Thursday 17 October 2019

'Document that has inspired, provoked and encouraged...'

National pride: Presentation is made in 1952 to the printers who set up the Proclamation in 1916.
National pride: Presentation is made in 1952 to the printers who set up the Proclamation in 1916.

Patrick Geoghegan

About 30x20 inches in size, and only 486 words in total (excluding the printed signatures), the 1916 Proclamation has been described as a "national poem", a document that has inspired, provoked, and encouraged over the past one hundred years.

It is generally accepted that the Proclamation was drafted by Pádraig Pearse, with some input by James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh. A draft was circulated and approved on Monday, April 17, 1916, and the text was ratified at a meeting of the military council of the IRB on Easter Sunday, April 23.

The printed document was based on an original manuscript which all the seven signatories signed, except for Éamonn Ceannt, who was occupied elsewhere (someone else signed his name with his permission).

This manuscript was destroyed afterwards, probably by one of the printers - who claimed he chewed it into small pieces to avoid it falling into the hands of the British.

The race was then on to print enough copies for distribution the next day.

From the witness statements in the Bureau of Military History, we have a good idea of how the Proclamation was printed. A group worked throughout the evening of Easter Sunday on an old Wharfedale machine in the printing office in the basement at Liberty Hall, and only finished around 1am.

One member of Cumann na mBan remembered the group singing 'A Soldier's Song' a few times over the night; an unofficial anthem that was growing in popularity.

A lack of type meant that the Proclamation had to done in two shifts, with the first half of the document set and printed and then the type reset to allow them to print the second half on the same paper. A shortage of certain letters meant they had to make do with what they had.

The letter 'f' was turned into an 'e' with the help of sealing wax, and it remains one of the best ways of telling if a Proclamation is an original or not.

There are other examples of the frantic nature of the process: an inverted 'e' on the first line of the last paragraph, and some different fonts disturbing the unity of the presentation.

At 9pm, James Connolly reviewed the first proofs of the document, and discovered at least one error -Ceannt's first-name was spelt incorrectly with only one 'n'. The errors were corrected, and the printing began, with 2,500 copies made and despatched in two separate packages for distribution. Charles Townshend has rightly described the production as "a minor epic of printing".

The next day, the Proclamation was pasted on walls across the city, with a number put up in the GPO. Some of the copies that have survived have World War One recruiting posters underneath, showing the overlapping narratives that were coming to a head during Easter Week.

Most were destroyed during the Rising, and only about 30 original copies are extant. In 1998, a copy sold at auction for £26,000 - 10 years later one sold for more than 10 times that amount.

Its real value is its incredible legacy as Ireland's Declaration of Independence.

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