“O’Donovan Rossa State commemoration: ‘The Fools, the Fools, the Fools’ ” by Ciaran Mc


Just over 100 years ago, in the midst of a World War, a revolutionised Ireland with secret plans being formulated for an Easter Rebellion, an 83- year- old Fenian, by the name of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, died in Staten Island, New York on 29th June 1915. The atmosphere of the time demanded that the body of Rossa be returned to Ireland and be used as a propaganda coup and a call to arms to reawaken the Irish Nationalist revolutionary spirit, and that it did. In essence those planning a Rebellion could not have hoped for such an ideal circumstance, Rossa could not have died at a more opportune time, a “heaven sent” moment. Time was not wasted as immediately IRB leader Tom Clarke telegrammed John Devoy to “send his body home at once.” But who was Rossa and why would the State want to commemorate this man whom his ideals would be antithetical to theirs?

Born in West Cork, Rossa witnessed in his lifetime the brutality and flaws of British colonialism and imperialism – this shaped the man. He witnessed and was personally affected by the brutal Great Famine, losing his father to death and eventually members of his extended family to emigration – through his hatred for the British he felt compelled to revolutionary means, setting up the Phoenix National and Literary Society that was to amalgamate with the Fenian Brotherhood (IRB) in 1858. Rossa made it his life’s ambition to end British rule in Ireland that resulted in him serving two jail sentences, the second in 1865 for High Treason culminating in a life sentence. Facing the might and callousness of the English penitentiary system that aimed to destroy Fenian prisoners, treated with absolute contempt, subjected to inhuman and cruel treatment, he was returned as MP for Tipperary in 1869. Exiled in 1871 to the US as part of a British government amnesty, Rossa’s revolutionary exploits continued as he re-emerged himself in the Fenian movement, setting up “dynamite schools” with the aim of bombing the economic heartland of mainland Britain in what became known as the Fenian dynamite campaign, also fundraising, hoping to initiate another Irish rebellion.  Rossa made a number of visits back to Ireland, disappointed by the growth of constitutional nationalism and the decline of Fenianism. His death in 1915 may have been the end of this man, although for some it was the beginning of his legacy. It became a unifying symbol of revolutionary zeal, inspirational to the new generation “rebaptised in the Fenian faith.”

After lying in State, the funeral that took place on 1st August 1915 was meticulously planned and choreographed by the IRB under the guise of the Wolfe Tone Memorial Association. Many of those who were later to organise, fight and die in the Easter Rebellion were prominent in the organisation. The provocative graveside oration of Pearse is perhaps the most significant element to the funeral, a mobilising speech that was extraordinarily moving and emotive, an irrevocable indication Ireland was preparing to live out Rossa’s legacy and rebel. Pearse had one simple instruction whilst preparing his oration, from IRB leader Tom Clarke: “Make it as hot as hell, throw discretion to the wind” and that he undoubtedly did. In the oration, Pearse made links to past revolutionary ideals, talked about the new generation and their exploits and set in motion a moral justification for the forthcoming Rebellion. This became the resonate part of Rossa’s legacy.

A number of questions emerge. Is Rossa the type of person that the State really want to commemorate? In the eyes of the State, they are surely commemorating what they would deem a “terrorist”? Rossa fought for the “cause” of Ireland, the same “cause” the Irish State feel very uncomfortable with and have so often criticised.

