The revolutionary life and afterlife of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Volume 23

A life devoted to the cause of Irish freedom, and a most opportune death.

In 1856 Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa began a revolutionary career that would span nearly 60 years when he became a founding member of the Phoenix Society in West Cork. The founders of the Phoenix Society were concerned at the state of Ireland in the aftermath of the Great Famine and the disastrous failure of the 1848 rebellion. Parallel to its rise, in 1858 the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had been established in Dublin by James Stephens and a coterie of supporters. Stephens, while on an organisational tour of Ireland, met with Rossa in Skibbereen and recruited him into the IRB. Merging the two organisations, Rossa became an enthusiastic conspirator and an active recruiter for the IRB. In October 1858 he attended moonlight drilling at Skibbereen organised by an Irish-American officer, P.J. Dowling, training with pikes, guns and rifles in preparation for a future rebellion. As he grew more confident within the movement, he took control of later moonlight drilling and the training of men. Given this increased activity, it is unsurprising that the RIC became interested in the activity of the Phoenix Society and secured the services of an informer, Daniel O’Sullivan Goula. Rossa was arrested on 6 December 1858. Imprisoned in Cork Jail, he was held until July 1859, when he was released on assurances of good behaviour.

‘Another “Occupation gone”. Ireland’s Real Friend Successful, and Her Noisiest Friend Busted Up in Business.’ Crowds stream into the ‘Headquarters of the Parnell Parliamentary Fund’ at the expense of Rossa and his ‘Dynamite Headquarters’—1880s cartoon from the satirical magazine Puck, published in New York between 1871 and 1918.

‘Another “Occupation gone”. Ireland’s Real Friend Successful, and Her Noisiest Friend Busted Up in Business.’ Crowds stream into the ‘Headquarters of the Parnell Parliamentary Fund’ at the expense of Rossa and his ‘Dynamite Headquarters’—1880s cartoon from the satirical magazine Puck, published in New York between 1871 and 1918.

Irish People suppressed, September 1865
In May 1863 Rossa left for New York City, where he worked alongside John O’Mahony to build the Fenian Brotherhood and witnessed at first hand the New York draft riots, in addition to the spectacle of Union soldiers parading and drilling as America erupted into civil war. While there, he received an offer to return home and act as the business manager for the Irish People, a newspaper launched by the IRB as a medium of propaganda and dissemination of Fenian ambition. Accepting the offer, he returned to Ireland and moved permanently to Dublin. His role as business manager meant that he was responsible for circulation and dispatch of the newspaper at home and abroad, paying the staff and ensuring that the paper arrived at newsagents promptly. Later he wrote articles under the pseudonym ‘Anthony the Jobbler’ and produced poetry such as his famous ‘The Soldier of Fortune’. He wrote several leading articles for the newspaper, including ‘Do-nothings’, ‘As good as any when the time comes’, ‘The first man to handle a pike’ and ‘The Martyr Nation’. Just as in the Phoenix Society, however, there was an informer amongst the staff of the Irish People. Pierce Nagle had been employed as a paper folder and had been providing intelligence to Daniel Ryan of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, securing upwards of £30 for his information. Nagle discovered a letter signed by James Stephens promising that 1865 would be the year of action and that ‘the flag of Ireland—of the Irish Republic—must this year be raised’. Armed with this information, on the evening of Friday 18 September 1865 Dublin Castle authorised the suppression of the Irish People and arrested its leading figures, including O’Donovan Rossa.

 ‘The goose that lays the golden eggs’—Rossa is depicted exploiting ‘Bridget’, an Irish serving girl, for cash.

‘The goose that lays the golden eggs’—Rossa is depicted exploiting ‘Bridget’, an Irish serving girl, for cash.

He was taken to Richmond Bridewell, where he was held on remand, and was eventually tried for conspiracy in December 1865 before the erstwhile nationalist William Keogh. Declaring his trial to be a ‘legal farce’, he decided to make it, as one contemporary noted, ‘a de-fiance of the British government, a merciless exposure of its utterly unfair methods in conducting political trials and of the rottenness of its judicial system in Ireland’. Defending himself, he questioned Nagle as to the information he had supplied to Dublin Castle and later demanded the right to look through all documents and publications that had been put against him. This included an examination of every article published by the Irish People between 1863 and 1865. One contemporary recalled that ‘horror set upon the faces of the judges, jurymen, sheriffs, lawyers [and] turnkeys’ at the prospect’. As a compromise, he agreed that he would not read the advertisements! Sifting through the newspapers, O’Donovan Rossa sought to obstruct the court case, but after eight hours he was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.

