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From Chapter 1 “Children of the Nation, or a Nation of Children?”
Liam de Paor’s 1997 ‘Preface’ began with the laconic statement ‘this is an essay on words.’ And so it largely remains though, I would suggest, it veered off in the book’s final sentences towards a problematic, different domain. He remained always attentive to the interpretation and misinterpretation of specific words in the Easter Proclamation, taking particular care to indicate how attention to another document (American, French or Irish) might illuminate the text in hand. For example, analysing the Proclamation’s fourth paragraph, he quoted extensively from the Ulster Covenant of September 1912. His point was to argue that Pearse and Co. were answering in positive and (they hoped) reassuring fashion the Unionists’ insistence on ‘religious freedom’. The words quoted from the 1916 document were:
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 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 positive dimension came down from the United Irishmen’s vision of Irish independence and their ambition to unite ‘Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter’. In 1916 substantial numbers of non-Catholics lived in Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan (soon to be ‘border counties’) but also in the decidedly southern counties of Wicklow and Cork, not to mention Dublin City in which the Fusing was to take place. Reassurance was unquestionably in order. But the great block of non-Catholic residents on the island lived in what was to become Northern Ireland which, by various means, the Proclamation’s designers were excluding from their enterprise, in practice if not in theory. Where ‘religious freedom’ was most anxiously, if belatedly, defended or sought, the Dublin signatories were in no position to deliver; which, by the ironies of partition, led to increased deficits of religious freedom north and south.
What does religion mean in these two documents, if not Christianity in its conflicting versions? Admittedly, no specification is made in either the Ulster or the Dublin text and, given the peculiar Ego-Christ-ological interests of Pearse and Plunkett, not to mention the less fervent Catholicity of other signatories, this must be taken as an act of discretion on their part. Dublin goes for God twice (first and sixth paragraphs), Ulster once, but without any naming of denominations or creeds in either case. Given these silent concessions to the ‘minority’, how is the issue formulated in words?
De Paor calculated that the Proclamation amounted to 486 words, not including the signatures. This figure gives one pause to think how very brief it was and is, even if the conditions of treasonable typesetting under hostile war-time conditions are recalled. A tally of some notable terms, alphabetically listed, is revealing:
man (including plurals and compounds): 4
woman (including plurals and compounds): 3
A number of comments arise promptly, the first and least significant being the predominance of ‘Irish’ as an emotive descriptor; this is a nationalist declaration, and no mistake. (In three cases the adjective forms part of an organisation’s title, e.g. ‘Irish Republican Brotherhood’.) Other terms naturally have a wider potential application, and indeed ‘government’, ‘nation’ and ‘people’ are used beyond their Irish instances, e.g. ‘foreign people and government’. The Proclamation is formally addressed to ‘the people of Ireland’, and ‘people’ exceeds any other term for the entity (including ‘Ireland’). In allowing for ‘the ownership of Ireland’, the Proclamation echoes the constitution (drawn up by Sean O’Casey) ratified by the Irish Citizen Army in March 1914, though the earlier document specifies both ‘moral and material’ ownership. We are here examining, and not merely listing, 12.5 per cent of the Proclamation’s lexicon. Additional words will come under scrutiny in succeeding paragraphs.
‘Citizen’ is present in the ‘Irish Citizen Army’, and in only one further instance, significantly in the paragraph where the new Republic guarantees civil and religious liberty ‘to all its citizens’. De Paor’s point about the Proclamation’s echoing the Ulster Covenant on this issue of religious liberty is reinforced when one recalls that the latter document also referred twice to ‘citizenship’, although no such term had legal validity under UK laws. Here it may be appropriate to add that, while ‘the Provisional Government’ of the 1916 document is most frequently taken to be an affirmative allusion to Robert Emmet’s manifesto of 1803, de Paor in a lengthy footnote (see p. 17 above) listed the Provisional Government of Ulster’s twenty-one members, the vast majority of them elected members of parliament.
‘Nation/al’ is more complicated than might be expected. Ireland’s proposed ‘exaltation among the nations’ carries a religiose overtone which can be confirmed by reference to numerous Old Testament verses; maybe Plunkett had a hand in this formulation, though he was confined to a nursing home during much of the period in question. Emmet had modestly spoken in court about his country ‘taking its place’ among the nations of the world, and the idea of exaltation may echo the language of early twentieth-century French ‘integral nationalism’ (as it will come to known). But continental matters remain for later treatment.