The central reference point of the Easter Rising, of its commemoration and for understanding its meaning is the Proclamation read outside the GPO by Patrick Pearse. Copies of the Proclamation and the national flag have been distributed to schools by the Irish Army and it was read out by an officer of the Army at the celebrations in Dublin on Easter Sunday.
Acres of newsprint over the years and in this centenary have been devoted to the relevance of the Proclamation to contemporary society, usually framed around the question of whether its promises have been realised and usually answered in the negative. This is almost universally the case among liberal commentators and by many on the Left.
The purpose is to damn the failures of the existing Irish State by the imprimatur of its venerated foundational certificate, restated and ratified by the first independent Dail (parliament) established by the revolutionary movement in January 1919. What is invited is the completion of an original process more or less universally honoured and exalted by nationalist Ireland.
Examples abound so let’s take a fairly typical illustration from last week’s Northern nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’ in a column entitled “Those who came after Rising have failed Ireland’.
It starts off “The Rising did not fail. It was failed by those who came after it. For 100 years, the Irish people including up to two million who emigrated) have watched as governments, political parties and armed groups paid homage to 1916, while abandoning the Rising’s social, economic and political principles. . . we can only marvel at the widening gap between the Proclamation’s ideals and the sad state of modern Ireland”
“The Rising aimed to achieve independence, social and economic equality and cultural maturity for the Irish nation. Selected events exemplify how these aims were washed away.” The author then recalls such events as the failure to create a welfare state, the strong role in society of a censorious Catholic Church, state repression and the evils of sectarianism associated with partition.
The following week the President of Ireland spoke at a commemorative event at the trade union headquarters at Liberty Hall on the Republic James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army fought for:
“Their vision of a people free from want, free from impoverishment and free from exploitation remains the wellspring of inspiration for us as we seek to respond to the situation of too many workers who, in Ireland today, earn a wage that guarantees neither a life free from poverty, nor access to decent housing, adequate childcare and health services.”
“Land and private property, a restrictive religiosity and a repressive pursuit of respectability, affecting women in particular” followed the Rising while “their objective was to transform Ireland’s social, economic and cultural hierarchies. But their radical ideas of redistribution were staunchly opposed by many nationalists . . .”
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The Proclamation was written by the radical nationalist Patrick Pearse with additions by James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh and approved by the seven signatories made up of advanced nationalists and James Connolly, all of whom were to be shot by firing squad after the Rising. It proclaimed an Irish Republic that was eventually to be recognised by its foe Great Britain over 30 years later in 1949.
It is short, exhortary, was not the subject of long deliberation by its writers or by those who signed it and is today held in regard in almost inverse proportion to its detailed examination, except perhaps by today’s Irish schoolchildren, for whom it has become a subject of study and updating.
The Proclamation is well entitled for this is what it is: a declaration of an independent Irish State – a Republic. It is not a manifesto, not a political programme to any extent and hardly a strategy. It is a certificate of a birth already taken place so that unlike the American Declaration of Independence, there is no date of Ireland’s independence because Ireland is already an ancient nation that itself, through its Provisional Government, “strikes for her freedom.” It is therefore a declaration of war, symbolised in the centenary celebrations by the biggest public demonstration by the armed forces of the Irish State in its history, while sanctified in the normal hypocritical fashion by a sermon from the forces’ chaplain.
The thunderbolt that was the 1916 Rising gained its impact partly because there had been no substantial national rebellion for over 100 years, and while the proclamation speaks of an “old tradition of nationhood”, it is the newness of the events that was most striking but which is now, not unnaturally, largely unnoticed. This novelty translated, or rather did not readily translate, into the language of the Proclamation. The word for Republic chosen in Irish – ‘poblacht’ – was not in any of its variants current in the Irish language before 1916 – there was no direct translation for the word Republic.
When Eamon de Valera travelled to London in 1919 to negotiate a truce with the British he handed Lloyd George a document in Irish, which had an English translation, headed ‘Saorstat Eireann’ and Lloyd George asked for a literal translation, saying that ‘Saorstat’ did not strike the ear as Irish. Eamon de Valera replied ‘Free State’. ‘Yes’ retorted Lloyd George ‘but what is the Irish word for Republic?’ While the Irish pondered the reply with some discomfort Lloyd George talked to his colleagues in Welsh and when de Valera could get no further than Saorstat and Free State, Lloyd George remarked that ‘Must we not admit that the Celts never were Republicans and have no native word for such an idea’.