Imprisonment and amnesty
Between 1865 and 1871 Rossa was held in several British prisons, including Portland, Milbank and Chatham. Upon entry to the prison system, in common with other Fenian prisoners, he had resolved to endure his imprisonment with dignity, but his treatment by prison staff, in addition to working alongside common criminals, increasingly irked him. His anger was only increased at Portland, where the governor had spread a malicious rumour that he was having an affair with another prisoner’s wife and he was regularly placed on bread and water punishments. Increasingly incalcitrant, he was removed from Chatham to Milbank, where he was again placed working with ordinary criminals and felt himself to be a marked man within the system. While at Milbank, his comrade Edward Duffy fell ill, and despite continued appeals Rossa was not allowed to visit him. Learning of his death from other prisoners, through gratings, he was spurred to write his most famous poem, ‘Duffy is dead’. Lamenting his old friend, it gives a great sense of the pain Rossa was experiencing whilst in prison:

‘Duffy is dead!’ a noble soul has slipped the tyrants’ chains,
And whatever wounds they gave him, their lying books will show,
How they very kindly treated him, more like a friend than foe!

In February 1868 Rossa was transferred to Chatham Prison, where again he regularly suffered bread and water punishments. He refused to work alongside common criminals within the prison; brought before the jail governor for idleness, he refused to salute him, earning a further punishment of three days on bread and water. On 15 June 1868, having declined to meet the governor, Rossa was forcibly taken to his office, where he refused to sit down or to salute. The following day, when the governor visited his prison cell while making his rounds, Rossa threw the contents of his chamber-pot over him, shouting ‘That … is the salute I owe you!’ For this he was sentenced to 34 days with his hands cuffed behind his back, followed by a further 28 days on bread and water. When that punishment had been completed, he was placed on a six-month penal-class diet but shortly afterwards was reduced to bread and water again for a refusal to pick oakum. He was taken to solitary confinement and the prison authorities removed his bed and his clothing, forcing him to sleep naked on the floor.

As a result of an inquiry by the earl of Devon into the treatment of Fenian prisoners, O’Donovan Rossa was offered a conditional amnesty in 1871. The terms of the amnesty were that convicted Fenians could not return to Britain for the duration of their sentence. As Rossa had been sentenced to life imprisonment, this meant that he could not return to Ireland for twenty years. Choosing to accept the conditional amnesty, Rossa was released from prison on 7 January 1871; together with John Devoy, Charles Underwood O’Connell, John McClure and Harry S. Mulleda, he sailed for New York aboard the transatlantic steamer Cuba.

Skirmishing fund
The ‘Cuba Five’ arrived in America, where differing political factions sought to control them. They remained aloof from American politics and, later joined by further exiles, established an Irish confederation to unite Irish-Americans. Despite early success, the confederation became just another faction within a bitterly divided Irish-America. After this failure they turned their attention to Clan na Gael, a secretive organisation committed to rebellion in Ireland. Through the Clan Rossa became associated with Patrick Ford, the proprietor of the Irish World news-paper, for which he began to write a column.

By 1876 the newspaper had advocated a ‘skirmishing fund’ to raise money for bombings in Britain. Taking charge of the fund, Rossa regularly called for direct action in British cities through Ford’s news-paper, and successfully raised $5,000. Attracting the attention of Clan na Gael, he was forced to share the fund with a board of trustees led by John Devoy. The trustees, however, believed that Rossa should not be in charge of the fund because he was not working in a secretive manner. Under immense pressure owing to his deteriorating relations with the trustees, and mourning the death of two of his children, Rossa sought refuge in alcohol. Devoy received reports of Rossa staggering in and out of saloons; he also discovered that Rossa, in a state of drunkenness, had misappropriated funds from the national collection, his wife noting that in his present state he was a danger to the fund. He was sent to a convent in Chatham to recover, and when he emerged he broke with Clan na Gael and established a new organisation called the United Irishmen of America.

Meeting at Philadelphia on 28 June 1880, the United Irishmen of America resolved to adopt a dynamite campaign in Britain. The agents of this campaign were referred to as ‘skirmishers’ and they undertook a series of small-scale bombings in British cities between 1881 and 1883. The first of these bombings took place at Salford barracks, Manchester, on the evening of 14 January 1881, killing a seven-year-old boy, Richard Clarke, and leaving his nanny permanently deaf. A further series of explosions occurred at Liverpool and Glasgow (where the city was plunged into darkness), in addition to two significant bombings in Whitehall in March 1883, where the skirmishers destroyed the offices of the Local Government Board (which they wrongly believed to be the Home Office) and the headquarters of the London Times newspaper. From New York Rossa acted as the spokesman for the dynamitards, commending the March 1883 bombings and noting that they ‘were intended to do all the damage possible, and it was done to show England that she had better give Ireland her own parliament. England is at war with Ireland, and Ireland should be at war with England.’

