O’Donovan Rossa funeral centenary: to commemorate or not to commemorate?

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2015), Platform, Volume 23

THE IRISH STATE HAS CHOSEN TO COMMENCE ITS PROGRAMME TO COMMEMORATE THE 1916 RISING ON THE ONLY OCCASION THAT MAKES HISTORICAL SENSE.

By Gabriel Doherty 

While the state ceremony that was held in Glasnevin cemetery on 1 August 2015 to mark the centenary of the burial of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa received a broadly positive response, a small number of letters and articles critical of the occasion appeared in the Irish media, alongside others that took issue with the suggestion that the man in question had, in his dying days, ceased to be an unrepentant Fenian and had accommodated himself to British rule in Ireland. The principal issues raised were: the purpose of the event; the appropriateness of focusing on O’Donovan Rossa at the start of the state’s centenary programme, given his support for the dynamite campaign of the 1880s; and unfavourable comparisons between O’Donovan Rossa and other figures from the period, specifically Michael Davitt.

From the perspective of the state’s commemoration of the Easter Rising, it was not the life—nor, indeed, the death—of O’Donovan Rossa that was being commemorated but his funeral and burial; while inextricably linked to the story of his life, it was a long life, of which the dynamite campaign was but one, and not the most important, part. The significance of the funeral was that it was organically linked to the Easter Rising; it was the occasion on which the individuals, organisations and forces that were to be in play in 1916 came together in a structured way for the first time.

I have to demur from the suggestion that the Irish state should have ignored this centenary because of O’Donovan Rossa’s support for the dynamite campaign. On the contrary, this is precisely why the commemoration in Glasnevin was necessary and appropriate. No damage has been done to anything or anyone by the fact that the Irish state, in the countdown to the defining moment in its pre-history, has chosen to commence its programme to commemorate the 1916 Rising on the only occasion that makes historical sense. The real damage would surely have been done had the state not organised such a commemoration, for it would have signified, at the very outset of the commemorative programme, that every aspect of the content and tone of that programme would be sacrificed to contemporary considerations. I, for one, am grateful that has not happened.

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With regard to comparisons between O’Donovan Rossa and Michael Davitt, the latter evidently thought little of the former, and said so publicly and privately on a number of occasions; the sentiment, and the invective, was reciprocated. The treatment meted out to O’Donovan Rossa during his time in gaol was far worse than that accorded to any other prisoner and made his case a cause célèbre in a way that did not happen to anyone else, including Davitt, a compliant prisoner by comparison. It was O’Donovan Rossa’s time in gaol, and his status as a political prisoner par excellence, and not the dynamite campaign that was the defining period of his political life; without it, he would probably have gone down in history as a foot-soldier, perhaps a middle-ranking one, in the Fenian camp rather than as its best-known name.

Michael Davitt was not the only person in Ireland who found landlordism intolerable and who agitated against it; O’Donovan Rossa and others in west Cork and across the land were engaged in similar work long before the Land League came into existence—in O’Donovan Rossa’s case, a full quarter of a century before. But Davitt’s work in this regard was clearly more successful and important than that of his predecessors, for which the poverty-stricken people of Ireland in the 1880s had good reason to be grateful. It was his role in creating the Land League, and his leadership thereof, that was the defining period of Michael Davitt’s political life; without it, he would probably have gone down in history as another foot-soldier in the Fenian camp rather than as a pioneering social activist and thinker.

But what about the dynamite campaign? There are three stratagems one can utilise when approaching this period of O’Donovan Rossa’s life: one can ignore it, on the basis that it makes one uncomfortable; one can fixate on it, as if it was the only period of his life that carries any significance; or one can treat it as one element—the most controversial one, to be sure—of a very long and incident-filled life. Almost without exception, those critical of the state ceremony chose the second approach. The commemoration of O’Donovan Rossa in west Cork that took place over the weeks leading up to that ceremony, and with which I was associated, opted for the third.

The critics miss the paradox of O’Donovan Rossa’s life, which is the key to understanding the commemoration on 1 August. It was precisely on account of the extreme views that he articulated during his life that he became, at the time of his death, a unifying figure within Irish nationalism. It was precisely because he had never courted popularity nor been seen to compromise—not before, during or after the dynamite campaign—and had consequently been marginalised, indeed despised, by many nationalists for much of his life that he was lionised by almost all of the same nationalists in death. It was not that towards the end of his life he had ceased to be an unrepentant Fenian and had moved towards the centre of nationalism; rather, he remained as he had always been and the nationalist centre felt the need to move towards him.

John Redmond (a man, lest it be forgotten, who had spent his own time in political purgatory for his support of Parnell), having decided, in effect, to link the awarding of Home Rule to Ireland to support for the war effort, found himself in an appalling situation in the high summer of 1915. The Western Front was stalemated, with Germany still in possession of the territorial gains it had made at the beginning of the war; Gallipoli was already being acknowledged as a catastrophic fiasco, involving horrendous loss of life, a fair proportion of it Irish; and Germany was advancing on the Eastern Front. O’Donovan Rossa’s death occurred at a time when Redmond’s nationalist base was rapidly moving away from active support for the war—as evidenced, for example, by the defection of many members from the National to the Irish Volunteers, by the radicalisation of the Gaelic League that led to the resignation of Douglas Hyde as its president, and by the growing number of convictions under the Defence of the Realm Act, most notably for offences against recruiting.

The fictitious report indicating O’Donovan Rossa’s support for Home Rule and the war should therefore be seen for what it was: an act of desperation on the part of the Redmond-ite camp, an attempt to gain for itself some of the lustre attached to a name synonymous with hostility to the British government at a time when no Irish nationalist, least of all John Redmond, could afford, or had reason, to say a good word about that government. It was because of, not in spite of, the quality of intransigence synonymous with O’Donovan Rossa that so many elected bodies across nationalist Ireland (practically all of which could be described as under the control of the Home Rule cause, and all of which were composed of individuals who were au fait with his support for the dynamite campaign), along with so many other organisations and individuals, made strenuous efforts to attend, and be seen to attend, his funeral. By so doing they were signifying that, like O’Donovan Rossa, they had not compromised on the national question. The fact that they—‘the centre’, as it were—were in turn effectively marginalised in the funeral arrangements by the ‘extremists’ of the IRB was an oddly fitting coda to the life of the unrepentant Fenian, and an anticipation of an identical process, on an even more significant scale, that was to begin just over eight months later.

Gabriel Doherty lectures in history at UCC and was coordinator of this year’s O’Donovan Rossa centenary events in west Cork.

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