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Thursday 8 December 2016

Proclamation remains greatest legacy left by the leaders of 1916

Analysis

Padraig Pearse
Padraig Pearse
Capt Eoghan O'Sullivan reads The Proclamation at a ceremony outside the GPO in 2010
A copy of The Proclamation

Patrick Pearse was usually a brilliant orator. When he stepped out of the General Post Office at around 12.45pm on Easter Monday 1916, and read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, however, his nerves seem to have got the better of him.

By all accounts, he spoke in a passionless monotone and was shaken by the poor reception he received. Some observers cheered weakly after Pearse's weak performance, others shouted, "Why don't you go and fight in France?" Most just shrugged before continuing on their way.

Whether these people realised it or not, they had just witnessed a seminal moment in Irish history.

The Proclamation is arguably 1916's greatest legacy, a radical and idealistic statement of the Rising's principles that still inspires many people today.

While the rebellion itself was a military disaster, its 487 words have been endlessly quoted to justify it as a moral victory.

Authors

Nobody knows exactly how the Proclamation was written, for the very good reason that everyone involved died shortly afterwards. Most historians agree, however that Pearse and Connolly were the main authors.

Pearse was probably responsible for the romantic language and religious flourishes, while Connolly's influence can be seen in the strong emphasis on social justice.

Printing the Proclamation was very much a rush job. It took place in the basement of Liberty Hall, where three men laboured for 14 hours on a battered old printing press.

They had very little type to work with, which meant that the finished product was a mish-mash of different fonts and styles.

Seven rebel leaders signed the document knowing full well that they were almost certainly signing their own death warrants. Connolly ordered 2,500 to be printed, but in the end only around 1,000 smudged copies were ready by Monday morning.

A volunteer called Sean T. O'Kelly was asked by Connolly to distribute the Proclamation around central Dublin.

With one eye on posterity, he also put one copy in a British Government envelope taken from the GPO and sent it to his mother.

O'Kelly went on to become President of Ireland from 1945 to 1959 and the document he posted is now framed in Leinster House.

The Proclamation showed its revolutionary credentials in the first three words: "Irishmen and Irishwomen". In 1916 women could not even vote, so addressing them as equals in this way was unusually far-sighted.

According to Tom Clarke's wife Kathleen, one of the signatories had not wanted that line to be included - although she would only say that it was not her husband.

There were other limits to the rebels' feminism, of course, with commandant Eamon de Valera ordering that no females should be allowed to join his garrison at Boland's Mills.

The Proclamation also paid tribute to Ireland's "exiled children in America" and "gallant allies in Europe".

At the time it was written, Pearse and Connolly presumably still hoped that a consignment of arms would arrive from Germany and enable the rebels to put up a serious fight.

Instead, those guns sank off the coast of Kerry and the "gallant allies" line was used at the seven signatories' trials to convict them of treason.

The Proclamation declared "the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland" and guaranteed every citizen "religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities".

Vague

Coming almost a year before the Russian Revolution, this was a breathtaking promise - although the document was understandably vague about how it could actually be delivered.

While the seven signatories claimed to be Ireland's "Provisional Government", they obviously knew there was no point in actually giving themselves specific ministries.

The Proclamation's most quoted line is also its most misunderstood. "Cherishing all of the children of the nation equally" was not a reference to young people in particular.

Instead, it meant that the new Republic would respect every Irish person no matter what their background - Catholic or Protestant, rich or poor, rural or urban.

The Proclamation also had its moments of self-deluded fantasy.

It claimed that Ireland's divisions had been "carefully fostered by an alien government", which was a roundabout way of saying that unionists would realise their mistake and become fully Irish when the English left.

As the last century has shown, achieving a united Ireland is not nearly as simple as that.

On Easter Monday, according to one eye-witness, Dubliners began collecting copies of the Proclamation as "they'd be worth a fiver each some day when the beggars were hanged." In fact, one sold at an auction in London last December for €420,000.

Around 50 are thought to still exist, half in museums or public places and the rest in private collections.

After Patrick Pearse had finished reading the Proclamation, James Connolly shook his hand and exclaimed, "Thank God, Pearse, we have lived to see this day."

Both men would soon be facing a firing squad - but the dramatic call-to-arms that they wrote together has turned out to have a remarkable afterlife.

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