To add a semblance of professionalism to the dynamite campaign, Rossa set up a ‘dynamite school’ at Brooklyn for the training of Irishmen in the handling and use of explosives. The instructor was a supposed Russian specialist, Gazpron Mezzeroff (who was in fact a New Yorker named Rogers). Celebrating the school, Rossa held that ‘young men have come over from England, Ireland and Scotland for instruction and that several of them have returned sufficiently instructed in the manufacture of the most powerful explosives’. One of those who had returned to Britain was Timothy Featherstone, who was the head of a skirmishing cell in Cork and worked closely with two other graduates named Henry Dalton and John Francis Kearney, who commanded a cell in Glasgow. The three cells were later discovered by a British agent provocateur named ‘Red’ Jim McDermott, who, having worked his way into the conspiracy using a letter of introduction that he had secured from Rossa, dismantled the conspiracy and destroyed O’Donovan Rossa’s organisational network in Britain.

Death and funeral
On 19 May 1894 O’Donovan Rossa left New York to return to Ireland for the first time since his trial in 1865. Arriving in Cobh, he was met by a huge crowd. His arrival had been stage-managed by the IRB, and amongst the crowd were armed men for his protection in case an attempt was made to arrest him. He travelled throughout the country, lecturing about his experiences in prison, and unveiled a monument to the Manchester Martyrs in Birr, Co. Offaly, on 22 July. Returning to Ireland in 1905, with his wife Mary Jane, he had intended to settle in Cork, but with Mary Jane’s health declining he was forced to return to New York. While his wife’s health improved, Rossa displayed a marked deterioration and was plagued with muscular spasm and degeneration. Diagnosed with chronic neuritis, he was increasingly confined to bed and displayed signs of dementia, often imagining himself to be back in prison. Moved to St Vincent’s Hospital, Staten Island, he was ‘wheeled around the halls and wards’, where he spoke nothing but Irish and regressed into his childhood. He died on 29 June 1915, and Mary Jane recalled: ‘There was no struggle. There was no pain. He simply stopped breathing and lay perfectly still with a large, conscious solemn gaze as if he saw grand visions of the future that satisfied his heart and soul.’

Learning of his death, Tom Clarke, the future leader of the Easter Rising, exclaimed to his wife Kathleen that ‘had he chosen a time to die he could not have picked a better time’. Clarke understood that his funeral, if it took place in Ireland, could ignite nationalist opinion in preparation for a forthcoming rebellion. Writing to John Devoy, Clarke demanded that he ‘send his body home at once’. In preparation for his funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery, Clarke organised a funeral committee under the auspices of the Wolfe Tone Memorial Association. The committee was a veritable who’s who of the forthcoming Easter Rising, including Edward Daly, James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and John MacBride. Clarke had chosen Thomas MacDonagh to oversee the details of the funeral procession, which included members of the GAA, trade unions, the Irish Citizen Army and Redmond’s National Volunteers. When Patrick Pearse was approached to deliver the graveside oration, Clarke requested that he make it ‘as hot as hell’.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery on 1 August 1915 in one of the largest political funerals that Dublin had ever witnessed. Despite the heads of the procession arriving at the cemetery at 4.30pm, O’Donovan Rossa’s remains did not arrive until 6.30pm, three hours later than expected. In a remarkable scene, the road outside the cemetery was lined with spectators, as for several hours beforehand crowds had been assembling at the cemetery in anticipation of seeing O’Donovan Rossa being finally laid to rest. Standing over the grave, Patrick Pearse delivered his by now famous declaration, a justification of the forthcoming Rising, where he announced: ‘. . . 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!’ This was followed by a volley of shots over the grave, led by Captain James O’Sullivan of the Irish Volunteers. Pearse’s speech struck a chord with those assembled and symbolised the transition of Irish republicanism from an older to a younger generation.

Shane Kenna’s Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: life of a Fenian will be published shortly by Merrion Press.

Further reading

S. Kenna, War in the shadows: the Irish-American Fenians who bombed Victorian Britain (Dublin, 2014).
J. O’Donovan Rossa, Irish rebels in English prisons (Kenmare, 1978).


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