‘A man called Pearse’: A New Reading of the Thomas Davis Commemoration controversy in Trinity College Dublin, 1914

Pádraig Ó Siadhail


In November 1914, with the start of First World War, John Pentland Mahaffy, Vice Provost of Trinity College Dublin, refused permission for P.H. Pearse to speak at a special commemoration for Thomas Davis organised by the Dublin University Gaelic Society. For Mahaffy, it was inappropriate that ‘a man called Pearse’ who was associated with an anti-recruitment campaign should speak in the college. When the Gaelic Society’s committee not only refused to withdraw its invitation to Pearse but published its correspondence with Mahaffy in the Irish Times, Trinity’s board suppressed the Gaelic Society. The Davis Commemoration controversy is a well-known one that historians and other writers have discussed, both in Irish and in English. Usually, the controversy is viewed through the lens of Pearse’s life, as an incident that highlights the transformation in his public profile from Irish-language activist to militant political separatist, a transformation that culminated with the Easter 1916 Rising and Pearse’s execution. Drawing on a wide range of sources from archival material to contemporary newspaper accounts, this article re-assesses the Davis Commemoration controversy. It shows that Pearse played only a minor role in it and that Mahaffy and three named members of the Gaelic Society’s committee were the central players in the drama. Furthermore, the article situates the Gaelic Society in the context of the cultural and political climate of the time, focuses on the Society’s committee in 1914, and questions the accuracy of published accounts about Trinity’s response to the Gaelic Society members involved in the controversy. The article closes with the re-establishment of the Gaelic Society in the early 1920s, when Trinity College Dublin had to adjust to a transformed political landscape in Ireland.

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ISSN: 2009-8626