Since it was first read out publicly on 24 April 1916, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic has become the key document to which republicans in Ireland have traced their political lineage in the twentieth century.
It is still read in graveyards at Easter in Ireland and abroad and is hanging in many homes and public buildings. But to what extent can the 1916 Proclamation be considered socially and politically radical ? Opinion is divided.
On one end of the spectrum, some such as Bernard Ransom insist that:
The radical text of the Proclamation of the Republic reveals without mystery the idea for which Connolly died. It was the socialist one, described in the Proclamation in the admitted right 'of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland', in its guarantee of 'equal opportunity' (in addition to liberal civil and religious rights) to all citizens and not least in its resolve 'to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts'... (Bernard Ransom (1980) Connolly's Marxism, London : Pluto Press, 118)
But on the other end of the spectrum, some like Samuel Levenson for example, make the point that:
The (Proclamation of the Republic) says nothing about the need for overthrowing capitalism or for seizing the means of production from the ruling class. It does not even promise the ten-hour day, old-age pensions, or the end of child labour. The municipal socialism advocated by the Fabians was radical in comparison to these vague words about the 'ownership of Ireland'. This document gives colour to the argument that Connolly renounced socialism in favour of nationalism when he took up arms during Easter Week. (Samuel Levenson (1973), James Connolly, London : Quartet Books, 300)
More recently, John Callow defended the Proclamation and Connolly from Levenson's critique of being to the right of Fabianism. He argues that the passage about the 'ownership of Ireland' while "admittedly permissive...could be taken as legally enshrining the nationalisation, and common ownership, of industry and the land." Callow stresses the document's "inherent radicalism" and presents it as:
a founding document of a new state that, if not making Socialism an explicit requisite, laid the constitutional framework that made the achievement of a Socialist republic possible."(John Callow (2013) James Connolly and the Re-Conquest of Ireland, London : Evans Mitchell Books, 83-84)
But for this present writer the problem with the Proclamation lies elsewhere. The 1916 Proclamation was after all the second time an Irish Republic had been declared by the same organisation. On 4 March 1867 the London Times received a Proclamation from the Provisional Government, -“Herewith we proclaim the Irish Republic.”
The 1867 proclamation had none of the religious and mystical language of the 1916 Proclamation. God, invoked twice in 1916 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”).
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 claims 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.” (Cfr: Fintan O'Toole, "What Kind of Country is This?" The Irish Times, 3 November 2012). The problem with the 1916 Proclamation is not simply that it is not 'socialist' enough but that compared to the 1867 Proclamation it is not 'republican' never mind 'radical' enough...
At this point it is perhaps worth making a short note about the 1919 Democratic Programme of Dáil Éireann which was supposed to be in line with the 1916 Proclamation. Thomas Johnson, of the Irish Labour Party had been tasked by Dáil Éireann to write its social programme based on the Proclamation. Johnson struck the keynote with a quotation from Pádraic Pearse’s 1916 pamphlet The Sovereign People: "no private right to property is good as against the public right of the Nation." His original draft contained this important sentence:
The Republic will aim at the elimination of the class in society which lives upon the wealth produced by the workers of the nation but gives no useful social service in return and in the process of accomplishment will bring freedom to all who have hitherto been caught in the toils of economic servitude.
This was way too radical and had to be removed. Seán T. O’Kelly produced the final draft and his first amendment was to ‘correct’ Pearse. Instead of agreeing with him that no property rights were valid against the public welfare, he wrote “with him we reaffirm”(sic) that they were merely “subordinated” to it. "Cherishing all the children of the nation equally" then replaced "the elimination of the class in society" responsible for the toils of economic servitude... (cfr. Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh, "Getting with the Programme: Labour, the Dáil and the Democratic Programme of 1919," Red Banner, issue 35, March 2009) This illustrates that in terms of being socially radical, the ideas 1916 Proclamation have clear limits.
But some go as far as to argue that the Proclamation found its lineage in French influences which "are neither liberal, nor left-ist in any convincing way" but belong to the radical right. (W.J. Mc Cormack, 12) In an interesting and somehow eccentric book published in 2012 entitled Dublin 1916: The French Connection (Dublin: Gill&Macmillan), W.J. McCormack argued that the Proclamation was inspired by French catholic nationalism, a complex reactionary movement, partly religious, partly royalist and anti-modern, which reached its apogee with the Dreyfus Affair of 1894.
