Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Proclamation and what it stands for

The lines above begin the most famous document in modern Irish history, writes Richard McElligott

Published 10/12/2015 | 02:30

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
The Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic is both a defiant call to arms, an eloquent justification of actions, a dramatic statement of ideals and a poignant prayer to Irish nationhood. In equal parts powerful and moving, its words have echoed down through the last century of Irish history. The Proclamation's principles have defined the modern Irish state and, at times, provided a forceful critique of its failings.

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On Monday 17 April, the Military Council devoted one of its last meetings to approving the text. Yet like everything else which was veiled in secrecy by the Military Council, we know little about its creation. Its language - expressive and heroic - suggests that it was largely the work of Pearse. He, more than anyone else, knew that the Rising's importance would lie in its symbolic rather than its military impact.

As the IRB's orator-in-chief, it was only natural the Proclamation would be his composition. However it is clear that Connolly's influence can be seen and his socialist convictions are most likely responsible for much of the prose of its mid-section - which assert the rights of a sovereign people to social justice and total control of the nation's resources.

Within the Proclamation, the rebellion's leaders claimed legitimacy for their actions by arguing they represented the latest in a long line of Irish revolutionaries who 'six times during the past 300 years' have asserted Ireland's right to freedom by the use of arms.

Still the Proclamation was a progressive statement of intent which promoted a generous social and political vision for a new Ireland. It also alluded to Ireland's Protestant minority and rejected 'the differences carefully fostered by an alien government, which have divided a minority in the past.' Yet in contrast to Sinn Féin's Democratic Programme of January 1919, the Proclamation made no attempt to outline the political or economic structure of the Republic. This is again indicative of the gulf between the romantic idealism of 1916 and the hard-headed practicality of the revolutionaries who followed.

The final handwritten draft, consisting of two sheets of paper, was given to MacDonagh for safe-keeping. When the Military Council convened on Easter Sunday morning at Liberty Hall, MacDonagh handed the sheets to Connolly for printing. Connolly had arranged for three men, Michael Molloy, Liam O'Brien and Christopher Brady, to oversee the production of the document. All three were compositors and printers by trade and considering the conditions they worked under, they managed a minor miracle in getting the Proclamation produced.

The Proclamation was printed in the tiny printing shop room in Liberty Hall on an obsolete Double Crown Wharfedale printing press which Connolly had purchased in 1915. The machine was troublesome and time-consuming to use and required constant mechanical attention. Lacking sufficient type for the printing press, they were forced to print the document in two halves. The upper part down to the words 'among the nations' was set up first. It was impossible to achieve inking of the type evenly, which resulted in a lot of smudging and faint printing. The lack of type also clearly affected how the text was reproduced. For example, 'THE IRISH REPUBLIC' of the heading, has a C which is smaller than the other letters and looks like a converted O. For the main text, the compositors ran into considerably trouble with the letter E. In all, 23 Es used in the document are of a different font or style to the surrounding letters.

Connolly initially wanted 2,500 copies produced on full-size posters. In the end, due to a shortage of paper, only 1,000 copies were printed. The material used was cheap and of poor quality, being so thin that it easily tore. The fact it could not survive for long in outdoor conditions helps explain the rarity of original copies.

The process lasted far longer than was expected and was not finished until Easter Monday morning. Therefore only for the Military Council's reluctant decision to postpone the Rising for 24 hours, the Proclamation would not have been ready to launch the Republic. Seán T O'Kelly, the future President, was detailed by Connolly to hang copies throughout the city centre. Aware of its historical importance, the self-proclaimed 'bill poster to the Republic', folded one copy into an official British Government envelope he had taken from the GPO and posted it to his mother. It arrived to her house a week later and now hangs in Leinster House. Other Volunteers handed out duplicates to members of the public. A few enterprising newsboys managed to sell copies to curious passers-by.

At around 12.45pm, shortly after the GPO was taken, Pearse emerged from the front door and beneath the building's shadow read aloud the Proclamation to a small crowd of inquisitive and bewildered onlookers. The writer Stephen McKenna recalled: 'For once his magnetism had left him; the response was chilling; a few thin perfunctory cheers… but no enthusiasm whatever; the people were evidently quite unprepared, quite unwilling to see in the uniformed figure, whose burning words had thrilled them again and again elsewhere, a person of significance to the country. A chill must have gone to his heart… this dismal reception of the astonishing Order of the Day was not what he had dreamed of when in many an hour of fevered passion and many a careful weaving of plan he had rehearsed the Act.'

Accounts by those in the GPO noted that Pearse suddenly seemed plagued with self-doubt over the unenthusiastic reception which greeted his pronouncement of the Proclamation. However once more Volunteers began to arrive and explained that copies posted around the city were attracting attention and excitement, his mood lifted.

Their document was the first formal assertion of the Irish Republic. By simply standing up and declaring it the Proclamation made real, at least to the rebels of 1916 and those who followed, the dream of a sovereign independent state. The men and women who subsequently fought the War of Independence were not fighting to achieve a Republic; they were fighting to preserve the Republic Pearse and his comrades had created that Easter.

The Proclamation had avowed the revolutionaries' resolve 'to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally' - sadly the history of independent Ireland often revealed the poverty of that noble sentiment.

Dr Richard McElligott lectures in Modern Irish History in UCD. He is the co-ordinator of the Uncovering 1916 and the Irish War of Independence courses which are being hosted by the National Library of Ireland in the spring of 2016

Check your attic to see if you own one of the scarce Proclamations

IF you have any suspicion your great-grandfather or great-grandmother might have been around Dublin in 1916, then it could be worth your while to have a rummage around the attic.

There are now believed to be fewer than 50 copies of the original Proclamation still in existence, with about half in public ownership - in libraries, universities and museums around the world. Four are owned by the State - in the National Museum, National Library, Kilmainham Jail and Leinster House.

But when they come up for sale huge sums have been known to change hands. The highest price paid was €390,000, at an Adam's auction in Dublin in 2004. It was the first time one had come on to the market for 15 years.

Four years later a copy signed by Seán McGarry, who fought in the GPO and was Tom Clarke's bodyguard, sold for €360,000.

Prices have dropped in recent years, with one original selling for €90,000 in 2014, just seven years after the owner had paid €240,000 for it.

Irish Independent

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