Sunday 23 October 2016

What would men who signed Proclamation in 1916 make of us?

Gerard O'Regan

Published 05/12/2015 | 02:30

Pearse and his fellow revolutionaries would surely have to accept that the old quarrel can never be the same again
Pearse and his fellow revolutionaries would surely have to accept that the old quarrel can never be the same again

Just supposing. Just supposing Patrick Pearse and the other signatories to the 1916 Proclamation were able to come back and visit us, what would they make of Ireland and its people 100 years on?

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It's pure fantasy, but we can pretend that one of those Time Machine gadgets, beloved of so much science fiction, might make such a thing possible.

Perhaps the most important point to remember is that while the seven men who signed this epoch-making document were bonded by a set of shared ideals, when it came to background and temperament, they were very diverse personalities.

If they had lived, and perhaps had pursued subsequent political careers, these differences would inevitably have come to the fore.

The classic divergence in opinion, which would emerge within the revolutionary movement, was of course between Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins.

But understandably the Proclamation signatories have remained girded together in our collective historical memory. Pivotal to the tumult of the time, they are framed forever within the vortex of those Kilmainham Jail executions, which reverberate through the decades.

However, in that document proclaimed on the steps of the GPO, those who signed it did set out their stall; their aspiration for an egalitarian society is most famously encompassed in the phrase "cherishing all of the children of the nation equally''.

They equally hoped a newly born country would be devoid of sectarianism, stating: "The Republic guarantees civil and religious liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens.''

Yet the full extent of the chasm which existed between Catholic nationalists, and Protestant unionists, in early nineteenth Ireland was largely ignored.

The Proclamation alluded to "the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past''. The underlying presumption seemed to naively suggest that if the British would only depart, then this religious and political divide could be resolved on the basis of good sense all round.

So we can only wonder what would Pearse and his contemporaries make of the power-sharing arrangement that now exists in Northern Ireland.

It's an agreement that might be labelled a middle-ground solution to an old quarrel, forged out of the agonies of 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War, plus ensuing decades culminating in the 30 years of the Troubles.

On another level, a criticism of some of the major 1916 players is that they should have placed greater focus on the economic - as distinct from the political - challenges in Ireland at the time.

There are those who argue the country had in fact very competitive living standards as per European norms on the eve of the Rising.

For some, this may be difficult to accept, given realities such as the squalor of Dublin tenement life, plus the plight of subsistence farmers, particularly in western countries.

And apart from industrial Belfast and the north east, as well as a couple of iconic enterprises in Dublin, the country had no manufacturing base of note.

But with a few notable exceptions, revolutionaries of the period seemed to spend little time on the banalities of economic performance. "We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies" is the only reference in the Proclamation which could be said to stray into this territory.

Maybe this blind spot set the tone of what was to come later in our political life. When we did get the chance to run our own affairs in the 26 counties, how to confront the twin scourges of unemployment and emigration would baffle our best brains for decades.

What would Pearse, James Connolly, et al, make of all the shenanigans of the past few years relating to the Troika, the bailout. Connolly's socialism would certainly be tested when confronted with the residue of our recent austerity years, particularly in the areas of unemployment and housing.

Meanwhile, Irish language enthusiasts such as Pearse, Sean Mac Diarmada and Thomas MacDonagh would have to accept with a heavy heart that their dream of a Gaelic-speaking nation will now never be achieved. The impossibility of competing with the all-pervasive presence of English has after a century provoked a kind of slow death for our native tongue.

On another front, perhaps a harbinger of the role religion would play in Irish life once we achieved independence was that valedictory exclamation in the Proclamation: "We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God''.

The signatories could not have envisaged the changed dynamics between the State and the Catholic Church which have come to fruition in the last few years.

And could they - could anyone - back then have visualised that Ireland would in time be at the forefront of legalising gay marriage?

But the biggest change of all is that - despite some fitful moments - there is now, after 100 years, a clear pathway to permanent peace on the island of Ireland.

Pearse and his fellow revolutionaries would surely have to accept that the old quarrel can never be the same again.

Irish Independent

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