In my nationalist boyhood, one of my party pieces was declaiming Patrick Pearse’s oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa. It never occurred to me that I should recite the 1916 Proclamation as an encore, despite Pearse’s significant input into the latter.
The 1915 oration is generally seen as a dry run for the Easter 1916 document, yet the two could hardly be more different. The oration is splendid nationalist rhetoric, personal and passionate, with its memorable “Fenian dead” climax.
The Proclamation, on the other hand, does not readily lend itself to off-by-heart recitation. It is a formal statement, a declaration of war, a repetitive assertion of sovereignty, very suitable for solemn incantation by army officers. It is also theatrically self-conscious, and in places verges on the ponderous.
In the years after 1916, imbued with the aura of martyrdom, the Proclamation was (and still is) seen as the seminal charter of independence and the wellspring of noble political values. More pragmatically, it is also a Fenian or IRB manifesto, the last in a sequence going back to the 1850s.
These documents had already proclaimed “the Republic, now virtually established” and had asserted the doctrine of equal rights. Indeed, much that is seen as innovation in the 1916 document had already been said — with the exception of the new reference to gender equality, “ Irishmen and Irishwomen…”
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The James Fintan Lalor doctrine of public ownership finds expression in the 1916 assertion of “the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland”. However, the Proclamation is rather naïve in stating that national sovereignty can never be relinquished “except by the destruction of the Irish people”. We have seen it given away in our time, financially and by international treaty.
On the whole, there is less to the Proclamation than meets the eye. There is little social content in the document and no cultural goal at all. A regrettable precedent is set by the inclusion of the ritual cúpla focail and the exclusive dominance, otherwise, of English. This is all the more extraordinary given Pearse’s devotion to Irish language revival. The promise in the document of universal suffrage reminds us that the march of democracy is a feature of the UK as a whole.
The Representation of the People Act (1918) is part of our British heritage and is not a 1916-inspired development. Certainly, the tripling of the electorate at a stroke facilitated the triumph of Sinn Féin in the 1918 general election and its dominance in the new Dáil Éireann.
Finally, for now, the assertion in the Proclamation that the Irish people had asserted “in arms” their right to national freedom and sovereignty six times in the last 300 years” is nationalist propaganda and very bad history.
Is this being pointed out to our schoolchildren?
A knowledgable student of the decade of centenaries has suggested to me that the real ideological divide among nationalists was not that between Home Rulers and separatists, or pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty, or Republicans and Free Staters, but between Proclamationists and the rest.
For the Proclamationists, the Republic was born once it was proclaimed, and sanctified by martyrdom.
When a reorganised Sinn Féin published its constitution in 1917, its source of authority was declared to be “ the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Easter 1916”. The first Dáil Éireann, meeting on January 21, 1919, “ratified” the Republic, deeming it to be already in existence.
Henceforth, purists and irreconcilables would see all compromise settlements and agreements as betrayals of the 1916 sacred text and responsible for such “evils” as partition. Use of the holy name of “republic” for subsequent inferior arrangements (the Republic of Ireland Act, 1949, for example) could not be tolerated. “The Republic, as established in 1916 must be restored.”
People like Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, who defined a republican as “one who gives his allegiance to, and seeks to restore, the 32-county Republic of Easter Week” could be described as a hard Proclamationist.
Fianna Fáil moved on in the 1930s from being “ slightly constitutional” but it remained uneasy in 1949 with the description of the 26-county State as a “Republic”. The party could be fairly described at that time as soft Proclamationists.
So can Sinn Féin today. While working the constitutional and institutional machinery of the State, its refusal to use the official descriptions of the partitioned states, points to its true allegiance. “The 1916 Proclamation is core to our Republic... It is unfinished business.”
Leaving aside the Proclamationist elite, it seems fair to say that the plain citizens of nationalist Ireland, though long since disenchanted with political rhetoric, regard the 1916 Proclamation as enshrining high values from which there has been a grievous falling away.
But though we frequently refer to the lofty ideals of the document, few of us take the trouble to read it seriously or understand its context.
For example, the most frequently quoted — and misunderstood — phrase in the Proclamation is that which refers to “cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. What was intended here, beyond any doubt, was an olive branch to unionists, a wistful aspiration to all-Ireland reconciliation and unity.
Yet the “cherishing” phrase continues to be misinterpreted almost daily — by taoisigh, former presidents, government ministers, and others; in short, by people who should know better. Sometimes it is invoked in the most comically irrelevant contexts, as meaning the ideal of social justice and equality, especially for the young of the species. Some of us have frequently pointed out this major error of interpretation but to no avail. Indeed, I have been recently taken to task for allegedly attempting to narrow the vision of the signatories.
I am now beginning to think that the Proclamation, like the Constitution, may well have a changing validity for successive generations and lives through its contemporary interpretations, irrespective of what the founding fathers meant.