As a teacher, Patrick Pearse wanted his pupils to develop “a real interest and love for beautiful things”, offering them direct contact with nature and the wild world.
Much has been said and written about Pearse during the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, but his views on education and how nature study should be a key element of school activity may have been largely overlooked because of a bigger focus on other aspects of his life and times.
In 1910, Pearse moved his Irish-speaking school, St Enda’s, from the Dublin suburb of Rathmines to The Hermitage, set on 50 acres of parkland at Rathfarnham under the Dublin mountains.
He switched locations because Rathmines was too near the city and too far from the hills, giving “no scope for that outdoor life, that intercourse with the wild things of the woods and the wastes”.
From the beginning, he felt science subjects should be taught in a practical, hands-on way and not “dry as dust teaching”.
Boys were introduced to the natural world in the school garden, where they could take allotments to grow what they wished. And, while the school boasted science laboratories, he also encouraged organised trips to rural areas in the vicinity.
Pearse brought in guest lecturers to address the students on subjects such as plant life. Specimens, often provided by the boys themselves and including seashells and butterflies, were kept in a museum and recorded in the school magazine.
Interestingly, all the specimens had to have met a natural end and the boys were under orders not to kill wild things.
During the year, many people visited St Enda’s, now a museum run by the Office of Public Works. The museum’s attractions include a nature study room with displays. The museum and park are open year-round.
Curator Brian Crowley says while the area surrounding St Enda’s Park has been completely transformed since Pearse’ time and is now suburbia, the park itself is still a haven for wildlife and continues to play a role in educating children about the natural world.
“A nature study centre, located in a building which once housed Pearse’s classrooms, introduces school groups and other visitors to the rich variety of flora and fauna which inhabit the park,” Mr Crowley wrote recently in Sherkin Comment.
Pearse once stated: “If our boys observe their fellow citizens of the grass and woods and water as wisely and as lovingly as they should, I think they will learn much.”
Most people would probably agree Pearse was well ahead of his time regarding nature study in education. Unfortunately, that was all but ignored by the new state.