It might well be said of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, that ‘nothing became his life like the leaving of it’. He would have been delighted to know that his interment in Glasnevin cemetery in 1915 launched the brief but remarkable career of another Irish revolutionary.
More about that later. Let’s first rewind to 1831, the year of Rossa’s birth in Rosscarberry, Co.Cork. Twenty-five years later he founded the Phoenix National and Literary Society. It may sound innocuous enough but its guiding principle was less about reading interesting books and more about the liberation of Ireland by force of arms. No messing about with elections or parliaments for O’Donovan Rossa. Later his society would affiliate with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Rossa’s career as a revolutionary nationalist had properly begun.
Two years before the abortive Fenian rising of 1867 Rossa, along with a number of his colleagues who worked on the organisation’s newspaper, the Irish People, was arrested and jailed. In 1870, as part of a general amnesty, he was released. In his case, however, he had to agree, along with John Devoy, to emigrate to the USA and never come back.
Not that he was any less of a nuisance in America. Based in New York he founded a newspaper, the United Irishman. This was largely subscription based with subscribers – whom Rossa called his ‘tenants’ – paying what the editor described as a weekly ‘rent’ for the privilege and pleasure of reading his politically extreme outpourings. These went as far as advocating the murder of Irish landlords and even the likes of Prime Minister William Gladstone. Rossa also raised money, via what he called his Skirmishing Fund, to finance a bombing campaign in England. This was successfully launched in the early 1880s and caused much destruction, in London in particular. There was even one dynamite attack on the House of Commons. On many occasions the British government sought his extradition but his activities were seen as political actions rather than crimes by the US government. Had he been bombing Washington they might have seen things a bit differently. In 1885 he was shot and wounded by an Englishwoman, Iseult Dudley. The British government claimed that she had not been working for them. Well they would wouldn’t they.
Rossa died in June 1915 at the age of 83. He had actually returned twice to Ireland, in 1894 and 1904, astonishingly, with the approval of the British government. But his post mortem return in 1915 was possibly his finest hour. The IRB, in the shape of the old Fenian Tom Clarke, conscious of the potential propaganda value of a big nationalist funeral, asked Devoy to ship Rossa’s body back to Ireland.
After his cortege trailed through the crowded streets of Dublin – Dubliners always loved a big funeral – he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetry. As his coffin was being lowered into the ground a relatively unknown figure stepped out of the crowd and spoke over the grave. He warned the British government that …
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.
Had Rossa been in a position to do so he would have given loud war whoop in response. Patrick Pearse’s short oration, though utterly different in tone, has acquired something of the status of an Irish Gettysburg address. It was made 99 years ago, on this day.