Say what you like about the Irish republican movement since the 1860s but you’d have to concede, they do great funerals. There would have been no … ‘The fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead’, from Patrick Pearse in 1915, had the IRB not transported the body of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa from New York, to have him buried in Glasnevin. That was one of the reasons why the British authorities were quick to dispose of the bodies of the executed 1916 leaders ‘in house’. The last thing they wanted was fourteen Dublin funerals.
But the obsequies of Rossa were merely an expert copy, convincing but unoriginal. The first great Fenian funeral was that of a relatively obscure Young Irelander, Terence Bellew McManus. He was no Thomas Davis, no John Mitchel, not even a Thomas Francis Meagher. But he had occupied a prominent position in the mid-1850s generational conflict between the romantic nationalists of the Young Ireland movement, and the waning Daniel O’Connell. And he died, in San Francisco, at just the right time.
McManus was a friend of one of the founders of the Nation newspaper, Charles Gavan Duffy. He had made a fortune exporting wool, and then lost most of it in the mid-1840s investing in railroad stock. An enthusiastic British-based Young Irelander he travelled back to this country in 1848, after the authorities declared martial law in anticipation of a rebellion. He was one of the few members of the movement who actually took up arms. He participated in the only military action of the 1848 rising, the infamous skirmish at the Widow McCormack’s cottage in Ballingarry, Co. Tipperary. He eluded capture in Ireland, and returned to Britain. There he was declared bankrupt and just managed to get on board a ship bound for the USA before he was arrested.
The trouble was that the ship on which he was travelling was called back to port, he was hauled off, and tried for treason. His famous statement, that he had acted as he did, ‘not because I loved England less, but because I loved Ireland more’ cut no ice. He was sentenced, like most of his fellow leaders, to be hanged, drawn and quartered—an appalling penalty that remained on the statute books for the crime of high treason. A petition seeking clemency for the convicted Young Ireland leaders, with one hundred and fifty thousand signatures appended, was presented by the Lord Mayor of Dublin to the Lord Lieutenant. The barbaric capital penalties were diluted to transportation. By October 1849 he was settling into life in the penal colony of Tasmania, or van Diemen’s Land
Like a number of his colleagues, McManus managed to escape from captivity—in his case with Thomas Francis Meagher—and made his way, in 1851, to San Francisco. After which McManus disappeared from sight, abjured most political activity, and tried to build up a respectable business, though without much success. He suffered a fatal accident in January 1861, died and was buried in San Francisco. And that should have been the last we ever heard of Terence Bellew McManus.
However, a campaign began to raise money to put a monument over his grave in Lone Mountain cemetery. But the IRB had a better idea. Instead of a monument, McManus got a two-month one-way trip back to Ireland, via Panama, New York and Cobh. This was followed by a huge funeral in Dublin, skillfully organised and exploited by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The organisation had not existed when McManus was in his pomp, but included some of his former Young Ireland chums, like James Stephens.
The Cardinal-Archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen, was allergic to Fenians, and refused to allow McManus’s coffin to lie in the Pro-Cathedral. So, instead, he lay in state in the Mechanic’s Institute, from where his remains were taken, in solemn procession, to Glasnevin cemetery, watched by thousands of Dubliners.
Whether or not this indicated growing support for the nascent Fenian movement, or just confirmed the Irish attachment to a good funeral, it emboldened the IRB and greatly vexed their constitutional nationalist opponents as well as most of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
McManus eventually got his monument, but not until well into the twentieth century. Funds had been raised to build it by 1895 but the inscription was considered too political and the Glasnevin Cemetery Committee refused to allow it to be erected until 1933. He now shares his grave with, among others, Patrick W. Nally, after whom the Nally Stand in Croke Park was named.
Terence Bellew McManus, emerged from relative obscurity to become the central figure of the biggest funeral in Dublin since Daniel O’Connell’s, one hundred and fifty-six years ago, on this day.