A drama that changed the world

One hundred years ago today on this island a small group of determined revolutionaries made their world-altering move.

If timing in life is everything, then they nailed it.

In 1916, Britain was, quite literally, bogged down on the Western Front.

Moreover, the arrogant colonial rulers in Dublin Castle did not heed the warnings that this nation was stirring.

800 years of illegal foreign rule in Ireland was about to be challenged in a way that had not happened since 1798.

The countermanding order from Eoin MacNeill meant that the Volunteers down the country would not rise.

This meant that the insurgents in Dublin had a tough choice.

They could go themselves and hope that the rest of the country would join in or stand down and the moment would be lost, perhaps forever.

The men and women who seized buildings across Dublin were an eclectic mix of Gaeilgeoirí , playwrights, poets, trade unionists and women’s suffrage activists.

The Rising itself was pure theatre.

I think that it was necessary to stage this drama to educate the Irish people that there was another way.

That life on this island didn’t need to be British, didn’t need to be servile and self-loathing.

That we could live by Irish ways and Irish laws.

It was a revolutionary vision that could only come from a collective of creative minds.

This truly was a writer’s rebellion.

The script for the Rising was as finely crafted as anything that was performed on the stage at the Abbey.

First read by Pearse outside the GPO the Proclamation remains the template for the Ireland I want for all of us on this island.


For me, 1916 is also personal.

On Sunday, May 8th I will be in my father’s town to honour his uncle, Michael Derrig.

There was a time when I proudly used his name as a Nome de Guerre in my political journalism for An Phoblacht.

I hoped he would have approved.

Of course, I cannot know, but I am certain that I approve of him.

I am proud that one hundred years ago today on Easter Monday 1916 Volunteer Michael Derrig was under arms in Westport and ready to take on Crown Forces in pursuance of an Irish Republic.

As a disciplined soldier, all he needed was the order to open fire.

The Countermanding Order meant that his rifle remained silent that day.

The British captured him on May 2nd, 1916 in Westport.

The arrest record said that he had committed “offence number one”.

That was:

“1. Guilty of the behaviour of such a nature as to be prejudicial to the public safety and the Defence of the Realm by marching with arms as Sinn Féin Volunteers on Sunday 30th April 1916.”

[The emphasis in bold is in the original document]

He was one of ten men interned for “offence number one”.

He was 23, single and his stated occupation was “carpenter”.

In all 31 men were deported from Westport and interned in Frongoch.

The British might have thought that would be the end of their Mayo Troubles, but they were wrong.

Michael Derrig and his comrades used their time well in the ‘University of Revolution’.

Along with another 1800 Irish rebels, he was incarcerated with strategic thinkers like Mick Collins.

The last major engagement of the War of Independence took place in Mayo, at Carrowkennedy.

After that, it was clear that the British couldn’t hold the West of Ireland without a huge army of occupation.

Our lads had learned well while behind the wire in Wales.

With a century of hindsight, the Frongoch experience was probably a necessary theatrical interlude to the second act of this revolutionary drama.

Moreover, it was a compelling performance that would not just change Ireland, but the entire world order.

The collapse of the British Empire is still a factor in places where the Union Flag once staked an illegal claim for large areas of Africa and South Asia.

It was a planet-altering drama that was first played out in the streets of Dublin.

Perhaps only poets and playwrights could have imagined the British Empire into extinction.

Any writer will tell you that the creative process is the journey unplanned.

So it was for my last play ‘Rebellion’.

It is my love letter to the revolutionary generation who, in the words of Tom Clarke, “saved the soul of Ireland”.

On a stage in my native Glasgow last month, as part of that city’s Saint Patrick’s festival, the words “Derrig”, “Frongoch” and “Westport” were woven into a narrative that told the eternal truths about 1916 and this nation.

The play sold out for six nights, the cast nailed it and the audience got it.

I was a seriously proud playwright.

In the Frongoch scenes of ‘Rebellion’ two Irish Citizen Army men, who had been with Connolly in the GPO, discuss the sanity of taking on the might of the British Empire.

They agree that in the future only guerrilla tactics in Ireland will be sensible because of the strength of their enemy.

It is hard to imagine now, but 100 years ago the London state was the preeminent power on the planet.

Of course, today Britain’s Empire is dead and gone.

That global crime cartel is still grieved over by some chaps in oak-lined rooms in Pall Mall and culturally unfortunate places like Rathcoole.

However, almost everyone else sees it as the felonious conspiracy that it was.

The example of Easter Week and the guerrilla campaign that was conceived in Frongoch was a powerful catalyst for what would subsequently happen throughout Britain’s imperium.

In Africa and the Indian sub-continent, the names of Connolly and Pearse were well known and highly regarded.

The vision of Ireland outlined in the Proclamation is unfinished business on this island.

The North remains a work in progress and in the 26 counties many of our children instinctively know that they are not cherished equally by this society.

However, for me, Easter 1916 was a vital fork in the road for ultimate national sovereignty on this island.

I will be in Dublin this week, partly to research my next book, but I’m acutely aware that I will be in the footsteps of insurgents.

Later today I intend to be outside the GPO.

I know that Michael Derrig would understand.

Leave a Reply