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.
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.
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.
Writing 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.