The Rising's foundations were laid '100 years earlier'
Stephen Dunford is ready to pick up a pike to prove that without 1798, there would be no 1916
It was that rarest of events in Irish history. A 2,000-strong force of Irish rebels and their French allies routed a much larger force of British regulars and militia in a famous victory known in revolutionary lore as 'The Races of Castlebar', because of the speed with which the defeated Crown forces reputedly ran away. It was the high point of the 1798 rebellion, which led to the foundation of the short-lived 'Republic of Connaught' and for a brief moment Ireland embraced the ideals of the French Revolution - 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.'
It's a stirring tale, but at a time when everyone is looking back to the Rising of 1916 rather than 1798, it hardly seems relevant. Mayo historian Stephen Dunford emphatically disagrees. According to him, without 1798 there could never have been a 1916. And so passionate is he on the point that he is, quite literally, prepared to pick up a pike or shoulder a musket to prove it.
Because next year, while so many eyes will be focused on the GPO, Mayo will reverberate to the sounds, smells and smoke of battle as Stephen leads his troops in a series of re-enactments pertaining to 1798, and 'the Year of the French.'
"The 1916 Rising was a game-changer, but its foundations were laid over a hundred years earlier," says Stephen, the Castlebar man behind 'In Humbert's Footsteps,' which scooped the 'National Gathering Event of the Year' award in 2013, and plans are afoot to ensure next year's centenary events are more spectacular than ever.
It was in Kilcummin, north of Killala, where General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert landed in August 1798. With Killala and Ballina garrisoned, and with Irish volunteers flocking to the ranks, Humbert's new Franco-Irish army departed Ballina, marching by night through the mountains to Castlebar, where upwards of 3,500 British soldiers awaited them.
With only one cannon and a combined Franco-Irish force of just 2,000, many armed only with pikes and pitchforks, Humbert succeeded in defeating the British commanded by the infamous General Lake.
But what have events that took place over a century earlier got to do with the Easter Rising?
"It wasn't just the resounding victory of the battle of Castlebar that made people sit up and take note, it was the principles of Republicanism the French brought to Ireland - liberty, equality and fraternity - that left a lasting legacy. When Ireland rose again in 1916, Pearse, Clarke and the other leaders of that rebellion looked to the likes of Wolfe Tone, John Moore and Bartholemew Teeling for inspiration.
"Teeling, a Lisburn man, was renowned for his bravery, valour and humanity, and became General Humbert's chief aide de camp. He, Wolfe Tone and the other leaders aspired to rule the country without bigotry or religious divide. This was the kind of republic they wanted for Ireland, and it's what the 1916 rebels fought for too."
Stephen's re-enactors too come from all walks of life, at home and abroad: at the 2013 re-enactment a bugler from the Orange Order played The Last Post in Castlebar.
He believes playing out historical events also brings history to life, whether it's the "mighty sight" of the Tall Ships he hopes will sail through Kilcummin next year, or the spectacle of hundreds of uniformed volunteers setting up camp in the old military barracks in Ballina before marching to battle.
"Last year we had 20,000 spectators on the streets of Ballina for one battle and next year we anticipate even bigger crowds across the county. People really get into the spirit of it, and children love it. Last year, a kid from Breaffy National School said to me, 'Thanks a million for the best weekend of my life!' That's pretty rewarding, I can tell you."
What Stephen promises will be "the biggest event west of the Shannon" will take place in August. For Easter 2016, however, he'll be heading east to take part in re-enactments in Wexford and Kildare. He has a personal connection, as his paternal grandfather took part in the rebellion, but like many of his peers, the memories of that time went with him to the grave.
His silence didn't dampen his grandson's passion for history.
"Every time I pass the Flagstone of the Green Moss at Kilcummin, the spot where Humbert and the first contingent of French army came ashore, I am moved. History really resonates with me, and from my point of view, both 1798 and 1916 are inextricably linked," says Stephen.
"WB Yeats and Lady Gregory set their play Cathleen Ni Houlihan to the backdrop of the 98 rebellion in Mayo and Killala in particular. And the revolutionary Maud Gonne, widow of John MacBride, unveiled a monument to General Humbert in Ballina in 1898. The connections between both rebellions are strong, and it's important they're kept alive because, managed properly, this country has a great future in its past."