The Bank of Ireland on College Green today occupies the building that was once home to the Parliament of Ireland. Over what is now a financial institution, the Lion and the Unicorn still gaze over the city. The Royal Coat of Arms, it has become a less frequent sight in the city since independence, and in 1938 authorities even sought to remove it from buildings for fear it could be targeted by those keen to erase any trace of imperial history from the streetscape.
Staring at the Royal Coat of Arms across the street is an easily missed carved representation of Erin, representing Ireland. Above the premises of Abercrombie and Fitch, she sits there alongside a harp, an Irish wolfhound and the immortal words ‘Éire Go Bragh’. Brendan McKeon’s image on Flickr, available to view here, does more justice to this fine piece of work than my image from the traffic island below, and is more than worth viewing.
The Royal Coat of Arms and Erin staring at each other across the busy College Green is a wonderful sight in itself, representing the tug of war of Irish history perhaps. Erin finds herself above a shop selling t-shirts and perfume today (ever walked by it?), but it wasn’t always that way. This was once the home of the National Bank, an institution that was founded by Daniel O’Connell in the 1830s. The same iconography would appear on the printed currency of the bank, indicative of a nationalist spirit.
The depiction of Ireland over the building dates from 1889, and is the work of James Pearse and Edmund Sharp. James Pearse (1839 – 1900) was the father of Patrick and William Pearse, both sentenced to execution for their role in the insurrection of Easter 1916. James was perhaps an unlikely father for the man who would read the Proclamation; he had been born in London but raised in Birmingham in a Unitarian environment, though some who knew him described him as something of an Atheist. He was open-minded and widely read, and took a keen interest in politics and philosophical questions. In his own brief autobiographical sketch, Patrick would write of his parents:
For the present I have said enough to indicate that when my father and mother married there came together two very widely remote traditions—English and Puritan and mechanic on the one hand, Gaelic and Catholic and peasant on the other: freedom loving both, and neither without its strain of poetry and its experience of spiritual and other adventure. And these two traditions worked in me and fused together by a certain fire proper to myself . . . made me the strange thing I am.
Róisín Ní Ghairbhí, biographer of Willie Pearse, notes that it was from his education in a Birmingham art school that the journey began for James as a sculptor. He was influenced and attracted to Gothic decoration still common in church decorating, and decided to become a stone carver. As Róisín writes, “the boom in church building in both Ireland and England at the time meant that there was ample work for someone skilled in making ecclesiastical images.” Pearse came to Dublin in the 1860s to work as a foreman for the firm of Charles Harrison at 178 Great Brunswick Street (now Pearse Street), though he later established his own firm at 27 Great Brunswick Street. In recent times, the name ‘Pearse and Sons’ has been restored over the building, along with the works ‘ecclesiastical and architectural sculptors’. Pearse did well in his industry, and Brian Crowley of the Pearse Museum has noted that “James Pearse’s business success excited jealousy amongst some of the Irish stone-carvers. A rival began a campaign against him on religious and racial grounds.” Patrick took enormous pride in the work of his father, joking in his autobiographical sketch that “if ever in an Irish church you find, amid a wilderness of bad sculpture, something good and true and lovingly finished you may be sure that it was carved by my father or by one of his pupils.”
Willie Pearse would follow his father into the family business, and his work can be seen in the city today too, for example in Westland Row Church. Pearse and Sons was wound-up in 1910, with the capital utilised to help establish Pearse’s St. Enda’s school near Rathfarnham. A radical new departure in Irish education, it was as much an experiment in education as it was a school. For Pearse, Crowley has noted, it was important that “boys would develop independent minds and a genuine love of learning. He completely rejected the exam-focused rote learning that characterised his own educational experience, despite the fact that he himself was a successful product of that system.”
Many of those who participated in the revolutionary period were the children of remarkable men and women; parents who encouraged their children to question the world and to be independent in their ways. Arthur Shields, the Abbey actor who fought on O’Connell Street in 1916, remembered that his father, the social-campaigner Adolphus Shields, had “a beautiful vision of society” which shaped his own view of the world. Certainly, James Pearse helped shape his children too.