Search blog articles


Thoughts on the 1916 Proclamation’s Secrets

I teach Irish literature in the US, and like many of my American friends and colleagues, I’ve watched with excitement as the centenary commemorations of the Rising have unrolled over the past year. Of particular interest to me has been the ubiquitous presence of the ‘Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland’. Because I’m also a scholar of manifestoes (I’ve written a book about the history of the manifesto form and have read hundreds of them), the Proclamation is recognizable to me as a member of the manifesto family. The Proclamation is one of dozens produced in the first decades of the twentieth century. Beneath its specifically Irish content, generic manifestic conventions are at work, tying the Proclamation historically to a long line of related polemical declarations.

What are those conventions, and what is that history? My research suggests that the political manifesto emerged alongside (and probably helped to accelerate) the erosion of absolute monarchical power in western Europe and the concurrent elaboration of Enlightenment ideas concerning equality and self-representation beginning in the eighteenth century. The manifesto form was a textual megaphone for collective (and often anonymous) dissent. It made use of a very specific set of militant rhetorical tropes, including a highly politicized set of pronouns: a ‘we’ that takes shape in opposition to an unjust/tyrannical ‘you’ or ‘they’. As the proto-institutions of universalist representative government began to appear, these polemical forms—these manifestoes—enumerated lists of demands while calling out the inconsistencies and broken promises of modern government: ‘You made a solemn vow to the many’, says the manifesto, ‘but you have delivered only to the few!’ ‘You claim to venerate justice, but we have been denied justice—we are living proof of your perfidy!’ ‘We will no longer tolerate your abuses!’

Most political manifestoes represent a minority position, and in this regard the use of ‘we’ is especially canny, since it is a plural pronoun that doesn’t disclose its numbers. ‘We’ is, after all, always a composite of ‘I’s, but of how many? Two? Ten? A thousand? How many ‘I’s does it take for a ‘we’ to speak for a whole? And how definitively does that ‘we’ represent the (minority) whole? The manifesto form doesn’t—and needn’t—answer these questions; its ‘we’ functions as a voice of indeterminate numbers. The subordination of its ‘I’s suggests limitless kinship and indomitable mass resolve: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’

Francisco I. Madero, who led the exiles who wrote and published the 'Plan de San Luis Potosi'

And the performance of resolve tends to take shape around the manifesto’s own version of minority history: this is history from our perspective, which you have deformed into your own dominant history, or have ignored at your own peril; our history has brought us to this explosive point. Consider, for a typical example, the wording of the Mexican Revolution’s 1910 ‘Plan de San Luis Potosi’: ‘Peoples, in their constant efforts for the ideal of liberty and justice, are forced, at precise historical moments, to make their greatest sacrifices. Our beloved country has reached one of those moments’[1]—and now it is time for deeds, not words.

The millennialist urgency of ‘now’ is often conveyed through a voice of vatic prophecy: we see what you can’t; we know when the moment has arrived; our specter is haunting you, though you misrecognize it; now the workers of the world will unite. The vatic voice enunciates phrases that appear and reappear in manifestoes across time and place: the tree of liberty is watered by the blood of patriots; the tocsin sounds; deeds not words; to the barricades, ye thirsty patriots, ye proletarians of all countries.[2] As my selection of phrases suggests, the manifesto form accommodates all kinds of political positions, from nationalism to communism to feminism.

There is a good deal more to say about the manifesto form as a genre, but I hope I have laid out enough here to suggest a template for reading the Proclamation from this rhetorical angle, for it is an angle that also highlights the Proclamation’s peculiar and (literally) mystifying improvisations on some of the form’s usual conventions. Like its polemical forebears—not only Irish but French, German, American, English, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Boer, international, feminist, abolitionist—the Proclamation reconfigures hegemonic versions of history (in this case British/imperial); its vatic voice sets the we-speaker squarely on the right side of morality; its militant language conveys the necessary sacrifice of the preordained moment/now; and it makes strategic use of that tricky pronoun, ‘we’.

