The Proclamation and William Henry West

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By Ciaran Murray, for Come Here to Me

The Proclamation first read aloud by Pearse on the steps of the GPO on Easter Monday is a document synonymous with Easter Week and the birth of the modern Irish State. Widely accepted to have been composed by Pearse himself, there remain very few physical copies in existence.

Though it was intended for 2,500 copies of the Proclamation to be printed in Liberty Hall and distributed around the country, it is likely that fewer that 1,000 actually were, and these were entrusted to Helena Moloney for transport to the GPO. Sean T. O’Kelly, the second President of Ireland would from here take these and billpost them around the north and south inner city. The paper upon which they were printed was of poor quality, so very few remain. Fewer still exist of a facsimile of the Proclamation issued by the Irish Citizen Army for the first anniversary of the Rising in 1917 of which there is believed to be a sole surviving copy.

The responsibility for printing the document lay with Michael Molloy and Liam O’Brien, two Volunteers, and Christopher Brady who had until now overseen the printing of ITGWU Weekly, “The Worker’s Republic.” Compositor’s and printers by trade, these men were approached by James Connolly in the run up to Easter week and asked to forego the planned parading of Volunteers in St. Anne’s Park on Easter Sunday morning and to instead meet him in Liberty Hall for a task he had prepared for them. Upon arrival, Connolly and Thomas MacDonagh, also present, handed them a sheet of paper with the words of the Proclamation inscribed upon it and remarked “Do if you wish to, and if not we won’t be the worse friends.” All three accepted the job.

As the men launched into their work, it became obvious that they would not have enough print to finish the job. The machine upon which they were to perform their task, an old Wharfdale Double- Crown machine upon which the Irish Worker was printed was wholly inadequate for the task at hand, the paper of an inferior quality, and print for the machine severely lacking. Different fonts had to be used, (the wrong font for the letter ‘e’ is used in over twenty instances,) many letters had to be fashioned out of others (in several cases, a capital ‘E’ was made from fashioning the type out of a capital ‘F’ and adding wax,) and eventually the men realised they would not have enough type and would simply have to borrow some more.

The type was borrowed from an Englishman named William Henry West, a printer whose premises were located on Stafford Street. Following the tradition of Wolf Tone, the protestant revolutionary who Stafford Street would eventually be named after, West appears to have been sympathetic towards the cause for Irish Freedom. Census returns for 1911 list West as 41 years of age, with an address at Brigid’s Road Upper, Drumcondra. His job title is “Letterpress Printer” and his religion is given as “Cooneyite.” Cooneyism was an offshoot of a home based church movement known as the “two by twos” which gained some traction in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th Century in Ireland. It was known as an “itinerant” religion and its lay people called “tramp preachers” due to the homeless and destitute nature of their calling.

West was printer of choice for the ITGWU and appeared twice in the courts alongside Jim Larkin. In January 1913, he appeared as a co-defendant with Larkin in a case in which Mr. William Richardson was claiming a sum of #500 after allegedly having been libeled in the Irish Worker. In September of that year, he appeared in a bankruptcy case involving himself, with the creditor bringing the case again him the same Mr. William Richardson, still looking to eek out punishment for his alleged libeling. In examination of his firms accounts, William Henry West had listed the ITGWU’s debt as a “bad debt,” or one which he deemed unrecoverable. West’s examination by the prosecution is below:

Mr. Larkin owes you #227 for the printing The Worker- isn’t Mr. Larkin the proprietor of The Worker?

He is, and he owes me #227.

Have you put that down as a bad debt?

Yes, because it is a bad debt.

Why?

Because I cannot get it.

Can you not recover it from Mr. Larkin?

I wish you could show me how. (laughter)

Has Mr. Larkin refused to pay the amount?

Well, he cannot pay.

He refused to pay?

No.

Did you ask him for it?

Of course, often. But he can’t pay what he hasn’t got.

You know that Mr. Larkin is Secretary of the ITGWU?

Yes, I have heard so.

And can you not recover this amount by suing him for it?

Do you think I would do that, when he’s my best customer? (laughter)

The case also makes reference to debt owed by other organisations, including the Labour Party and a drama class at Liberty Hall, and asked whether he could not sue for payment, to which he replied “I don’t believe in suing, I’ve never sued anybody in my life,” again to laughter.

The Witness Statement of Commandant Liam O’Brien states that on Easter Sunday, upon realising their shortage of type, Michael Molloy was ordered by Connolly to West’s printers along with a messenger and Citizen Army man employed by the Worker’s Republic who was known to him by the name ‘Dazzler.’ West provided the type, under the auspices that it was to be returned to him intact or compensated if lost- it was his livlihood after all. Of course, this wasn’t to be as Liberty Hall was first, pounded by shells from the Helga, and gutted by fire. When entered by British soldiers after the fighting had died down, they found the second half of the type still on the machine.

What happened to West after Easter Week, I can find no reference. But his is another story of the many from the Rising -- the English protestant printer who supplied the type for the Irish Proclamation.

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