Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa
(Sept. 10, 1831—June 29, 1915)
by Hank McNally
Early on the morning of June 30, 1915, Tom Clarke, Head Center of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and head of the Military Council received a telegram at his Dublin tobacco shop from John Devoy, head of the US-based Clan na Gael. The telegram announced the death of the prototypical Irish Rebel, the 88-year-old unrepentant Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Clarke, always a man of few words, replied, “Send his body home at once.” Many believe those three words began the countdown to the Easter Rising of April 24, some ten months later.
O’Donovan Rossa was sent home, though not before his death was recognized and his life celebrated on this side of the ocean. Devoy, though he disliked O’Donovan Rossa’s flamboyance and lack of personal discipline, recognized his contributions to the Irish cause and, even more, Devoy knew how to use a situation to his advantage. So, O’Donovan Rossa was celebrated in New York and elsewhere by an Irish community who applauded his advocacy of violence toward the British oppressor and reveled in his unyielding language of defiance; and they dug deep into their pockets to indicate a support that was more than just symbolic.
But Clarke had much more in mind. He had in mind the biggest funeral for a rebel that Dublin had ever seen; he had in mind a rallying event that would prepare a nation to fight for its freedom; he had in mind using the torch of freedom held so proudly by O’Donovan Rossa to light the fuse of rebellion. For that, in addition to his own significant organizational talents and the energy of his committed followers, he needed a speaker with the gift of eloquence. In Padraig Pearse, he had that; and Clarke told him, “Make it hot!”
O’Donovan Rossa’s life made that an easy task for Pearse. Born in Rosscarbery, County Cork, in 1831, he was jailed for the first time in 1859 on charges of sedition. He was released eight months later and immediately began to write for the Fenian paper, The Irish People; he never minced words! In 1865, O’Donovan Rossa was arrested again, convicted of “High Treason” and sentenced to life imprisonment. His life in prison was hell; years on punishment rations, his arms and legs in irons much of the day and often placed in solitary confinement. He acknowledged only contempt for English laws and disdain for the officials who enforced those laws. In 1869, his name was entered in a Parliamentary election and he won, though not allowed to take his seat while in prison. In 1871, shamed by international exposure of the treatment of O’Donovan Rossa and others, England released five impassioned Fenians, including O’Donovan Rossa, on the condition they enter permanent exile. A few weeks later, on a ship named Cuba, “The Cuba Five” arrived in New York Harbor, the mayors of New York and Jersey City vying for who would greet them first. When Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and John Devoy stepped off that ship, England had a very new problem.
Within weeks, O’Donovan Rossa was writing for the radical nationalist paper, The United Irishmen, and advocating violence toward England. He soon began a very successful “Skirmishing Fund” through which he collected large sums and financed a dynamiting campaign in England. In scathing editorials, the New York Times labeled him Jeremiah “O’Dynamite” Rossa and demanded his arrest. That never happened, but as support for the constitutionalist efforts of Charles Stuart Parnell grew, O’Donovan Rossa’s tactics fell out of favor. He went into temporary obscurity, but his fighting spirit and unwavering determination to achieve independence for his beloved Ireland were never forgotten. There was an attempt on his life, celebrated in England, though it failed. He wrote his biography, Recollections, in 1898, which brought back some of his notoriety. By now, however, the hard life of jail and an undisciplined life were taking a toll.
It was, however, the image of the Fenian in exile that appealed to Clarke and Pearse and a new generation of Irish Nationalists. To them, O’Donovan Rossa was the quintessential rebel. Thus, on August 1st of 1915, when Pearse brought the biggest funeral for a rebel Dublin had ever seen to a close, his final words, spoken over the coffin of the preeminent symbol of Ireland’s resolve, had profound resonance:
“They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us, and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything. They 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."
What O’Donovan Rossa had been unable to achieve in his life, he achieved through his death.