An Irishman's Diary

 

THE Proclamation of 1916 is not only our most famous historical document, it is also the most recognisable.

It is as much an icon of Irish history as it is a declaration of intent. Every Irish person recognises the original even if they cannot recall its sentiments about cherishing the children of the Republic equally or its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation, aspirations that still resonate today.

The Proclamation is so common in history books, on posters, on websites even on mugs and embroidery that most Irish people do not give it a second glance. They think they know what it looks like.

It took an outsider to point out, at a typography conference in Trinity College Dublin last year, that many of the Proclamation reproductions are actually based on variations of the original – even down to the one on the Taoiseach’s website.

The interest of Professor James Mosley was piqued nearly 40 years ago when he was handed a copy of a lecture entitled Yeats and the Easter Rising which was printed in 1965 in advance of the 50th anniversary of the Rising. It contained a reproduction of the Proclamation that appears to have been supplied to the publishers by the National Library of Ireland.

With a trained eye, Prof Mosley, a professor of typography at the University of Reading, noticed that it contained a glaring anachronism. The font used in the words IRISH REPUBLIC is Gill Sans Extra Bold a font that did not even exist in 1916. It was not invented for another 15 years.

Prof Mosley has since made a study of the various versions of the Proclamation and has found that most of the reproductions out there are not based on the original.

The original has a number of distinctive flaws which are apparent on close inspection. These flaws, far from detracting from the finished version, add to its authenticity and illustrate how dangerous the whole enterprise was.

The Proclamation was printed under great duress in the bowels of Liberty Hall on Easter Sunday night. The printers were operating in a cramped place which was being watched closely by the authorities.

There was a problem sourcing type and it had to be printed in two parts on an old and poorly-maintained Wharfedale machine. Michael Molloy, one of three printers involved, said many years later that it was a “wonder how we produced it at all”.

The printing works were located at the back of a baby clothing store on Eden Quay run by Countess Markievicz and Helena Molony. It could be easily be accessed through the shop, but was guarded at the point of a gun by Countess Markievicz and others.

At one stage James Connolly pointed a gun at members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) who arrived without a search warrant to seize the printing works.

The evidence of duress is apparent in the line near the top which contains the words IRISH REPUBLIC. The tail of the R in IRISH is distinctly incomplete. It is this flaw which is evident even at a casual glance.

The E of the word THE in the line TO THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND is a makeshift one made by adding a piece of sealing wax to the foot of an F, since there were no more Es in the font. The Os are clearly a different width.

On even closer inspection one can see the letter E in the words “Sovereign Independent Republic” in the body of text is of a different font to that used elsewhere in the body of the text. The printers had clearly run of the letter E in the right font.

An element of historical revisionism was already going on by the time the Proclamation was reproduced later that year in a book published by The Irish Times called the Sinn Féin Rebellion Handbook.

The Proclamation, as it appeared in this book, was considerably touched up. That touching up was common

at the time and done in good faith. Nobody understood the true significance of the document.

This is the version which appears on the Taoiseach’s website. It is also the version which appears for sale on the Sinn Féin website which it is claimed is a “faithful copy of the original document”.

The origins of the touched up version are lost in the mists of time. The only account of how the reproduction came to be made is contained in an account by a man called Joseph Bouch 20 years after the Rising.

He said the reproduction was part of a plan to reprint the Proclamation after the Rising and circulate it around Dublin.

However, Prof Mosley is sceptical of this account and says there are tell-tale signs that was probably a photographic reproduction most notably because the small Es in the words “Sovereign Independent Republic” remain.

The origins of the Gill Sans Extra Bold version remains a mystery. Prof Mosley is particularly exercised about this version as he says it has gone “viral” on the internet and in print. It this version that is found on T-shirts and mugs available. It even appears on the BBC’s online account of the Easter Rising. It is, Prof Mosley says, “simply wrong”.

Interest in the Proclamation is likely to increase as we approach the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Prof Mosley has done us all a service by reminding us that all is not what it seems with what have been called the “title deeds of the Republic”.