Do We Need a New Proclamation for a New Generation?
Speech by Gerard O’Neill at Reflecting the Rising, Easter Monday 28th March, 2016
I don’t know about you, but yesterday when Capt Peter Kelleher read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic outside the GPO my heart swelled with pride in our country and our people. It was a wonderful commemorative ceremony on a glorious Easter Sunday, something we can all be truly proud of.
But why does the Proclamation, written and printed in haste 100 years ago, still have such a grip on our shared sense of identity and purpose as a people? Why do its words – somewhat archaic and very much of their time – still resonate with us today? And now that the centenary of the 1916 Rising has come to pass, will the Proclamation itself lose its grip and resonate less with we Irish in the years ahead?
I want to explore these and other questions with you here today on Easter Monday, the day the Rising actually started, and 100 years after Pearse stood outside the GPO only a short distance from here to read the Proclamation for the first time, albeit to a somewhat smaller and more skeptical crowd than the one that heard Capt Kelleher yesterday!
Though first let me answer the question posed in the title of my talk: do we need a new proclamation for a new generation? The short answer is no: though I hope you’ll stay around for a longer one! However, I believe the Proclamation will mean something different to us as the centenary in turn becomes history. I also believe it will continue to be a source of inspiration for the future. In a sense, we need not so much a ‘new’ proclamation as a ‘renewed’ Proclamation for a new generation. Let me explain what I mean.
Let’s start with why the Proclamation has such a grip on the Irish imagination? There is a saying in politics that ‘politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose’. Certainly the 1916 Proclamation was more poetry than prose – and perhaps that is why it still resonates with us a century later through memorable words and phrases, including:
- the dead generations
- her old tradition of nationhood
- now seizes this moment
- exaltation among the nations
- cherishing all the children
- august destiny
Or instead of poetry we could make a more prosaic comparison with a business mission statement, which also tries to combine inspiration with aspiration, pointing to a higher purpose and more distant future than the stuff of short term business objectives. Though judging by some of the mission statements I’ve read over the years, their writers could learn a thing or two from the Proclamation when it comes to inspiring and moving their readers!
However, I think the power of the proclamation is ‘hidden in plain sight’ so to speak: its power lies in an extraordinary fusion of the past with the future, connecting the dead generations with generations yet unborn in a singular moment of time – this supreme hour – when the course of history and the fate of destiny pivoted and took a different direction to the one expected in April 1916.
The ancient Greeks knew all about this. They had two concepts of time: chronos and kairos. The former – chronos – is what we usually mean by time, in other words a linear dimension linking the past to the present to the future. But kairos is different, it comes from an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment; a time in between, a moment in time when something special, something unexpected happens.
The 1916 Rising took place in kairos time – she now seizes that moment – a fleeting intersection of opportunity and action. Yeats recognized kairos too in his immortal lines ‘all changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born’. And so perhaps Easter 2016 could also be an occasion for reorientation; for stepping back from the constant flow of chronos to once again check our course and adjust it if we are unhappy with where we are heading in as a nation? To reconnect with kairos and with destiny – perhaps, even with beauty.
That said, the 1916 Proclamation was not unprecedented. Others had used proclamations and declarations to announce their own supreme hour: from the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 to Robert Emmet’s Proclamation in 1803 and to the Fenians’ Proclamation in 1867. And let’s not forget the Ulster Covenant of 1912. Indeed, the 1916 Proclamation was clearly influenced structurally and textually by these and other declarations.
However, the Proclamation was not merely derivative of others that had gone before. Far from it. In fact, the Proclamation was remarkably innovative, right down to the opening phrase: Poblacht na hEireann. Though translated nowadays as The Irish Republic, the word poblacht didn’t actually exist according to the Irish-English dictionaries of the time (but did from the 1920s onwards). It was in fact a neologism: a new word invented to describe something for which there was no word before, a bit like a buzzword but with a longer shelf life!
The rest of the Proclamation’s text then famously references the causes of national sovereignty, equality for men and women and religious tolerance as the goals of the Irish Republic intended to follow the Easter Uprising.
As I point out in my book: ‘2016 A New Proclamation for A New Generation’ much of what the rebels wanted has come to pass, though perhaps not as quickly or in the manner in which originally intended.
So is it ‘job done’ for the 1916 Proclamation? Is the task simply one of tweaking and refining the finer details required to secure our august destiny? A task more suited to prose than poetry perhaps? Is it time to finally see the Proclamation as an historic document only, no longer relevant to the present let alone the future?