But the Proclamation’s ‘we’ is even more complicated than the typical manifesto’s complicated ‘we’. For one thing, ‘we’ is really Pearse, and maybe a bit of Connolly, speaking on behalf of a non-existent futural entity called the Irish Republic. And for another, the actual ‘we’ agent/subject of the document doesn’t appear until the third paragraph (which is also the third sentence; the entire thing is twelves sentences long). It’s easy enough to overlook this late entry of a proclaimed ‘we’, not least because the Proclamation is so often reproduced in its original typographical/iconic form (with that carefully arranged text and those homemade ‘e’s) that it seems to resist textual analysis. But in point of fact, the agent of those first two paragraphs is not a manifestic ‘we’, as one would expect, but, rather, a third-person Mother-Ireland-Kathleen, a metaphysical revivalist presence who has been waiting and watching. She is the summoner of men and the willer of history, and apparently she has telegraphed her message to Pearse, her spirit-medium:

Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

To be sure, the sentence opens with some familiar manifestic conventions: an invocation of the dead generations (Pearse is setting up a ‘we’ that includes the living and the uncountable resurrected dead); an alignment with God’s will; and an oratorical address, here updated by the explicit mention of Irishwomen (in contrast to, say, French Revolutionary discursive practices, which were deliberately masculinist, almost without exception). But consider what else is going on. The operative verb in that sentence is ‘summon’ (followed by the verb ‘strike’). One might have said, ‘Ireland summons her children to the flag. Ireland strikes for her freedom.’ Instead, the sentence frontloads the invocations, and under their cover, as it were, introduces the phrase that colors the whole document: ‘through us’, as in, ‘Ireland summons her children through us.’ ‘Us’ in this long sentence signifies a passive amanuensis chosen and summoned by Ireland to summon her children. (One wonders how Ireland chose and summoned Pearse.) The chain of pronouns suggests a mythical conjuring. She speaks through ‘us’ (Pearse and maybe Connelly); they in turn speak to a broader ‘us’ (readers/auditors of the Proclamation); and all of ‘us’ magically become ‘her’, mise Éire.

This transubstantiation Pearse heightens even more dramatically in the second paragraph, so that it effectively grounds the remainder of the document in a secret, occult set of relations. Here is the first half of the sentence/paragraph:

Having organized and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organization, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open military organizations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment …

That last clause is pure manifesto with a twist: the anticipated millennialist moment has arrived, though it issues not from modern determinism (e.g. the economic determinism of the Communist Manifesto or the parliamentarian determinism of the suffragist manifestoes), but rather from the judgment of a secret, non-modern figure who, in her historico-occult wisdom, has been waiting for it. (And had apparently also been waiting for the five earlier ‘right moments’ in Irish history.) In contrast to previous revolutionaries—American and French, especially—for whom transparency was a virtue above all else, the secrecy of she-Ireland is here flaunted.[3] Indeed, it is not only flaunted, but doubled by the Proclamation’s disclosure that half of her supporters are closeted in the secret IRB.

The disclosure of secrecy rattled at least some of her proudly unsecret Volunteers. In his memoir of the Rising, W. J. Brennan-Whitmore recalls coming upon the as-yet unrecited Proclamation, newly-printed, on a table in Liberty Hall, and feeling a ‘profound shock’:

I thought of all the speeches I had made and articles I had written in which I had specifically laid it down that the Volunteer movement would succeed above all efforts solely because there was no secret organization behind it. For the very first time I now learned of the existence of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and that it was this secret organization, more than any other factor, that had brought this glorious hour to fruition.[4]

Brennan-Whitmore tries to master his sense of personal betrayal, but it is layered into the shocking recognition that secrecy forms the wellspring of the Rising, and that the secret-holders are in charge. The traditionally republican ethos of transparency has been plowed under by the intrigues of covert networks.

The rest of the Proclamation is mostly conventional fare, more or less what one finds in nation-inaugurating declarations, including familiar borrowed or iterative flourishes: resistance to ‘the long usurpation’ of the right of ‘national freedom and sovereignty’; an emphatic ‘resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity’ of the ‘whole’ nation; the embrace of blood sacrifice. Even the frequent invocation of ‘arms’—there are five in the document—is a convention of militant discourse, a reminder that an uncountable ‘we’ may wield an incalculable force. The manifesto form is, after all, a fist-shaking, threat-making form, as the term’s Latinate underpinnings suggest. That this threat-making is linked, in the Proclamation, to a mystical epistemology—a way of knowing known mostly to the initiated few, who will in turn reveal it to the many, who will thereby become ‘we’—is part of the document’s thorny rhetorical legacy. And it is also part of the manifesto’s history. Such are the signifiers of political and artistic modernity.

[1]Francisco Madero, ‘The Plan de San Luis Potosi’, 20 November 1910,

[2] As my selection of phrases suggests, the manifesto form accommodates all kinds of political positions, from nationalism to communism to feminism.

[3] The deployment of secrecy appears in many subsequent anti-colonial polemics, leading me to suspect that the discursive footprint of Ireland’s decolonization polemics influenced anti-colonial polemics globally.

[4]Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2014).

1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic

Published: 07 Jul 2016  Categories: Politics, Decade of Centenaries, English Literature, Irish Literature

Share this page

Janet Lyon is an associate professor of English, Pennsylvania State University, and an affiliate of the Women and Gender Studies department.