What kind of a country is this?
THERE IS, IN THE approach to the centenary of the 1916 Rising, a concern with how the declaration of the republic is to be remembered and commemorated. But in fact what characterises the Irish republic is much more the act of forgetting it. At least three times the republic has been declared and then allowed to slip from the national consciousness.
Amnesia, as the French thinker Ernest Renan suggested in 1882, is essential to the foundation of nations. “Forgetfulness, and I shall even say historical error, form an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” What must be forgotten? The “deeds of violence that have taken place at the commencement of all political formations . . . Unity is ever achieved by brutality.” A nation is also based on a common forgetting of its inevitably mixed ethnic origins. “But the essence of a nation is that all its individual members should have many things in common; and also that all of them should hold many things in oblivion . . . It is good for all to know how to forget.”
The Irish republic, though, is not quite like this. It is steeped in forgetting but in a most peculiar way. Renan’s amnesia is a creative act: nations found themselves on acts of forgetting. But the Irish republic goes much further: it forgets its foundation, time and again. And what it shoves to the back of its mind is not the circumstance of its creation but its own existence.
There is something decidedly odd about the 1916 proclamation. Its signatories “hereby proclaim the Irish Republic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations”. The authors seem to forget that the organisation to which they belong, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had long since declared this Irish republic an existing entity. Logically, the 1916 proclamation should have been a restatement or a rededication, not a founding act at all.
For, almost half a century earlier, in 1867, the IRB issued an apparently definitive declaration. “Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.” That this first proclamation is remembered only by historians and never referred to in public discourse is in itself unremarkable. What is remarkable is that the IRB seems to have wilfully disremembered it. Perhaps it was felt to be more dramatically potent to begin again, to mark the Easter Rising as a self-conscious point of origin. Perhaps a grand proclamation is easier to kill and die for than an act of memory and recapitulation.
Or perhaps the first declaration of the Irish republic was a little uncomfortable in its social radicalism and open secularism.
The 1867 proclamation has none of the religious and mystical language of the 1916 proclamation. God, invoked twice in 1916, was not imagined as an honorary citizen of the 1867 republic: he or she is entirely absent. Ireland is not invoked as an abstract entity, summoning “her children to her flag”. The 1867 references to the country are concrete: “the soil of Ireland”; “the Irish people”. On the other hand, the 1867 proclamation does mention certain things absent in 1916: a republican form of government (as against both “oligarchy” and “the curse of Monarchical Government”); economic injustice (“the oppression of labour”); and economic equality (“we aim at founding a Republic based on universal suffrage, which shall secure to all the intrinsic value of their labour”).
Even more uncomfortably, the 1867 proclamation resists ideas of either religious or ethnic solidarity as the basis for the Irish republic. It is explicitly secular. “We declare, also, in favour of absolute liberty of conscience, and complete separation of Church and State.” And it does not create a simple opposition of “Irish” to “English”. It declares war on “aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields”. On the other hand it imagines, however fancifully, a common cause with the English working class. “As for you, workmen of England, it is not only your hearts we wish, but your arms.”
This putative Irish republic had to be forgotten in 1916, even though the leaders of the Rising had in fact sworn oaths of allegiance to it. Strikingly, though, this is not the only act of wilful amnesia in the 1916 proclamation. It explicitly calls to mind the idea of oblivion, declaring the new republic to be “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past”. The desired import is that “differences” – the profound division between largely Catholic nationalism and largely Protestant unionism that had just brought the island to the brink of civil war – should be forgotten. But the effect is, rather, that they have been forgotten. The proclamation is in this sense too an act of forgetting: its whole gesture of declaring a republic relies on the throwing of a mental cordon sanitaire around unionism. It is delicately and euphemistically broached, but only in order to be immediately dismissed from consciousness. “Oblivious” here is a well-chosen word.