Ireland’s Wars: The Proclamation Of The Irish Republic As A Military Document

We will launch into the Easter Rising properly next week, but today I wanted to spend some time on the iconic document that is inherently tied to the event, and to Irish identity: the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Often examined purely on a political and societal level, I feel it is worth having a look at its sometimes ignored military aspects. There are some who act as if the Easter Rising was some kind of artistic movement that just happened to include some violence, but it is important to recognise that it was primarily a battle between uniformed armies fighting over a primarily political objective. The Proclamation, the manifesto of the people engaged in that movement, was a military document (among other things).

It was probably written by Pearse (its similarity to a document written by Robert Emmet, a man Pearse idealised, is obvious), with input from other members of the military council. It was printed at Liberty Hall in the days leading up to the Rising, and then read aloud outside the GPO when the rebellion began, probably by Pearse himself, though there is some dispute on that.

From the off, the document serves as a declaration of war, declaring the establishment of a new nation that must inherently come into conflict with Britain. Its opening sentence calls for Ireland’s “children” to rally to the cause, forming an army with which they can launch an attempt at gaining freedom: a revolution in other words.

The second paragraph outlines the military background of those undertaking the revolt. The IRB gets precedence, as the organisation that has secretly trained a new generation of revolutionaries. Only then are the Irish Volunteers mentioned, and then the Irish Citizen Army, a clear indication of the hierarchy that Pearse believed was in effect. The wording is meant to convey a sense that this is a military operation long prepared for and expertly planned: “manhood” has been “trained” and “organised”, “discipline” has been “perfected”, the “right moment” has been “resolutely waited” for. Clan na Gael gets an unsubtle mention as “exiled children in America”.

And then there is the nod to “gallant allies in Europe”, perhaps the most controversial element of the document. In making such an obvious reference to Imperial Germany the military council attempt to tie-in the Easter Rising to the larger European struggle, by making the now established Irish Republic a belligerent player in that war, a de facto member of the Central Powers without obliquely stating as such. We must remember that it was an aim of many of those involved in the Easter Rising for Ireland to get a seat at the table of any post-war peace conference. Attempting to state their case as an independent power in that war was part of this effort, though those four words may have done more to doom the Rising’s leadership in the aftermath than anything else. Still, Pearse is careful to emphasise Ireland’s new independence: Ireland relies “in the first on her own strength”.

The third paragraph opens with a specific claim that Ireland and its destiny belong exclusively to the Irish people and rejects any other claim “by a foreign people and government”. The conflict is thus further reinforced as one between two sovereign powers. It is stated bluntly that the only way Irish sovereignty could be destroyed is with the destruction of the Irish people, an almost goading statement perhaps meant to provoke outrage and massacre.

The next line insists that the Irish people have never given up their right to independence and have “asserted it in arms” in every generation over the last 300 years in six separate instances. Going backwards, it would seem that Pearse is referring to the 1867 Fenian Rebellion, the 1848 Young Irelander Rebellion, Robert Emmett’s Rebellion of 1803, the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion, the 1689 War of the Two Kings and the 1641 Rebellion which morphed into the larger Irish Confederate Wars. But Pearse’s noting of these events is somewhat duplicitous, as very few of them had anything in common with what was occurring in 1916. The Confederates of 1641 were nobles launching a coup d’état in protection of their own privileges, who acknowledged Charles I as their King always and the Jacobites of 1689 fought a war for James II, not for independence. The United Irishmen were republicans but, like the Rising would turn out to be, their rebellion was regionalised and messy, lacking any broad democratic legitimacy at the time. Robert Emmett’s “Rebellion” was little more than a Dublin street riot. The Young Irelander’s attempt was limited in the extreme, and the Fenian’s revolt in 1867 was an easily countered thing owing to the wormwood-esque manner in which their organisation had leaked information. Pearse was obviously attempting to craft an image of a continuous state of rebellion in Ireland against English domination, but if he really believed it his knowledge of military history was lacking.

The Proclamation goes onto to state that the lives of the IRB, Volunteers and Citizen Army “comrades-in-arms” are pledged to the Irish Republic, a nod, perhaps, to Pearse’s strongly held belief in the concept of “blood sacrifice”, and a premonition of what was about to occur during and after the Rising. The next paragraph concerns itself with statements on “civil liberty” and equality but does note the attempts of an “alien government” to divide “a minority from the majority”. This is an idealistic effort to view the sectarian divide in Ireland down the centuries, with all of its violence, reprisal and counter-reprisals, as purely a manipulation of the British government, and nothing that “the majority” had an active part in: whatever Pearse and the others intended, the Easter Rising was to be an almost entirely Catholic affair.

The penultimate paragraph is a pledge that a true “National Government” will be formed at “the opportune moment”, a moment that will be bought by “our arms” (the word “arms” being one of the most repeated in the text, again emphasising the Proclamation as a military document). Until then, an inherently military government will be instituted. This military rule, even if it extended no further than those isolated garrisons during Easter week, is not something that can be considered democratically legitimate, even with the results of 1918 that some consider to be a sort of retroactive approval, an obvious instance of a cart being put ahead of the horse. Would the leadership of the Easter Rising really have been happy to allow a civilian government to rule in place of the military when and if the danger had passed? We will never know for sure I suppose, though I would personally tend to view a man as idealistic as Pearse as a likely Cincinnatus-type.

In the final paragraph the Proclamation ties the cause of the Rising directly to God’s blessing, re-emphasising, as if it needed to be done, the religious element to the military action being carried. Finally, in its last line, the document expressly makes clear that it considers the objective of Irish independence one that can only be achieved by “sacrifice”, which we can take to mean death in battle: a bloody road towards that poetic “august destiny”.

Historians still speculate on the order of the signatures at the end of the document, with Tom Clarke’s name appearing first, and Pearse’s fourth. Pearse appears to have served as an overall military leader of the Rising, “Commanding in Chief the Forces of the Irish Republic” as well as being the “President of the Provisional Government”, but this was mostly a symbolic appointment: Pearse did very little commanding on Easter Week, with military affairs, at least from the headquarters position, left to Connolly. It has long been thought that Clarke was meant to take the position of primacy, owing to his age, experience and reputation, but he may have refused the honour himself, believing Pearse, with a greater national profile at the time, to be a better choice. Still, his name is first.

The Proclamation is thus an inherently military document, serving as a declaration of war on Britain, an announcement of entry into the larger European struggle, tying the Easter Rising to Ireland’s history of uprisings and creating an ethos of self-sacrifice in battle that will consecrate the new Irish Republic in blood, both enemy and friendly. In the next entry, we will look at the opening moves of that bloodshed, that took place even before the Proclamation was read out before the GPO.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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