Felix M. Larkin
The words “Easter Proclamation” in the title of this book are singularly ill-judged. They evoke the sacred Easter Proclamation, the Exsultet, sung at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night and so they reinforce the identification of the 1916 Rising with Pearse’s notion of the sanctity of his blood sacrifice leading to the redemption and resurrection of the Irish nation.
This notion was memorably and rightly criticised by Fr Francis Shaw SJ in the essay ‘The canon of Irish history’ belatedly published in Studies in 1972.
The original title, when the book was first published in 1997, was On the Easter Proclamation and other Declarations. It was decided to simplify that somewhat cumbersome title for this new edition, but I cannot help feeling that a more fundamental revision of the title would have been in order – one that reflected the demythologising of the 1916 Rising as a result of solid historical scholarship since the 1960s, of which Fr Shaw’s essay is the best known example.
Nevertheless, this is a work of great import – and I commend Four Courts Press for re-issuing it, and in an affordable format. The original text, written by the eminent historian and public intellectual, the late Liam de Paor, is reproduced verbatim. It is supplemented by a spirited introduction by W.J. McCormack and by an affectionate appreciation of de Paor by Michael Ryan, sometime director of the Chester Beatty Library.
De Paor himself wrote that his text is “an essay on words”, and it represents what Michael Ryan has elsewhere described as “an elegant deconstruction of the Proclamation”.
It is in two parts: the first, an examination of the antecedent documents that influenced the content of the Proclamation; the second, a painstaking analysis – almost phrase-by-phrase – of the Proclamation’s six paragraphs and its headings.
McCormack observes in his introduction that “de Paor’s book about the document is the most thorough I have encountered, unique in its combining exposition and critique”.
Also worthy of mention in this context is Liam Kennedy’s Unhappy the Land: the Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Merrion Press, €24.99pb), in which he devotes a chapter to comparing and contrasting the Ulster Covenant of 1912 and the 1916 Proclamation. Kennedy argues that “the Proclamation has the tone of hot, martial music, whereas the Covenant is a cooler, less visceral composition”. While de Paor refers to the Ulster Covenant, it is considered more fully in Kennedy’s work.
One thing in the Proclamation that has always intrigued me is the claim that “six times during the past 300 years” the Irish people had taken up arms to assert “their right to national freedom and sovereignty”.
It is not obvious what the episodes in question are. De Paor suggests the Confederation of Kilkenny (1641), the Jacobite wars (1689/90) and the rebellions of 1798 (United Irishmen), 1803 (Robert Emmet), 1848 (Young Ireland) and 1867 (Fenians).
He comments: “If so, it is a very stylised and rhetorical history”. The first two he categorises as “dynastic and civil wars”. He concedes that the uprisings of 1798 (note the plural!) “were both popular and widespread”, but Emmet’s was “limited and local” and those of 1848 and 1867 were “at best ... aborted uprisings”.
The history of Ireland was thus distorted by the Proclamation in order to portray the 1916 Rising as part of a glorious tradition of fighting, killing and dying for Irish freedom – and that distortion was propagated by the independent Irish state after 1922 and was central to the teaching of Irish history in schools up to relatively recently.
The advances made in Irish historical scholarship since the 1960s have revolutionised our thinking about the Rising and the distortion of Irish history that it engendered. It has been a slow process. However, as McCormack remarks in his introduction, de Paor’s work on the Proclamation has “contributed its own mite to this process”.
That makes it all the more regrettable that this book has now been re-issued under such an anodyne yet entirely specious title.