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.
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.
Brian Inglis in The Irish Times reported: “There was very little real warmth in the cheering, very little real gaiety in the atmosphere. There were loud cheers, but they were the cheers of people just tired of standing there, waiting for something to happen. There were gay crowds, but they were the usual, idle, bank holiday crowds, prepared to watch any free show until such time as the cinemas opened their doors, and they could settle down in earnest to the business of enjoying the holiday.”
There was even trouble getting the new Republic’s tricolour right. “There appears to be some doubt in the public mind, or in the minds of the manufacturers of flags, as to what exactly constitutes the national flag of the Republic. Apart from the normal variations in the hue – primrose yellow to blood orange – quite a number of the small hand flags had the orange instead of the green next to the staff, and I saw one small girl waving a tricolour on which the green, white and orange stripes had been arranged horizontally instead of vertically.”
Souvenir sellers were having a hard time. The price of small Irish flags with gold tassels and pictures of Wolfe Tone or the GPO started at sixpence. By the time the military parade got under way the price was down to twopence, and even before it ended they were being knocked down for a penny. Souvenirs, after all, are meant to stir memories. The crowd may have sensed that this republic, too, would be forgotten.
IN REALITY THEdeclaration of a republic in 1949 changed nothing much. Ireland left the British Commonwealth, and this negative act was the only meaning the new republic ever had.
Asked by the London editor of The Irish Times whether the Republic of Ireland Act marked a step forward in Ireland’s development, a sceptical George Bernard Shaw replied, “Ask me five years hence. If the terrible vital statistics improve to a civilised level, then our steps will have been steps forward. If not, there will be nothing for us but the ancient prescription of the submergence of the island for ten minutes in the Irish Sea.”
Shaw’s scepticism was entirely justified. The new republic changed little – not even the name of the state, which remained simply Ireland. The term “Republic of Ireland” was declared to be “the description of the State”, not its name.
The Republic of Ireland Act is in fact a desultory piece of legislation, containing five sentences totalling 96 words. It could be so short because it had nothing to say, nothing to bring into effect. Everything carried on exactly as before. The vital statistics of the population – life expectancy, health, poverty, education – did not improve, unless, of course, people left for other countries, as they did in their droves in the decade after the new republic was inaugurated.
This, in itself, surely says something about the idea of an Irish republic. If you can declare it in 96 words that have no consequence, it is only because you have become used to forgetting it. It is an airy, insubstantial thing.
From Up the Republic! Towards a New Ireland, edited by Fintan O’Toole and published by Faber