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21 August 1997 Edition

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New in print: On the Easter Proclamation and Other Declarations

Who fears to speak of Easter Week?




Pádraig O'Snodaigh reviews an important new study of the Easter Proclamation


On the Easter Proclamation and Other Declarations
By Liam de Paor
Published by Four Courts Press
Price £14.95 (cased)

This is a welcome and serious look at the Proclamation of the Republic on Easter Monday 1916. Basically it is, as the author claims, ``an essay on words'' dealing primarily with the text and seeing it in the context of other declarations (for example, those of the French, American, United Irish and Fenian movements) and also, of course, in the context of its own time in history. (That section, by the way, might have been tightened up by reference to Marie O'Neill's life of Jennie Wyse Power, From Parnell to Dev, and to Kathleen Clarke's Revolutionary Woman).

Dr De Paor seems to suggest modifications being made on Easter Sunday to the agreed text (Plunkett was the last to sign, on that Sunday apparently) and he notices a shift in register from time to time, as if a different public were being addressed. Years ago Father JM Heuston OP told me he was working on a study of the document similar to that now done by Dr De Paor and that he was of the opinion (tentative, as it was expressed then) that two documents were conflated - one being a declaration of Independence, the other an address from the Provisional Government. When he died I asked the Order if his notes had survived (he was also thinking and noting and talking about writing about the question of the Presidency of the Republic on Easter Monday 1916 - he joked about there being three Presidents in Easter Week - and also about his brother Seán) but I was told nothing was located; a pity because if they were of the standard of his short monograph Headquarters Battalion they could not but be of major significance. Maybe some OP will search more diligently.

But what we do have, of course, is Liam De Paor's careful reading of the actual document; the comparison with and echoes from earlier declarations of political importance; and the sense of words, which ring discordantly to many now (``gallant allies'' , for example), given the resonance of the rhetoric of the time and the heightened language one found regularly in such publications. Indeed on the `gallant allies' piece he does well to remind us of how a German victory could be expected in WWI until America decided to intervene, and how far therefore from settled was the outcome in the Spring of 1916. The reading of the section ``six times in the last three hundred years'' may need a certain revision in the light of Breandán O Buachalla's Aisling Géar but he is probably right in excluding the widespread Whiteboy and Ribbon type Risings of the 1760s and 1820s, from the ``six'' however widespread they had been in comparison, say, with 1848 (or indeed the 1849 of Lalor which is seldom mentioned).

Naturally such a study extends into the symbols of the aspiration and in this I think his handling of the flags issue is not quite as surefooted: there was no `Fenian flag' - they were `Fenian Flags' which I listed in an article of that title in the Irish Sword years ago, an article absorbed into Hayes McCoy's book on Irish flags; and the original field of the Starry Plough was blue, not green (P.49) - the original design by W Megahy (does anyone know more about him?) is in the National Museum, donated to them by Seán O'Casey at a time when questions were raised about the Starry Plough flag on a green field of 1916 which was being bought for the Musuem from the English officer (a squadron leader Williams) who had taken it as a personal trophy, apparently, after the rising.

A few more minor quibbles: `the old Fenian' Tom Clarke who returned to Ireland in 1907 was 50; Na Fianna Eireann was an IRB organisation (all of its executive; Hobson, Ryan, Mellows, Lonergan, Martin, Colbert etc, except the Countess, were members of the same `circle' of the IRB which always met to decide polcy on the eve of the ArdFheiseanna!); the Hibernian Rifles, (JJ Garry, JJ Scallan, JJ Walsh, Seán Kilroy etc, who with the Citizen Army were refused affiliation to the Irish Volunteers and who also took part in the O'Donovan Rossa funeral and lying-in-state) were not Irish-Americans; Pearse's role, if any, in the Conradh Ardfheis of 1915, which he didn't attend let alone be on the platform of, is bloated out of all recognition here; the Howth gun-running was not the only source of the insurgent armoury in 1916; and MacCullough, president of the IRB then, was not deceived or hoodwinked in any way - he told me, for example, in a letter that the military council had full authority to do as they did.

But such was not the main drift of this book - the first serious (and therefore most welcome) study of the actual text of the Proclamation since JJ Bouch's essay on its hypographical aspects for the Irish Booklover over sixty years ago. It is welcome too in that it is a serious study homing in on the actual wording and free for the most part of the once fashionable anti-nationalism of the so-called ``revisionist'' historians. All history writing by definition is revisionist (new sources, closer reading etc): their politically charged anti-nationalism was the mark of the wrongly labelled ``revisionists''. In this essay De Paor obviously belongs to the revisionist school in the proper sense of the word, bringing to a careful re-reading of the text of the Proclamation a balanced contextualisation of it and as a result a deeper awareness of its aims and importance. We could do with more of this type of revisionism.

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