Texting Terror? Proclamation of the Irish Republic, 1916


Professor Liam Kennedy’s talk on the Proclamation to the TCD Students History Society on 24 November 2015.


A short extract from a chapter in Liam Kennedy, Unhappy the Land, Merrion Press, 2015.

Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes

Bertolt Brecht



Less than four years separate the publication of two of the iconic texts of modern Irish history, the Ulster Covenant and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Those were momentous years and by Easter 1916 the world had changed. A possible civil war between North and South, between the newly-formed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the copy-cat Irish Volunteers had been averted as martial energies were re-directed towards the European conflagration that was the First World War. But fissures within Irish nationalism were about to produce some unanticipated outcomes. On Easter Monday, groups of lightly-armed volunteers took over buildings in the centre of Dublin and the first serious uprising since the union of Britain and Ireland in 1801 was underway. In form it bore a resemblance to nineteenth-century risings in Europe, particularly those of the 1840s, in which street barricades and armed civilians were to the fore.

One of the set pieces of this theatre of the streets was the reading of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in front of the General Post Office (GPO) by the schoolmaster, poet and conspirator, Patrick Pearse. The GPO was located on the main thoroughfare, Sackville Street (later re-named O’Connell Street), not far from the landmark Nelson’s Pillar. Passers-by listened with varying degrees of bemusement and indifference.


The Signatories

As good a starting point as any in breaking open the text is to start at the end, that is, with the signatories to the 1916 Proclamation. The numbers were small indeed, as befits a revolutionary conspiracy. Seven men and no women had their names on the document. The first signature belonged to Tom Clarke, and there is some dispute as to why this was so since Patrick Henry Pearse had been designated the president and commander-in-chief of the Republic. Clarke represented an older generation of Fenians, and more specifically the faction that believed in the benefits of a dynamite campaign to terrorise the English and Scottish public in the 1880s. Perhaps these considerations entitled him to a place of honour. Two symmetrical columns of names appear beneath Clarke’s, in no apparent order of precedence. Later on the matter of precedence was to assume some significance, with the widowed Mrs Tom Clarke clashing with Mrs Pearse on ‘who owned 1916’ (as some put it). Included in the seven was the socialist and trade union organiser, James Connolly, who played a significant role as a military leader in the rising. The others, less well-known now and little known then, were Sean MacDiarmada, Thomas MacDonagh, Eamonn Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett.

The document is usually referred to as the Proclamation of the Republic, or more loosely as the 1916 Proclamation or the Easter Proclamation or the Proclamation of Easter Week. There are other minor variants. The use of the definite article in the original text implies that this is not any old republic: this one has been in the making for some time. The Fenian oath drafted in the previous century spoke of ‘the Irish Republic, now virtually established’. So the virtual Republic, long whispered about by Fenians in backrooms and public houses, was now fully incarnated as the Republic.

SackvilleStWriting the Text

The principal architect of the Proclamation was Patrick Pearse, while James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh added suggestions. Almost certainly the main reason the term proclamation was chosen was because there are textual echoes here of the ‘Proclamation of Independence’ by Robert Emmet, prepared before the latter’s abortive rising in 1803. The aim of Emmet and the remnants of the United Irishmen was ‘a free and independent republic in Ireland’. Emmet’s manifesto was issued by a so-called Provisional Government and addressed to the People of Ireland, which is a form of words replicated in the headings of the 1916 Proclamation.

Then there is the question of the language in which the Proclamation was written. Some might find it surprising, if not actually ironic, that the Proclamation was penned in English, and not as Gaeilge to which Patrick Pearse and others were so deeply committed. Only two of the signatories attached their names in Irish and Pearse was simply P.H. Pearse. An Irish-speaking Ireland might be the vision but the reality was that the practice of republican and nationalist politics had always been through the medium of English.



Less than a decade after the Rising the great Irish playwright, Sean O’Casey, would cast a cold eye on how the rhetoric turned to wreaths. In Act 11 of Shadow of a Gunman, Seumas Shields, one of the principal characters, observes bitterly: ‘I hear the gunmen blowin’ about dyin’ for the people, when it’s the people that are dyin’ for the gunmen!’ And so it came to pass in early twentieth-century Ireland, and with renewed ferocity in later twentieth-century Northern Ireland.

Liam Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, as well as Visiting Professor in Economic & Social History at University of Ulster. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and is the co-editor of An Economic History of Ulster in the 1980s and Ulster Since 1600, amongst many other notable publications.

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By Ashleigh Ekins – 29 July 2015


I am now an Irish speaker, a supporter of Gaelic sports, and have officially endorsed a united Ireland: I have become an ardent nationalist – or so Official Ireland thinks. Get used to it: because there’s a new design Irish passport waiting for you next time you renew; and for those of us who find nationalism odious at best, and have no other option but an Irish passport, this one is especially uncompromising.

Irish_passport_Daily-TelegraphThis newest edition of the Irish passport was stuffed through my letterbox today, and what I found inside has left me shocked. Shocked, and dumbfounded, and dismayed. Plastered all over the visa pages are all kinds of scribblings, images of the GAA, all kinds of quotes about so-called Irishness and other writings in incomprehensible languages. To top this off, there is a particularly hard-line piece of nationalist symbolism featuring a so-called map of “Ireland”, with no border. No border? No acknowledgement of self determination for Northern Ireland? – and this propaganda features prominently at the front of the passport facing the identity card portion of the book. Finally, to add insult to injury, the signature strip – which used to be incorporated into the ID card – has now been shifted over to the new propaganda page, and the recipient is now required to sign this, to endorse it.

I will ignore the fact that, as passports go, this is rubbish security.

A passport is a travel document. It should be ‘bland’, it should be ‘official’, it should allow the bearer travel ‘without hindrance’, all these things. It is also unfortunately an immutable legal document about which the holder has no choice, no say; it should at the very least be inoffensive; it should not represent a political statement of nationalism not shared by all those who are required to carry the said passport. It is quite ironic that the ‘united Ireland’ symbolism represents a political aspiration opposed by a significant section of the people within the geographical area supposedly represented by the imagery. And no one buys the argument about this image being ‘topographical’ – it is a divisive and inappropriate use of symbolism which is also not inclusive of those of us in this State who wish to free ourselves from association with nationalist symbolism and triumphalism, and find a way forward for an Ireland which we hoped would be inclusive, broadly defined, and diverse. This passport sets this process back by decades; not to mention that it is an even greater embarrassment abroad.

I call upon the government of this State to reverse the changes to the design of the passport, and I call upon all EU member states to consider a generic EU passport as a real and viable alternative.

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