The defining moment

It happened today 99 years ago in Dublin.

If you were in Sackville Street, you might have noticed a commotion outside the General Post Office.

Men and women, some of the in uniform, rushed into the building and commandeered it.

The good folk of Dublin going about their lawful British business were suddenly ushered out into the street.

The Easter Rising in Ireland had begun although few were aware of it right at that moment.

Then a young schoolmaster called Pádraig Pearse stood on the steps of the GPO and gave the British Empire some homework.



As he read the Proclamation, he was flanked by an Irishman from Edinburgh as he read the Proclamation of the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic.

James Connolly, an ex-British soldier, was in overall command of the insurgent forces in Dublin and his Irish Citizen Army were the main force in the GPO that week. After this, there was no going back and that was exactly what the signatories had intended.

James Connolly knew that they were “…going out to be slaughtered…” and so they were.

The British were startled they had no idea that the holiday week end manoeuvres of the Irish Volunteers were, in fact, an armed rebellion against the Crown.

In 1916, the London polity was at the centre of a vast global empire and they were locked in a death match with Germany.

It was time for the Irish to strike.

Although he held no formal rank during the fighting during that bloody week was the Rising was the creation of Tom Clarke.

Born in England to Irish parents, his father had been in the British Army; Clarke was steeped in the Fenian tradition that he had learned in his Dungannon childhood.

Like so many after him his Republican determination had been forged during long years of penal hardship.

Across Dublin men and women seized key strongholds and prepared for the British onslaught.

They hoped that the country would rise and that surrounding counties in Leinster would march to relieve them.

It didn’t happen.

The Commandant of the Irish Volunteers Eoin MacNeill, learning of the Rising plot at the 11th hour countermanded the order for the week end manoeuvres.

This caused chaos and confusion ‘down the country’.

My own grandfather and his Volunteer comrades turned up at the rally point in Westport County Mayo to find out what was going on. They were armed and ready, but they needed orders.

In a Father Ted moment, the local Priest turned up gave them a row for being bad boys and they sloped off home suitably chided.

There was little comedy in Dublin the days that followed as the British Army, recovering from their surprise, got into positon and shelled the city and ravaged rebel strong points with machine gun fire.

The signatories to the Easter Proclamation knew that they had signed their death own warrants, although they hoped that those under their command would be spared the firing squad.

After the surrender, many of the Easter Week insurgents were sent to internment camps in Britain.

However, there was also a country wide arrest operation.

Subsequently, survivors of Easter Week and country lads who had not fired a shot were caged together for the best part of two years.

In doing so, Britain had, inadvertently, housed and fed an embryonic guerrilla army.

A young West Corkman, who had been in the GPO during the Rising, knew that next time the soldiers of the Irish Republic would not be so accommodating in presenting targets to the British.

My grandfather and his kin down in Mayo applied what had been taught in Frongoch under the tutelage of Mick Collins.

The lexicon of warfare was about to have a new term, ‘Flying Column’.

The Westport lads who had been scolded by the parish priest at the bottom of James Street in 1916 took on the best the British could send against them and Irish arms prevailed at Carrowkennedy.

Some here in Ireland think that the Rising was a terrible mistake and that Britain was ready to give Ireland what she wanted.

Well, I see it differently.

Without the events of Easter Week, I seriously doubt that there would be an independent Irish state with a seat at the United Nations.

What was on offer to the Irish people just before the Great War started was a form of devolution, rather similar to what the Scots have now.

History takes a long time and the aspirations contained within the Proclamation are not yet fully realised, but it remains a hugely personal document for me.

This paragraph in particular sums up why the Rising is still relevant:

“The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

Next month we here in the Irish Republic will vote on an amendment to our (written) constitution.

If it is successful, then children with gay parents will be able to look at a wedding album just like other kids.

This state has a shameful past in failing children, especially those who were deemed to be outsiders or in some way vulnerable.

I hope that we can address part of that on May 22nd, 2015.

It will be the first time that my youngest will have the vote.

I drove her to the Garda station yesterday to get an electoral registration form and it has been duly handed over to the correct council department.

She will vote with me that day and she has told me that it will be an emphatic “Tá”.

We have much to do on this island to make it a better place for all of the children of the nation.

However, without Easter Week we would still be looking over to the Thames to find out what we were getting from our lords and masters.

So today my thoughts are with the men and women of Easter Week and what they endured in the burning ruins of Dublin 99 years ago.

I realise the debt of gratitude that I have to them and I’m mindful that I have Fenian blood.

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