16 Lives: Patrick Pearse Declares the Republic
Patrick Pearse appeared under the GPO Grand Portico, on Sackville (O’Connell) Street, at around 12.45pm, and read aloud the proclamation, ‘Poblacht na hÉireann, Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the Irish People’, to a gathering of confused, curious and supportive city-dwellers.
Brennan-Whitmore observed the scene:
'The front door was opened and Pearse and Connolly, with a small escort, passed outside. Pearse read out the Proclamation and then had it posted up publicly. The crowd kept its distance respectfully enough until the little party had passed back into the building when a rush was made to read the notice. Those in the rear called on those in front to read it aloud. Many sentences were loudly cheered and at the end there was a great ovation.'
Reflecting on the events, Lynch recalled:
'President Pearse, surrounded by an armed guard, emerged into O’Connell Street and read the Proclamation of Independence. The few cheers that greeted this epochal announcement furnished an index of the denationalised state of Ireland after an era of Parliamentarianism … Time elapsed before the Irish people recognised the fact that the Insurrection of Easter Week effected a necessary revivication of the national soul of Ireland …
With the posting of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, the seven signatories thereto became its Provisional Government. Five of them were in the GPO now the Republican GHQ: Pádraic Pearse – President of the Provisional Government and Commander-in-Chief of the IRA, James Connolly – Commandant-General of the Dublin District, Commandant Joseph Plunkett, Tom Clarke and Seán MacDiarmada.'
Labourite William O’Brien theorised that Eoin MacNeill’s complicity might have generated a proclamation bearing his name. Tom Clarke could then have been listed or regarded as ‘president’, pairing the Chief of Staff of the Volunteers with the de-facto leader of the IRB.
However, without MacNeill’s participation, ‘the best known man next to MacNeill was Pearse’, who had the additional appeal of being a national figure as well as Volunteer Director of Military Organisation. Clarke was not nominated as president, and his widow’s contention to the contrary probably stemmed from her privileged knowledge that he was accorded the honour of lead signatory.
Distributing the Proclamation
Pearse tasked Charles Donnelly with distributing the Proclamation ‘through the city’. He was assisted by an eighteen-year-old newsboy, who took the initiative of selling his bundle.
On being gifted the money to assist his impoverished family, and reminded that the document was to be handed out freely, the youth ‘collected the balance of the Proclamations’ and departed.
Donnelly did not record the reaction of Pearse or Connolly to the news of unexpected capitalist endeavour, although the stated explanation that the cash had been collected with a view to buying food for the garrison mollified the commanders. He was clearly sincere and on the following day was permitted to join the defenders of the GPO.
The Proclamation referenced the illegitimate British suppression of Irish independence with the assertion that the ‘long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right’.
Pearse had stressed this point in New York in March 1914 when he referred to Ireland’s ‘old tradition of nationhood’, a phrase that appeared in the Proclamation’s first sentence.
The IRB, the Irish Volunteers and the ICA demonstrated their acceptance of the historic joint appeal to ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’, perhaps the first sincere invocation of its kind in the world, giving female activists a role in the uprising.
Women took on the dangerous role of dispatch runners and in so doing exploited traditional expectations of their innocuousness. They also carried out vital support work by nursing, foraging and cooking to support the fighting personnel.
All four battalion sectors contained a headquarters in a prominent building and improvised nearby strong points to defend irregular perimeters. Rail line, control equipment and rolling stock were sabotaged in the north city in and around Broadstone, Phibsborough, Harcourt Street and Amiens Street Station.
The south-side line was damaged near the port of Dun Laoghaire. Overhead telegraph wires and subterranean cables accessed by manholes were cut. Several key bridges were barricaded and efforts made to trench roads useful to military traffic. Many setbacks were encountered: a detail ordered to crater the road between Stanhope Street Convent and Richmond Hospital were ‘unused to picks’ and relented after an hour’s fruitless labour.
Monsignor Michael Curran cycled to the GPO to question Pearse, whom he ‘knew well’, on behalf of Archbishop W. J. Walsh. He found his acquaintance ‘flushed but calm and authoritative’.
Curran stated, ‘if there was anything that could be done, I would do it … but I see now that nothing can be done. “No,” he said, “we are going to see it out”.’ Declining an offer to convey messages, Pearse asked for assistance in arranging confession in the Pro-Cathedral.
The commanders of the hesitant DMP and RIC decided that their forces were incapable of countering what appeared to be a coup and withdrew to their numerous city stations and barracks as military forces were summoned.
Scenes of Drama
Many contemporaries were gripped by the drama of the situation. Having served breakfast to Patrick and Willie Pearse that morning, Margaret O’Kelly was setting up a Cumann na mBan first-aid station above J. J. Walsh’s shop at 26 Blessington Street when she discerned a commotion:
'We heard the prancing of horses’ hoofs on the cobblestones of the streets. We rushed to the windows and we saw a troop of Lancers with pennants flying and carrying carbines galloping down Blessington Street into Frederick Street. We could not see them past the turn of the street but we still heard them galloping. Presently we heard gunfire, but we did not see them return.'
Min Ryan commented that ‘the first thing that made us realise there was a war on was a dead horse, lying on its back with its feet up’.
Messages received by 2 p.m. from the various zones occupied by the Volunteers ‘showed the general situation to be fairly satisfactory’. Rebel dispositions inside the GPO evinced careful reconnaissance, tasking and implementation.
No time was lost in setting up a first-aid section, armoury and larder. Supplies were brought in from local stores, including the Imperial Hotel, Clerys and the Metropole Hotel. A ‘special telephonic connection’ was rigged to enable Connolly to converse with men posted on the roof.
Liberty Hall, a staging area for late mobilising men, was evacuated and a cache of munitions conveyed to the GPO after 3.30 p.m. in fifteen vehicles appropriated for the purpose. Those who retrieved precious resources from Liberty Hall obeyed stern injunctions to resist engaging British forces as they marched, oblivious to danger, along the north-side Liffey quays.
Patrick Pearse by Ruan O'Donnell is part of the 16 Lives biography series published by O'Brien Press, on each of the sixteen rebels executed after the Rising.