Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was born in 1831 near Rosscarbery, Co. Cork, and in 1856 he formed the Phoenix National Literary Society in Skibbereen. This was a secret society whose aim was Irish independence from Britain. In 1858 he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
In December 1858 Rossa was arrested and jailed without trial until July 1859. He was accused of plotting a Fenian rising in 1865 and was sentenced to penal servitude for life. At his trial, he had been accused of ‘inciting the lower classes to believe they might expect a redistribution of property’. He was imprisoned in Pentonville, Portland and Chatham prisons in England, where for eight years he suffered inhumane treatment. He was fed on bread and water for 28 days at a time. In Chatham his hands were cuffed behind him every morning, and to eat he had to get down on all fours like a dog. In 1869 he was elected MP for Tipperary but his election was voided because he was imprisoned. Rossa was released in the general amnesty of Fenians in 1870 on the understanding that he emigrate and not return. He considered going to Australia, but settled on America.
Rossa died in New York City on 29 June 1915, and his funeral was held in Glasnevin Cemetery on 1 August. Kathleen McDonnell wrote that it was ‘a chance for the Irish to prove that a dead patriot is at once a challenge to British tyranny and an inspiration to his own people’. Seán McGarry approached James Connolly to write for the programme, and was taken aback when Connolly replied:
‘When are you fellows going to stop blathering about dead Fenians? Why don’t you get a few live ones for a change? Rossa was prepared to fight England at peace. You fellows won’t fight her at war!’
Later Tom Clarke talked to Connolly, and Connolly wrote an article in which he managed to turn a dead Fenian into a live incitement to revolution:
‘The Irish Citizen Army … are of the number who believe that at the call of duty they may have to lay down their lives for Ireland, and have so trained themselves that at the worst the laying down of their lives shall constitute the starting point of another glorious tradition—a tradition that will keep alive the soul of the nation.
We are, therefore, present to honour O’Donovan Rossa by right of our faith in the separate destiny of our country and our faith in the ability of the Irish Workers to achieve that destiny.’
After William Oman of the Irish Citizen Army played The Last Post, Patrick Pearse made his most famous speech:
‘They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have pacified half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools!—they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.’
Pearse was the speaker pushed forward by Tom Clarke, in spite of opposition from many IRB men who disliked Pearse personally and suspected him of political opportunism. Yet Clarke saw in Pearse the qualities necessary for leadership. Not only was he a gifted writer and speaker, he was also an idealist and romantic visionary whose clarity of purpose and air of nobility appealed to Clarke. It was only after this oration that Pearse began to be taken seriously as a real IRB leader.
Joseph E.A. Connell Jr’s Dublin Rising 1916 has just been published by Wordwell Books.
K.T. McEneany (ed.), Pearse and Rossa (New York, 1982).
J. O’Donovan Rossa (with introduction by Seán Ó Luing), O’Donovan Rossa’s recollections (Shannon, 1972).