic Ó Conaire and a one act sketch by Anton Chekov. Willie appeared in two of the plays. According to one of his fellow actors, Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, he was self-conscious on stage but his enthusiasm made up for his lack of ability. The entire Pearse family had a keen interest in theatre and drama played an important part in the life of St. Enda’s School. Patrick was also busy that Christmas but his mind was elsewhere. He was working on an essay, Ghosts, the first of four pamphlets which would represent his written political legacy. In spite of its political focus the preface, dated Christmas Day 1915, acknowledges the Norwegian dramatist, Ibsen, for “a plagiaristic but inevitable title”.[i]mg class=”size-medium wp-image-3774″ src=”https://pearsemuseum.ie/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/programme-300×250.jpg” alt=”” width=”300″ height=”250″ />
Some lovely weather in the week before Christmas enabled us to experience our annual “Newgrange” moment. On a few days around the winter solstice, at about 10.30 in the morning, a blaze of sunshine floods through a tall narrow window into the Museum entrance area. The entrance is located in a modern extension, which opened in 2008. It was designed by award-winning OPW architect, Des Byrne, but we believe our annual moment in the sun is due more to serendipity than design.
In mid-December, we put on display number of historic artefacts, presented to the Pearse Museum by the family of Joe McDevitt. Joe was from Kilcar in Donegal and had taken up a teaching position in Scoil Éanna in 1918, while also studying for a degree at UCD. He went on active service with the IRA in 1920 and was appointed Director of Organisation in the West with the rank of Commandant. He was captured in Sligo while on the run and was imprisoned in Belfast Gaol. He was visited there by Mrs. Margaret Pearse, the mother of Patrick and Willie. Knowing that Joe was a keen chess player, she brought him a gift of a travel chess set. It is inscribed with the words “J MacDevitt Belfast Prison 30 December 1920”. To mark the centenary of this event, we have mounted a small display of Items related to Joe McDevitt. This includes the dainty chess set and his War of Independence service medal.
Our December visitors also had an opportunity to preview our temporary art exhibition which had been scheduled to open in September, the day after our second lockdown. It will still be here when we reopen. Double Estate is a group exhibition that considers the human form through a selection of over fifty works from the OPW State Art Collection, curated by Davey Moor. Set against the historical backdrop of William Pearse’s figurative sculptures from the collection at St. Enda’s and Patrick Pearse’s writing on physical archtypes, the exhibition includes prints, painting, photography and sculpture. There are about sixteen thousand works in the State Art Collection, which is managed by the OPW. These include historical and contemporary paintings, original prints, sculpture, fine art and decorative objects, music and poetry. Over ninety per cent of these art works are on display in public buildings and heritage buildings throughout the State. These locations include Dublin Castle, Farmleigh, Áras an Uachtaráin, Leinster House, Government Buildings, Garda stations and the Four Courts. Access to a wider audience is facilitated through exhibitions such as ours and through lending works to museums and galleries. There is a North/South dimension to the touring exhibition programme in partnership with the Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland (https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/31ca36-heritage-services-state-art-collection/)
During the few weeks that Double Estate was open, two of the featured artists stopped by to see their own work on display. Sineád Cunningham’s work, Kiss (emulsion and acrylic on canvas, 2005) is featured on the cover of the gorgeous full-colour catalogue, which accompanies the exhibition. Sineád told us that it was more than ten years since she had seen her own work.
David Rooney’s portrait, William Pearse (scraperboard, 2015), is part of a collection of 42 portraits commissioned by the Office of Public Works and the Royal Irish Academy to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The works illustrate 1916: Portraits and Lives, a book of selected biographies from the Dictionary of Irish Biography featuring people whose lives were touched by the Easter Rising (www.ria.ie/1916-portraits-and-lives). David is no stranger to the Museum, as this collection was exhibited here in 2017 and he showcased his musical talents in a great concert in our Halla Mór the same year.
Hopefully, it will not be too long until we can reopen our doors, both to our regular visitors and to those of you who have discovered the beautiful park at St Enda’s during lockdown but have not yet seen the Museum. Dá fhada an lá tagann an tráthnóna. Pearse, Patrick. The Coming Revolution. The Political Writings and Speeches of Patrick Pearse. Mercier Press, Cork. 2012