The Proclamation – The Spirit of 1916 Captured on a Piece of Paper

Posted on: 01 February 2016

By Professor of History Patrick Geoghegan

When Pádraig Pearse, "bare-headed and dressed in his grey-green Volunteer uniform", finished reading the Proclamation of the Provisional Government in front of the GPO on Easter Monday, he could never have imagined that it would be celebrated 100 years later as the most iconic document in modern Irish history. It had been a disappointing performance. Pearse's nerves seem to have got to him and his usual magnetism deserted him. The confused onlookers were unimpressed, and few (if any) would have believed they were witnessing a major historical event. The Greek scholar Stephen McKenna was watching close-by and felt embarrassed for his friend. This was to have been the great culmination of Pearse's life, but instead "the indifferent-seeming crowd wormed only to show positive hostility".

Pearse was "pale-faced, tense" as he read the document, and "the response was chilling; a few thin, perfunctory cheers, no direct hostility just then, but no enthusiasm whatever". As McKenna conceded: "There was little appreciation of the great moment as he proclaimed a free Ireland."

Even some of his own men wondered what he was playing at. Michael Collins later admitted he did not think the Rising week was "an appropriate time for the issue of memoranda couched in poetic phrases". And it only reaffirmed his belief that he had been caught up in a "Greek tragedy".

Interestingly, there is no agreement about where exactly the Proclamation was read. It could not have been on the non-existent "steps of the GPO", but was probably near the entrance. What is not disputed is that the Proclamation quickly became one of the most significant documents in Irish history, entering into mythology before it was ever properly understood.

Much of what was truly revolutionary in the Proclamation is taken for granted today. The main text begins with the simple words "Irishmen and Irishwomen", but that in itself was a major statement of equality. Later on, there is a reference to the permanent national government being elected by universal suffrage of "all her men and women". Britain only granted women the vote in 1918 (and even then it was restricted to women over 30 who owned property); the United States in 1920; France in 1944.

Pearse's influence is clear in the summoning of the "dead generations" to strike for freedom, but the influence of James Connolly can be seen in the assertion that the "ownership of Ireland" is "the right of the people of Ireland". There is a nod to the global context, and the Diaspora is enlisted ("supported by her exiled children in America") and to the First World War ("gallant allies in Europe").

Interestingly, there is no Irish language in the text, apart from the heading at the top: "Poblacht na hÉireann". Éamon de Valera would later choose to use "Saorstat Éireann" to describe the Irish Republic, enabling a literal translation ('Free State') to be used by the British.

History was deployed to support the rebellion, with a claim that "in every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty" and that "six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms". I suspect few people would be able to list correctly these six times, mainly because there was a certain desperation in the attempt to show that British rule had been consistently challenged over that period. Some of the times were legitimate large-scale rebellions (1641 and 1798), more were small-scale fiascos (1803, 1848, 1867). One was an international conflict that had made its way to Ireland rather than being a rebellion in the proper sense (1690). But, by making 1916 the seventh attempt in that canon of Irish history, the Proclamation was able to claim that the new Rising was the culmination of an irresistible and inexorable drive for freedom.

Emmet's rising in 1803 was the direct inspiration for the Proclamation. Pearse was obsessed by Emmet's example, so much so that WB Yeats believed he was "half-cracked and wanting to be hanged; suffering from Emmet delusions the same way some people think they are Napoleon or God". Emmet had written his own Proclamation of the Provisional Government in 1803, and read it to the men who had gathered to fight alongside him on the night of July 23, 1803. It flopped.

Emmet's own men, many drunk, jeered his words, in particular his instructions that captured British soldiers were to be treated well. The decision to draft a new Proclamation of the Provisional Government was a conscious attempt to imitate Emmet. History was repeating itself: the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.

Many of the most famous lines of the 1916 Proclamation are quoted incorrectly or out of context. So many novelists, historians, and commentators use the words "our gallant allies", when discussing the reference to Germany, but the "our" never appears in the text: the reference is to support "by gallant allies in Europe".

The most abused part is the reference to "cherishing all the children of the nation equally". It is hard to find a speech about Irish children in the last few years that has not enlisted these words in its cause. The reality is that "children" was used as a term for all Irish people, and it was a powerful message that unionists as well as nationalists, Protestants as well as Catholics, would be respected and treated equally in the new state.

Given its enduring significance, it is right we give the Proclamation central prominence in this centenary year. March 15, 2016, will be Proclamation Day, a date the Government has decided will be a day of commemoration in all educational institutions, from pre-schools to universities and institutes of technology. Having the Army deliver copies of the Proclamation to every school in the state has proven hugely popular, despite some initial concerns. It has also helped reassert that there is only one legitimate Irish Army in the republic, and that citizens should be proud of it and our flag.

In my own university, a number of events are planned, including an evening symposium open to members of the public on the Proclamation in its national and international context. There will be talks on all seven rebellions, international comparators, and a debate on 1916 itself. On March 31 we will take the event on the road to London, with a major event at Finsbury Park with contributions by leading historians based in Ireland, the UK and the US.

The optimism of the Proclamation was misplaced. There was no way on Easter Sunday the leaders could have believed they were striking the next day "in full confidence of victory". But their optimism proved contagious, and it only increased after their deaths. The Proclamation became the embodiment of the spirit of 1916, a spirit that defined and elevated the subsequent campaign for independence. For all its faults, the 1916 Proclamation remains a triumph of inspiration. It is why it still resonates today.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Independent on January 31, 2016

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