A classic case of revising history

August 17th, 2015 9:36 AM

By Southern Star Team


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WHAT’S bizarre about history, especially recent history, is the way an event that happens today closely resembles one that took place many years ago, particularly when the politics underpinning the incidents have a lot in common. It is as if lightning strikes twice.

Such is the case with Skibbereen’s greatest hero, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. At the Blueshirt-Labour official state-ceremony in Glasnevin that commemorated the death and funeral of the unflinching Fenian, a claim was made that echoed a grotesque Daily Telegraph assertion that was first put forward in the murky days of 1915.

Designed as an alternative interpretation of the Skibbereen man’s patriotic achievements, it suggested that shortly before his death O’Donovan Rossa experienced a sort of mystical transformation. He became a new man and most importantly of all became reconciled to the British Government. He regretted his hard-line Republicanism and, in a spirit of Imperial contrition that heightened as he was about to meet his Maker, he endorsed the Allies in their war against the Germans.

Here is what O’Donovan Rossa is supposed to have said on his dying bed: ‘I have fought a good fight according to my views and long ago lost all hatred, let alone prejudice against the British government’. He then called on all patriotic Irishmen to join the British Army and fight Germany, ‘the common enemy of civilisation’.


O’Donovan Rossa’s wife, Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa, immediately denied that her husband had ever wavered in his opinions. She said he had consistently maintained that absolute separation from England – by fighting – was Ireland’s only hope. Moreover, she added, Rossa spent the last two years of his life in a semi-comatose condition and only dimly realised that a European war was raging!

Recent biographer of Rossa, Shane Kenna, commented that the fictitious Daily Telegraph report was an act of desperation on the part of the British Army and the Irish Parliamentary Party. ‘It was an attempt to gain for themselves the lustre and appeal attached to O’Donovan Rossa’s name, a name synonymous with hostility to the British government at the time when no Irish nationalist, least of all John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, could, or had reason to, say a good word about that government’.

In other words, it was a classic case of ‘revising’ history! Indeed, the effort to blacken O’Donovan Rossa’s reputation in 1915 was similar to recent revisionist trickery that sought to undermine the IRA’s achievement in wiping out at Kilmichael a column of British Army murderers who had been wreaking havoc in West Cork.

‘Revisionist’ historians invented spurious statements in support of their endeavour to depict Tom Barry’s Third West Cork Brigade Flying Column as a gang of ‘serial killers’; and they had no qualms claiming that the evidence came from old men on their dying bed and, indeed, even from beyond the grave. In West Cork, you see, nothing is impossible when it comes to Irish history!

A local wretch

As a young man, O’Donovan Rossa learned to his cost that the staple ingredient of Irish history, treachery, is frequently employed when there are conflictive points of view. In the case of Rossa’s quasi-secret society – the Phoenix National and Literary Society of Skibbereen – which was a front for a revolutionary group, history has conveniently glossed over a local priest’s infamy. The wretch informed the British authorities of the group and, as a result, O’Donovan Rossa was jailed for eight months without a trial.

The years of brutal torture that he suffered subsequently, after being put in prison again when sentenced to penal servitude for the rest of his natural life, so horrified the world that, in 1871, the British reluctantly paroled him on terms of banishment to the United States.

Interestingly, Karl Marx’s daughter, Jenny, campaigned vigorously on his behalf. She led a campaign that demanded a general amnesty for Irish political prisoners and for a ‘full, free and public enquiry’ into the abominable treatment they were receiving. (The topic is referred to in Marx and Engels On Ireland’ – Lawrence & Wishart London 1971. Also worth a look at is Seán Daly’s ‘Ireland and the First International’ – Tower Books 1984 – which throws an interesting light on O’Donovan Rossa’s relations with the International).

Even today blasts from Rossa’s past continue to reverberate, ensuring that he remains a controversial character within the pantheon of revolutionary heroes. For instance, Sinn Féin was accused of hijacking the FG-Labour Rossa commemoration at Glasnevin cemetery after the party’s visually more impressive re-enactment of the funeral threw into relief the pathetic effort mounted by the government.

IMG_7898 James Shanahan presenting the PJ & Kathleen Shanahan Memorial Cup to Caroline O Brien owner of Cruise Howard winner of the Handicap


The irony was not lost on anyone with a historical perspective. Redmonites and anti-republicans in 1915 resorted to the same tactic when Pearse’s dramatic oration about ‘Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’ galvanised the people.

Last week, in a Sindo article that sounded as if it had been commisioned by the ghost of William Martin Murphy (the anti-nationalist founder of the newspaper), the argument was made brazenly that Sinn Féin had attempted to seize the O’Donovan Rossa ‘myth’!

The writer warned that the Republicans cleverly had ‘leveraged’ the mythology whereby ‘implicitly and explicitly’ the modern IRA campaign of terrorism was justified. ‘From the GPO to Canary Wharf. That’s the game here” was the stark, if incoherent, message!

Whatever about the split infinitive and the writer’s insinuation that the Peace Process had never taken place, it was the Sindo’s split personality that was most informative. On the one hand the newspaper put forward the argument that a good auld anti-republican rant was vital in the war against Sinn Féin and, on the other hand, manic “explicit and implicit” winks and nods were important when it came to O’Donovan Rossa. Some things, it seems, never go away -such as historic bile!

But one thing is clear. The political rows from beyond the grave that O’Donovan Rossa still can trigger are testimony to the lasting impact the physical force tradition had on this nation, and which today the conservative Establishment would like to deny or dismiss.

Pride of Skibbereen

Fianna Fáil’s Eamon O’ Cuív indignantly growled that Sinn Féin’s commemoration ceremony was ‘out of sync’ with the spirit of the original funeral which involved all strands of nationalist Ireland. His boss, Mickey Martin, the flawed leader of a stagnant party, claimed SF’s link with the events of that time was “insulting”. For its part, SF insisted the massive reconstruction of the Rossa funeral was not intended as a rival to the government’s one.

In Skibbereen no such argy-bargy reigns. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa is accepted for what he was, warts and all, as the recent torchlight parade in his honour magnificently illustrated. The message was to the point. He loathed tyranny and he loved his country. He was a West Cork man, a patriot, a nationalist, a Republican, and a supporter of armed struggle –so what?

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