LAST Saturday’s commemoration of the centenary of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery was the first of many official events leading up to the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising next Easter. The State event was a somewhat overdue, but very welcome recognition of the pivotal influence that the West Cork-born Fenian patriot had on the leaders of the Rising.
In the midst of all those pinning their hopes on promised Home Rule, the Fenian leader’s perpetual uncompromising aim of taking on the British in an armed uprising – which had gone out of vogue in the latter years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century – began to appeal afresh to the new breed of Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) leaders, who saw merit in it with the opportunity provided by Britain’s engagement on several fronts in Europe during the First World War.
As the most rebellious of all the Fenians, who was unwavering in his quest to overthrow British rule, and had quite a notorious international public profile, O’Donovan Rossa was the ideal figurehead for those planning an armed insurrection. He was a celebrity of his time and, although living mostly in the United States for the last 44 years of his life, he was regarded with special affection by the people of Ireland.
When Rossa died in a hospital on Staten Island in New York, is his 84th year, on June 29th, 1915, after enduring half a lifetime of severe hardships, veteran IRB man Tom Clarke – subsequently one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation – organised for Rossa’s body brought home from the United States for a showcase big funeral in Dublin. Rossa had expressed a wish before dying to be buried in Skibbereen or in his native Rosscarbery, but the wily Clarke – himself a survivor of the Fenian era – knew the huge propaganda value that could be got from having the funeral in Dublin.
It was estimated that half a million people lined the streets of the capital to show their respect as O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral cortege made its way to Glasnevin Cemetery where Padraig Pearse made his famous graveside oration, urging people to follow Rossa’s example and take on the British, famously declaring: ‘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.’
And so, on Saturday last, August 1st, the official State commemoration at Glasnevin of the centenary of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa marked both an end and a beginning – in that order. It marked the end of more than five weeks of Rossa-related commemorative events, which had been organised to mark the centenary of his death, mainly taking place in New York and in his native West Cork.
The programme of events was launched by President Michael D Higgins with a truly inspirational speech about the patriot at O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park in Skibbereen on June 11th last, which has already been well documented, and the variety of events organised by the various commemorative committees in Skibbereen, Rosscarbery, Reenascreena and Clonakilty, have ensured that Rossa’s memory has been kept alive and that his legacy has been introduced to a whole new generation which is now aware of who he was and the significance of his place in Irish history.
The driving force behind these commemorative events was Gabriel Doherty, a lecturer at the UCC School of History, who motivated and cajoled the various committees with myriad ideas about how to appropriately remember Rossa. Thanks to his crucial input and inspiration, all involved surpassed themselves with the quality of the events that were staged and he deserves generous plaudits for all his efforts.
Saturday last also marked a beginning – that of the official 1916 Easter Rising centenary commemorations – and it was only right that this ‘defining moment in Irish history,’ as it was described by President Higgins, was where it all started, as was the case 100 years ago.
Some revisionists may decry Rossa as a rabble-rousing proponent of violence who was never willing to compromise, but people’s attitudes are shaped by their experiences in life and to say that he had it rough would be an understatement. Having lived through the Famine – a term he detested – he was subjected to very cruel and inhumane treatment in English prisons for his Fenian activities over a protracted period of time as they tried, but failed to break his spirit, which according to a tribute by Arthur Griffith ‘was the free spirit of the Irish nation’.