McCormack argues that the 'blood sacrifice' rhetoric ascribed to Pearse owes more to Maurice Barrès than to Wolfe Tone, and seeks to derive Connolly's use of the sympathetic strike from Georges Sorel's syndicalism (ie. 112-113). McCormack amongst other things seeks to show how the anti-clerical Irish Republican Brotherhood was in effect re-baptisted by a French inspired Catholic mission, and explores the wealth of French material published by Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett in the Irish Review between 1911 and 1914.
But these connections are very loose. There is something rather far-fetched about his conclusions and his arguments often rest on evidence which is really thin. For example, he tries to connect Peadar Kearney, who wrote the lyrics of A Soldier's Song, to Paul Déroulède who forty years earlier had written Le Chant du Soldat , a far right song with an identical title. McCormack tells us confidently that Kearney "found models" for his verse in Déroulède, but the footnote he provides for this is merely a biographical detail on Déroulède. McCormack provides the reader a lot of information about Déroulède but virtually nothing about Kearney who actually left a memoir, although McCormack does not mention this. (cfr. 3, 116, 187)
While McCormack also suggests reactionary German connections ranging from Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt to the 1916 Rising he surprisingly does not mention established facts about the insurgents' plans regarding “our gallant allies in Europe”. Once success was achieved there would be "a victory parade down O'Connell Street by Irish Volunteers and Prussian Grenadiers with crowds cheering and throwing flowers as bands played 'A Nation Once Again' and 'Deutschland Uber Alles'. The newly independent Irish state would ally itself with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey and provide the German navy with military bases. (Michael Foy & Brian Barton (1999), The Easter Rising, Sutton Publishing, 1999, pp.18-19.
This information is based on the Ireland Report in the Roger Casement papers, NLI MS 130855(5)) Would this new state be a Republic? According to two leading members of the IRB, Desmond FitzGerald and Ernest Blythe, both supporters of the 1916 rising, there were those among the IRB leadership, including Pearse, Plunkett and MacDonagh, who were contemplating in the GPO the establishment of an independent Ireland with a German prince on the throne, obviously not a Protestant Hohenzollern, but the catholic Bavarian prince Joachim. (cfr: Desmond Fitzgerald, "Inside the GPO", Irish Times, 7 April 1966, p.2 and Ernest Blythe, "An Irish Monarchy", Irish Times, 15 April 1966, p.12) This illustrates that McCormarck's argument is essentially based on allusions more than on solid evidence.
As regards 'the spirit of 1916', historian Angus Mitchell complained that it:
has been regularly stripped of both its intellectual and historical contexts. If the Proclamation of the Republic encrypted the Fenian tradition of resistance, it also crystallised a radical and paradigmatic rethinking of a society that was pluralist, European and anti-imperial, advocating the local above the global.
This is what is most radical about it in this writer's opinion. It should be noted that no similar claims could be made on behalf of the 1912 Ulster Covenant. Mitchell stresses that its intellectual background was “part of a much wider experimentation in the reform of civil society”. Pearse advanced a pedagogy that bears comparison with the work of more recent educators such as Ken Robinson or Paulo Freire. It included of course the international labour movement in which the Scottish-born leader of the Rising, James Connolly, was involved.
Roger Casement’s investigation of crimes against humanity is now claimed as critical to the transition from nineteenth century philanthropic humanitarianism to the rights-based international law of the twenty-first century. Human rights, which were so vociferously defended by Roger Casement in South America and Africa, came to be articulated in the Proclamation of the Republic, which sought to guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all”.
Joseph Mary Plunkett's interests were not narrowly Irish but had studied Arabic and cultivated an interest in Orientalism.
There are now modern studies of several of the key women who dedicated their lives to the cause, notably Alice Milligan, Eva Gore-Booth and Charlotte Despard. The campaign for women’s suffrage in Ireland, Britain and the United States, attracted the involvement of Countess Constance Markievicz and Margaret Skinnider. To re-connect with what is most radical in the 1916 Proclamation means to re-connect with this “creative and experimental energy” of those involved in 1916; especially given that it “has been contaminated, appropriated and silenced over the years”. (Angus Mitchell, "1916 As Spectacle", Dublin Review of Books, 6 May 2013).