Easter 1916. Victory through defeat

They were going out to be slaughtered and the man in command of them knew it.

Militarily the end result was never in doubt for James Connolly.

However this was no callous British General on the Western Front because the leader of insurgent forces in Dublin 98 years ago today knew what had to be done.

Moreover Connolly was in the front line with his troops and he knew that whatever transpired he would die as a result of his role in the rebellion.

Ireland had to speak to the world and tell the family of nations that this little island was not a component part of Britain, but Ourselves Alone had something to offer humanity on our own terms.

The Irishman from Edinburgh was an ex-professional solider and had served in the army he was about to fight.

Indeed the first time he had set foot in Ireland was wearing the King’s uniform.

In 1916 the British military was the enforcer of the first truly global empire.

That imperial project couldn’t really begin properly until England had entirely dominated this archipelago.

Ireland had proved troublesome to English monarchs for centuries.

However in the 19th century there wasn’t a single serious challenge in arms to London rule by the Irish.

The failure of the 1798 rebellion seemed to be the end of the matter and it was during Pax Britannica that century that the Irish people suffered the second genocide at the hands of her larger neighbour.

The first was in 1649-1650 delivered by the swords and muskets of the New Model Army.

The second was even more shameful. Hunger was the weapon. The island remained a net food exporter while one million souls perished by starvation and disease.

The generation that took arms in Easter Week were the grandchildren of the Famine.

Tom Clarke, the architect of the Rising had been born in 1858, on the Isle of Wight where his father was a British soldier; he was seven when he was sent to Ireland, to Dungannon in County Tyrone.

An Gorta Mór was no distant event for the people in that part of Ulster during Clarke’s childhood there.

As a Fenian and a felon Clarke embodied the spirit of Éirinn sean.

His was the first signature on the proclamation.

Clarke was 41 years old when he was released from a British prison in 1898.

That is year my grandfather was born in County Mayo.

Clarke had mentored the revolutionary generation into adulthood and as the shells rained down on Dublin his work was done.

Although it was Padraig Pearse who spoke the fine words on the steps of the GPO, and had delivered a moving oration at the grave of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, it was Thomas James Clarke who drove the Rising project.

When Connolly and his Irish Citizen Army came on board two men of iron will were in the same room at Liberty Hall.

This would happen.

Ireland would strike at the time of England’s maximum disadvantage on the Western Front.

In Eamonn Ceannt in the South Dublin Union they had a genuine Fenian in command.

The Galway man, the son of a policeman, was unique among the Rising commanders in that he definitely killed a British soldier in Easter Week and this fact that gave the Gaeilgoir from the West no problem at all.

The Rising destroyed Redmondism and the naïve belief that British political elite would deliver some limited self-government to this island in the face of armed Loyalism in the North.

Fenians like Tom Clarke feared the success of the devolution project in pacifying the Irish that we would settle for limited ‘Home Rule’ rather than freedom.

He believed that only a break from England using arms could achieve that genuine sovereignty for the nation.

The British monarchs did not accept the legitimacy of Irish men and Irish women to bear arms in the cause of Ireland, until recently that is.

In 2011 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth respectfully bowed her head in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin.

That is Ireland’s Cenotaph.

At the state banquet in Dublin Castle, a building that her Grandfather once owned, she spoke in Irish and then expressed a level of historical regret for the crimes of the past that I never thought I would hear from a British monarch.

The Britain that James Connolly and his troops battled against is now a matter for the history books.

The UK is no longer the centre of a great empire.

In the first years of the 21st century the slide down the rankings on the world stage has been observable.

Defeated in Basra by a Shia militia and rescued from annihilation in Helmand by the power of the United States military.

Britannia no longer rules the waves and has not done so since World War Two.

The US Navy does that sort of thing these days.

We in Ireland no longer live next to a superpower and we’re fine with that.

The Proclamation remains the touchstone for many here in Ireland as to how we’re doing as a nation.

We’re still a work in progress.

A tradition is something to draw on and not be trapped by.

I am proud that my kin were “out” in 1916 although the Rising in Mayo was scuppered by the countermanded order to mobilise the Volunteers.

Still my grandmother’s two brothers got sent to a prison camp in Wales for their efforts.

I think that was jolly sporting of the British as they the next year being educated in the methods of guerrilla warfare and all paid for by His Majesty’s government!

Round two with the Empire would be more difficult for the enemy.

In the back streets of Dublin and the bend in the road at Carrowkennedy the graduates of Frongoch would prove themselves against the most professional army in the world at the time.

The British reaction to the Rising changed the mood of the Irish nation.

General Maxwell reacted as he would when confronted by a terrified conscript with shell shock on the Western Front. He ordered the executions to go ahead.

Day after day for two weeks until, the dying Connolly was shot in a chair in the stonebreaker’s yard in Kilmainham.

In dying they defeated their enemy by rallying the Irish people to the cause of Ireland.

The signatories of the Proclamation had risen a people.

It is important to remember 1916 especially when the country is emerging from the wreckage of a broken economy and the loss of economic sovereignty.

This week end in Dublin saw 40,000 people turn out to mark the fact that 1000 years had passed since the battle of Clontarf.

It is not a coincidence that the great military victories that we Irish celebrate are purely defensive ones fought on home soil.

There is no Irish equivalent of Agincourt or, indeed, Amritsar.

It was at Clontarf that the British authorities intercepted the Howth guns 900 years later.

In the aftermath of that successful operation by the volunteers British soldiers fired on an unarmed crowd at Bachelors Walk and three people were killed instantly—Mrs Duffy, James Brennan and Patrick Quinn.

Most of the deaths during the Rising were uninvolved civilians killed by British shellfire.

Perhaps it is only when the UK fully disaggregates that the people of Britain will look back at their history and fully comprehend the extent of the crimes that were planned and sanctioned from London.

Any physical response to the machinations of that polity has to be judged within that context whether it was in Kenya, Kerry or Kilrea.

As the centenary is now only two years away the discussion is whether or not the British head of state should be invited to take part in the event.

It would be entirely in keeping with the new mood of reconciliation between the peoples of these islands that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth be invited.

Note to the people of Scotland, for all of our issues here you wouldn’t get elected to a town council if you stood on a ticket of these 26 counties re-joining the United Kingdom.

If the Scots do vote yes then they will join the community of nations on the centenary of the Rising.

Was it all worth it?

Did the signatories sign their death warrants for nothing?

Well many of our ills and failings as a people can be plotted as to how far away we are from the Ireland envisioned by Connolly in the Proclamation.

Goldenbridge, Letterfrack, Anglo, ghost estates and Job bridge cheap labour.

The numbers of rough sleepers in Dublin are now at unprecedented levels in modern times.

All of that spits in the eye of 1916.

As Connolly feared partition states on this island ushered in a “carnival of reaction” North and South.

What was proclaimed on the steps on the GPO in Dublin 98 years ago today is still to become a reality across these 32 counties.

That is why I remember and that is why the Proclamation is still my reference point.

Discover Phil’s dramatic play Rebellion