The words on which modern Ireland was built

One hundred years after the Easter Rising, specialist Thomas Venning examines a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic — and meets a descendent of one of its signatories

On Easter Monday, 1916, Patrick Pearse stepped into the streets of Dublin to read from the Proclamation of the Irish Republic — a document that sparked the six-day Easter Rising, effectively laying the foundations for modern Ireland.

Thought to have been composed by Pearse, with contributions from James Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh, the Proclamation outlined the shape of a new Republic. From the first line, Irish men and women were placed as equals, with ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities’ guaranteed to all — the Rising placed within the context of Ireland’s 300-year struggle for independence.

Composed on Good Friday, the Proclamation was printed on Easter Sunday at Liberty Hall. The fighting that followed lasted for six days from Easter Monday, with Pearse — facing vastly superior numbers — issuing an order for surrender on Saturday 29 April.  In the subsequent weeks, 15 of the Rising’s leaders, including all seven of the signatories to the Proclamation, had been executed under martial law — James Connolly whilst tied to a chair, his ankle having been shattered by a bullet in the fighting. 

Ireland – The Proclamation Of Independence Of The Irish Republic. Estimate £150,000-220,000. This lot is offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts on 13 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

Ireland – The Proclamation Of Independence Of The Irish Republic. Estimate: £150,000-220,000. This lot is offered in Valuable Books and Manuscripts on 13 July 2016 at Christie’s in London, King Street

‘What’s incredible here is that this text was written one day, printed the next, and put into action the day after that,’ says specialist Thomas Venning. ‘Then, within a few days, every signatory was executed’. The letters of the proclamation confirms the speed of events, improvised from type collected from foundries across the city, in the 24 hours that preceded printing.

Though approximately 1,000 copies of the Proclamation were originally printed, the majority were destroyed in the chaotic events of Easter Week — indeed, by 11 May, the Dublin Metropolitan police were struggling to find a single example. This is one of only 50 surviving copies — its crisp folds suggesting that it was folded immediately after printing.

For Joe MacDonagh, great-nephew of signatory Thomas MacDonagh, the significance of the document is ‘hard to put into words’. ‘This is something which will live on. It embodies something greater — a sense of aspiration that every country would want in its forebears. It’s something of which I’m very proud’.