I don’t think so. Firstly, as much of the debate about the 1916 centenary has highlighted, we’re still a long way away from achieving the ambitions of the Proclamation’s signatories for the unfettered control of Irish destinies never mind the happiness and prosperity of of the whole nation and all its parts. Nor can we ignore partition and the very different destinies of the two parts of this island.
Secondly, however, is a bigger issue that hasn’t been addressed in any of the commentary about the Rising and the Proclamation that I have seen, namely: what is the Republic for, and what do we want to do with our freedom now we have it? Of course, these are questions for philosophy and theology, not just for politics.
The rebels themselves had plenty of ideas for what an independent Ireland might be like, beyond even the ambitions of the Proclamation. But like many rebels before and since they were clearer about what they were against than what they were for, though in fairness to both Connolly and Pearse they had given considerable thought to what might follow. Here’s Pearse from his extraordinary essay on education called The Murder Machine:
I would promote this idea of freedom by the very organisation of the school itself, giving a certain autonomy not only to the school, but to the particular parts of the school: to the staff, of course, but also to the pupils, and, in a large school, to the various sub-divisions of the pupils. I do not plead for anarchy. I plead for freedom within the law, for liberty, not licence, for that true freedom which can exist only where there is discipline, which exists in fact because each, valuing his own freedom, respects also the freedom of others.
Pearse’s ideas were undoubtedly radical for his time – and even for our own time! – but his ideas and those of others showed a willingness to innovate and to create a different future drawing on the best of the past. But Pearse also understood that the ‘past’ is important too, for after all we are linked by our culture, our traditions and beliefs to what GK Chesterton called ‘the democracy of the dead’. A democracy we all eventually get to join, by the way, whether we want to or not!
One hundred years later the Proclamation still invites us to draw on our past as inspiration and guidance for our future. The centenary we are celebrating today is an opportunity to restore our faith in the future by strengthening our connections with the past. That isn’t just a noble ambition, it is a necessary one.
There’s a line in Alice in Wonderland which goes: if you don’t know where you are going then any road will take you there. Without a shared sense of purpose and ambition as a nation rooted in our past then we may well find ourselves on any old road, going anywhere but where we really want to go.
Who knows, if we can use the 2016 centenary to restore and reinvigorate our national faith in the future we might even inspire others. Take the European Union: right now it has lost its faith in the future. So much so that our nearest neighbours might even exit it in just a few months’ time. It seems to me that Europe’s loss of faith is very much a consequence of weakening its connections with the past, and as a result it no longer knows what it is for or where it is going. Perhaps Europe needs a proclamation of its own right now?
Without the ‘democracy of tradition’ we end up ‘trapped in the present’: not sure who we are, where we’re from or where we are going. Instead, we end up with a contemporary culture that disdains our ancestors (they were, after all, terribly politically incorrect) and that even disdains religious belief despite remaining the shared culture and tradition tradition of the majority of Europeans (indeed, over 80% of Irish adults, as it happens, belong to one faith tradition or another).
Worse, we risk losing the ability to draw meaningful inspiration from the past just at a time when we need it most. A people without a shared sense of what connects their past to their present and to their future is no longer a people but merely a collection of consumers, workers and voters at the whim of whatever our ‘betters’ in government, business and the media considers to be important. We end up buffeted along by chronos, missing the opportunities presented by kairos. In Ireland as well as in Europe.
In marked contrast, those who signed the 1916 Proclamation were not trapped in the present. They did not disdain their ancestors and they even mentioned God twice. Like I said, our ancestors were a terribly un-PC lot! Yet, if we are to find effective solutions to the challenges we now face, we will need once again to forge that same sense of shared purpose as they did, drawing on the same breadth of values and traditions, in order to chart our way forward and to build a better society for all our citizens, one in which virtue, truth and beauty can flourish.
That is why I believe the Proclamation will continue to resonate with us in the years and decades ahead, but it will mean something different to future generations who will face different challenges to those our forefathers faced one hundred years ago. Perhaps that is the task every generation of Irishmen and Irishwomen faces, namely to make its own ‘claim’ on the Proclamation, not in order to draft a new proclamation so much as to renew the Proclamation in order to restore and replenish our faith in the future. Or in better words than mine:
In this supreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline and by the readiness of its children to sacrifice themselves for the common good, prove itself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.