Proclamation ‘superior’ to US declaration of independence

Historian says 1916 document should be read in entirety not judged on individual phrases

Gabriel Doherty of the School of History at UCC said that there has been an unfortunate tendency to take individual sentences, phrases and concepts from the Proclamation out of the text and interpret them as representative of the whole document. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Gabriel Doherty of the School of History at UCC said that there has been an unfortunate tendency to take individual sentences, phrases and concepts from the Proclamation out of the text and interpret them as representative of the whole document. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Easter Rising Proclamation should be considered in its entirety and not parsed into its constituent parts if it is to be viewed as the foundational document of Irish republicanism, a leading historian has told an event to mark the centenary of the events of Easter Week.

Gabriel Doherty of the School of History at UCC said that there has been a modern and unfortunate tendency to take individual sentences, phrases and concepts from the Proclamation out of the text and interpret them as representative of the whole document.

“The document was written as a single coherent piece; there is no element of it that the authors indicated as being of greater or lesser importance; there is no hierarchy of significance in the various points put forward in it.

“If we are to genuinely afford it the respect it deserves as the foundational document of Irish republicanism, then we must respect all of it, however difficult it may be in practice to realise its lofty ambitions.”

Speaking in Clonakilty at the unveiling of a copy of the Proclamation carved in stone commissioned by Duchas Clonakilty, Mr Doherty said that within Irish history, only Robert Emmet’s Rising of 1803 produced any other declaration of independence but it lacked the 1916 Proclamation’s concision.

US declaration of independence

Internationally there are few comparators but it was worth comparing the Easter Rising Proclamation with the US declaration of independence and, while he might be accused of bias, he believed the Irish version to be the superior document, he said.

“The American consists largely of a list of grievances directed at British rule over the 13 colonies, the inference being that if the British had been slightly less maladroit in it their handling of these grievances, they might still be in control off much of the north American continent.

“The Irish Proclamation, by way of contrast, alludes only in passing and in the briefest possible way to British government in Ireland, describing it as ‘a usurpation’ with the Irish signatories instead choosing to accentuate the positive.

“They based their claim to self-government in the first instance, not on the maladministration of a foreign power, but on the inalienable right of the Irish people – surely a more secure foundation for any independence struggle.”

Mr Doherty said that he again might be accused of bias but he believed that the Irish Proclamation, which was originally conceived as a speech to be spoken by Patrick Pearse outside the GPO, was “more powerful, more resonant, more memorable prose”.

“Consider that: the talents of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams et al, arrayed against Pádraig Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke etc and the Irish side won – if only insurrections could be decided by the best wordsmiths.”

Mr Doherty said he disagreed with and believed it was a mistake to argue that the status of the Proclamation was diminished by the fact that the majority of those involved in the Rising – indeed all bar the seven signatories – were unaware of its content in advance of the fighting.

He pointed out that the Sinn Féin candidates, who ran in the 1918 general election, did so on a republican platform which explicitly endorsed the Proclamation and one of the first acts of the new Dail Éireann meeting in January 1919 was to ratify this proclamation of independence.

“If the conception of the document is shrouded in secrecy, its subsequent growth and development has been in the full glare of publicity and the impressive nature of the wording has not alone survived the passage of time but, like a good wine, has improved with age.”