The beginning of the Proclamation is modelled on the similar proclamation of Robert Emmet in 1803, in that other failed rebellion. It is the nation itself which appeals to God’s authority and its people to declare its freedom while the Proclamation appeals to both ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ in pointing to an equality of gender but only to the Irish – there is no wider international appeal for recognition or solidarity, although it thanks it “gallant allies”, Germany, and its American diaspora.
The nation’s independence is required because British rule is illegitimate not because it is oppressive; Ireland was therefore not being disloyal to the Empire because it had never been loyal, there were no grounds for loyalty in the first place.
The national freedom of the Irish people has been asserted ‘six times in the last three hundred years . . . in arms’, referring to 1641, 1689, 1798, 1803, 1848 and 1867, although only the last four can really be said to involve claims to national freedom and on the last two occasions rebellion was effectively aborted.
In this strike for freedom the Proclamation ends by placing its faith in God and demanding that the people be ready to sacrifice themselves so that the Irish nation prove itself worthy of its destiny. The people must prove themselves to the nation.
The fourth paragraph of the Proclamation is in effect the nationalist response to the threat to the unity of this nation posed by Unionism, particularly that centred in the North-East of the country. ‘The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.’ Just as the Irish Volunteers were a response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, just as the gunrunning at Larne was emulated by the gun running at Howth and the failure to acquire German guns at Easter 1916, so the Proclamation here is the nationalist reply to the Ulster Covenant that signalled Ulster Unionist opposition to Home Rule.
This opposition rested on the view that “Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship, and perilous to the unity of the Empire.” The Unionists pledged “to stand by one another in defending, for ourselves and our children, our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom.”
The Proclamation stated that “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
The authors and signatories to the Proclamation had, and could not have had, any expectation that their appeal would have any material impact on Unionist opposition to Irish independence. By 1916 the British had agreed partition with the Northern Unionists and the ‘Ulster Solemn League and Covenant’ signed in blood to oppose Home Rule for all of Ireland became a badge of honour for Unionism in six counties and a piece of hypocrisy for those Unionists in the rest of the island. Soon the Northern unionists, or some of them, would not even be Irish.
In testament to the division created by partition and in unconscious repudiation of its centrality to the Proclamation’s signatories, the promise to ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’ has come to be understood as a commitment to some sort of social and economic equality or even a commitment to children as such; the latter a response to the independent Irish State’s history of privileging defence of the Catholic Church despite its abominable physical and sexual abuse of children.
The Proclamation states that the principle on which independence is based is ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’ which itself is based on Pearse’s ‘The Sovereign People’ in which he states that:
“The right and privilege to make laws or to administer laws does not reside in any class within the nation; it resides in the whole nation, that is, in the whole people, and can be lawfully exercised only by those to whom it is delegated by the whole people. The right to the control of the material resources of the nation does not reside in any individual or in any class of individuals; it resides in the whole people and in the manner in which the whole people ordains.” For Pearse this is based on the teachings of the founder of Irish Republicanism, Wolfe Tone, who led the 1798 rebellion of the United Irishmen.
“To insist upon the sovereign control of the nation over all the property within the nation is not to disallow the right to private property. It is for the nation to determine to what extent private property may be held by its members, and in what items of the nation’s material resources private property may be allowed.”
In the history of the Irish working class movement it is a Workers Republic that is the goal; power derives from the nature of the contending classes within society and all talk of the nation obscures the power of the capitalist class to determine the nature of society. Private property, what the socialist tradition calls bourgeois property, is the basis of exploitation of the working class, and contrary to the implicit assumption of the President of Ireland, the Proclamation and the Rising made no claims to end exploitation and no claims to upset the hierarchies of class rule.
As a nationalist document the Proclamation upheld the view that the nation stands above classes, a view that always upholds private bourgeois property. For socialists the material resources that are the content of property must be owned by that class which collectively through its cooperative labour creates and recreates these material resources. The Proclamation upheld the priority of the nation, where socialists uphold the priority of the working class to determine the nature of property relations.
Today, in fact since it was first written, the Proclamation has been interpreted for its meaning for the struggles of today. This is as it should be. What is not as it should be is to interpret the words of the Proclamation anachronistically and give of them a meaning that they did not have. In trying thus to demonstrate the relevance of the Proclamation those doing so inadvertently subvert its true relevance.
When we remember those who fought in the Rising we should remember all who fought. When we evoke the words of their Proclamation we should recall what those words meant to those who led down their lives fighting that they be given effect.
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