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Saturday 7 December 2019

Why Pearse may not have read out the 1916 Proclamation at GPO after all

A re-enactment of the Proclamation reading outside the GPO.
A re-enactment of the Proclamation reading outside the GPO.
Padraig Pearse
Dr Ann Matthews

John Spain

It is one of the iconic events in our history - Patrick Pearse reading the Proclamation of the Republic outside the GPO on Easter Monday, 1916, at the start of the Rising.

As part of our national story, it has been taught to school children for decades. But the trouble is, it may never have happened.

A new book to be published this week by Mercier Press casts doubt on whether it was Pearse who read the Proclamation aloud to the public. The book says that it is more likely it was the veteran Fenian Tom Clarke who read the now famous document and that he did so in the middle of the street, in front of Nelson's Pillar, not outside the GPO.

'The Irish Citizen Army', by historian Ann Matthews, offers evidence suggesting it could not have been Pearse who read out the document.

Dr Matthews, who has written several books on the 1916 period and has lectured at NUI Maynooth, gives a scenario that conflicts with the accepted history of the reading of the Proclamation.

"The significant historiography of the rebellion, without exception, attributes the reading of this document to Patrick Pearse," Dr Matthews says in the book. She says that many historians have used leading rebel Diarmuid Lynch's witness statement to the Bureau of Military History as the source.

Lynch was part of the bodyguard unit for Pearse on the day.

"We accompanied Pearse to the centre of O'Connell Street opposite the main entrance to the GPO where, standing on an improvised elevation, he read the manifesto to the citizens of Dublin," his account says.

Dr Matthews says this statement was given 32 years later, "so some confusion is understandable".

She says that a contemporary account of what happened, written by a reporter from the 'Dublin Saturday Post', said: "At 1.30 there came from the post office a small man in plain clothes, with a bundle of papers under his arm. Escorted by a guard of revolutionaries, he made his way to Nelson's Pillar and began to speak".

The significant point is the description of "a small man in plain clothes".

Dr Matthews quotes a senior British official, Sir Alfred Bucknill, who said Pearse "was dressed in [a] green uniform with yellow staff tabs and he had a hat rather like a Colonial's with one side turned up. He was tall and well set up".

"The only leader who fits the description given in the 'Post' is Tom Clarke," Dr Matthews says.

'The Irish Citizen Army' is published in paperback by Mercier Press at €14.99.

Proclamation

Amid the carnage of a Dublin gripped in the throes of the Easter Rising, the issuing of the Proclamation was almost a footnote in the news.

The Irish Independent devoted the majority of its special edition - covering eight days of events surrounding the Rising - to the violence convulsing the capital, as well as the surrender of "rebel leaders".

A small headline on page three says 'Proclamation Issued' and details how at "about 1pm a Proclamation in huge poster form was handed out to the crowd in O'Connell Street declaring an Irish Republic".

Pearse is mentioned only briefly, as a signatory of the document, and there is no reference to whether he read the Proclamation on the GPO steps or not.

The short segment also chronicles a gun battle that left two Lancers and their horses dead in the street, and attempts to blow up a Howth-bound tram.

Irish Independent

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