Saturday, December 05, 2020

The 'Proclaimers' of September 1913 and April 1916


On 24 September 1913 the Ulster Unionist Council met at the Old Town Hall in Victoria Street in Belfast where the 500 – 600 members present approved and published the wording of the "Ulster Provisional Government Proclamation to All Whom it May Concern". Its text is short and to the point.

Its six endorsees have their names in the bottom right corner. Two of them were gentry, and like the some of the super-famous people today they had only one-word names – 'Londonderry' and 'Abercorn'. The others were politicians Edward Carson, businessman Thomas Andrews, high-profile Presbyterian Thomas Sinclair and the linen magnate of Galgorm Castle near Ballymena, John Young.

Only one original copy of the poster is known to have survived and in 2012 the Ulster Museum spent nearly £20,000 to secure it (link here) from Bonhams auction house (original auction post here).

I'm told that the Old Town Hall (pictured below) where all of this took place has become office space in recent years, even though it's a beautiful old building just across the road from Belfast's still-new retail mecca Victoria Square and just a few yards from chic boutique hotel Malmaison. The 'centre of gravity' of the city centre has been pulled in that direction. Among the general public the Ulster Provisional Government Proclamation is hardly known at all. The 1912 Ulster Solemn League and Covenant is very famous and celebrated, but in one sense the Proclamation may as well not exist.



This disinterest and neglect is in spectacular stark contrast with what happened in Dublin two and a half years later. On 24 April 1916 Patrick Pearse read aloud at the GPO the Proclamation of "The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland".

It went one better than the Ulster one in that it has seven names in its bottom right corner, and in 2004 a copy was sold at auction for €390,000. In the century that has followed, it has become a revered document and icon of the nation, including for the Irish diaspora worldwide.  A wide range of souvenir giftware, of varying quality, reproduces its famous and appealing image. 

As far as I can see, the word 'Proclamation' doesn't appear within its text, but 'Proclamation' is what the document is known as. James Connolly is another of those named among the seven, and one of the originals is on display in the James Connolly Visitor Centre in Belfast (a project I did some work with a few years ago, and from which I learned a lot). If you've not been to the Centre, once Covid restrictions are lifted, you should visit and learn.

How our 'two traditions' behave, think, feel, react, endure and commemorate can be a study of contrasts. We are all of course very similar in so many ways, but we can also be very different.

How 'The Proclaimers' and their respective Proclamations, have been treated over the century since is an example of the great difference. And even if you choose to align with one of these and not the other – or maybe, as is true for more and more people these days, neither of them or their associated 'tribes' have much personal appeal – it's healthy to know about both and to reflect on why both exist. 






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