What kind of a country is this?
IN ANY EVENT, the 1916 republic was itself quickly forgotten. It was, in part, overtaken by partition. But it was also treated with little respect by its own heirs: the politicians who came to power in the southern Free State. In 1919 the first Dáil attempted to formulate in concrete terms what the republic might actually mean. That meaning, it agreed, would have to centre on the idea of social equality: the republic would have to belong equally to all its citizens. In introducing the Democratic Programme that the Dáil adopted, Richard Mulcahy said, “A nation cannot be fully free in which even a small section of its people have not freedom. A nation cannot be said fully to live in spirit, or materially, while there is denied to any section of its people a share of the wealth and the riches that God bestowed around them.” Accordingly, the Democratic Programme explicitly announced that the 1916 proclamation meant that “all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare”. It defined the republic as one whose first duty would be to the welfare of children, which would create “a sympathetic native scheme for the care of the Nation’s aged and infirm, who shall not be regarded as a burden, but rather entitled to the Nation’s gratitude and consideration”; and which would create an effective public healthcare system.
All of this was adopted unanimously and without debate – a sign not that it represented the serious commitment of the Dáil but in fact that it did not. In Irish political culture it is a safe bet that anything that is unanimous is a mere gesture.
The first Dáil did something extraordinary: it teased out what the real meaning of the republic declared in 1916 would be, then forgot all about it. Within four months, by April 1919, Éamon de Valera announced that the implementation of the Democratic Programme would have to be postponed. Kevin O’Higgins, one of the most influential figures in the early years of the Free State, later dismissed the Democratic Programme as “mostly poetry”. It was, in the event, not merely consigned to oblivion but actively traduced: child welfare, for example, was monumentally abused.
But did the 1916 republic ever exist in any corporeal form? In 1935 de Valera, the senior surviving leader of the Rising, declared that “they were not going to declare a republic during this period of office”. Yet by 1937 he was declaring that his new constitution gave Ireland “all the symbols and institutions of a Republic except the title”. But yet again in 1937 he declared that “the unity of Ireland under a new Constitution is far more desirable for him than any declaration of a republic for the truncated country”. Even the arch-republican could not say whether Ireland was a republic or not.
And so the republic, twice forgotten, was declared all over again. The Irish republic was inaugurated, this time by an Irish government, on Easter Monday 1949 – April 18th – with a ceremony at the General Post Office in Dublin. The day and place were chosen to resonate with the declaration of the republic at the same spot 33 years earlier. But the irony of the gesture seems to have escaped the government: it was proclaiming again the republic that had been proclaimed in 1916 by those who believed it had already been proclaimed in 1867. This was a republic so good they proclaimed it thrice.
Or, perhaps, one so nebulous that, however often it was declared, it remained always intangible and out of reach.
And this third declaration of the republic was itself effectively being forgotten even as it was being declared. It generated little public excitement: “It was noted that the ceremonies chiefly involved politicians and the military. The inauguration of a republic and the ceremonies associated with it failed to engage the enthusiastic support of the population in general.”
This is unsurprising. The declaration had been made suddenly and without prior discussion in the Dáil or in public: the citizens of this new republic learned of it in news from Canada, where it was announced by the taoiseach, John A Costello. In fact the great day of the third inauguration of the republic had elements of high comedy. It provided an Irish twist on Karl Marx: the republic was declared the second time (in 1916) as tragedy and the third (in 1949) as farce. De Valera refused to attend, ostentatiously spending the day at Arbour Hill, “praying for the men of 1916”. (Considering the men of 1916 had long since been canonised, it is not clear why they needed his prayers.) A barman – that source of infallible popular wisdom – commented, “Sure, it’s all politics. Costello and his crowd have wiped Dev’s eye and now Dev is trying to get his own back on them.” The Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse drew larger crowds than the birth of the republic.