I attended the State’s commemoration on Saturday and was unimpressed with their handling of the event that was the catalyst for the Easter Rebellion. Did the State commemorate Rossa because they had to? Or because they wanted to? Was it a tick box exercise as they wiped the sweat from their brows and sighed in relief? Did they believe by not commemorating they would be missing out on political gain or conceding to political revivals? Is it wrong that President Higgins and Taoiseach Kenny didn’t utter a public word at the commemoration about Rossa? Were they embarrassed? Perhaps with Anglo-Irish relations improving, Rossa deemed once as “Britain’s greatest enemy” doesn’t fit comfortably. The President, Taoiseach and Minister Humphreys spent as long saluting and inspecting armed forces as engaged in commemoration. Glasnevin Trust Chairman John Green delivered an oration on Rossa. There was no mention of his IRB exploits or the involvement of the IRB preparation for the funeral. He made an assertion that Rossa, as he lay on his death bed, dementia riddled, supported Home Rule and John Redmond – in effect Constitutional Nationalism / politics. How wrong and historically inaccurate. After the commemoration I spoke with Dr Shane Kenna, biographer of Rossa. He was appalled that the state hijacked the event to suggest Rossa died a constitutionalist. He didn’t. This allegation was proven fictitious as constitutional Nationalists tried to claim Rossa’s legacy, particularly at a time when their support for an unpopular war was doing them considerable damage. Rossa’s wife Mary Jane agreed the allegation was fabricated, yet the State commemoration decided to go with it! Why? Well, to call Rossa anything else would be dangerous ground for them, handing the political initiative to others.

After Saturday’s commemoration the question has to be asked: are we in for a year of romanticising while ignoring the militaristic nature of Ireland’s History and the formation of the Free State / 26 county Republic? The State’s commemoration lacked the historical pageantry of others yet was no less a propaganda exercise. It was clear the State’s commemoration sought to ignore the true nature of Rossa’s ideals –  perhaps given the global revulsion at “terrorist” acts against states – and to definitely distance themselves from those who continued the principles as set out by Rossa.

The History of Ireland will be fought over during the next year in a propaganda war between a number of parties. Political point-scoring will take prominence as revisionists will emerge to interpret this seminal period for their own gains. Perhaps these parties would be better fighting for the country’s future, as we are arguably further away from achieving a 32 county socialist republic than the people we commemorate were, 100 years ago. I feel the State is very uncomfortable commemorating the ideals of 100 years ago as they certainly do not support the ideals of Rossa, Pearse et al. In my opinion, commemorating for the sake of it is worthless.

In life Rossa became the personification of Irish resistance to British Rule: he represented the inextinguishable Fenian flame. In death, Rossa became a unifying symbol, he was an “unconquerable Irishman”, and he was the unrepentant Fenian revolutionary. He died wanting the “absolute freedom of his country”. He died a fighter for freedom not a supporter of constitutionalism and diluted devolved government within the very system he detested and passionately fought against. I’ve no doubt after Saturday’s State commemoration, Rossa would be “turning in his grave” at the thought of being hijacked for modern political purpose by those looking to rewrite History, by those who feel uncomfortable with Ireland’s past, by those who are embarrassed by Ireland’s past – “the fools, the fools, the fools.”

6 Responses to “O’Donovan Rossa State commemoration: ‘The Fools, the Fools, the Fools’ ” by Ciaran Mc

  1. Séamus Ó Néill August 4, 2015 at 9:46 am #

    I personally am embarrassed by Saturday’s event ! I am embarrassed by the embarrassment of the so-called political leaders in the Free State in commemorating a man to whom Ireland meant everything. Their pathetic non- event says a lot more about them and their servile attitude than O’Donovan Rossa but ,within myself , I am smugly reassured that they will disappear ” like snow off a ditch “and the real Irish people will take control of their own destiny

  2. RJC August 4, 2015 at 9:54 am #

    A great read. I think it’s fairly safe to say that O’Donovan Rossa probably wouldn’t have liked most everyone who was standing around his grave at Glasnevin Cemetery on Saturday morning.

    There are so many elephants in the room of these 1916 commemorations, that the hypocrisy on display is staggering. 6 counties of Ireland are still unfree; Enda, Joan & co continue to use Sinn Féin’s IRA associations as a stick with which to beat them, whilst simultaneously celebrating men who used violence to achieve their political ends. This is just going to run and run…

    A few other views on O’Donovan Rossa commemorations to help liven up the debate –

    This letter in today’s Irish Times – http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/jeremiah-o-donovan-rossa-1.2305663

    and a Unionist perspective from Brian Spencer – http://eamonnmallie.com/2015/08/the-reenactment-of-the-funeral-of-fenian-hero-odonovan-rossa-seen-through-a-unionist-lens-by-brian-spencer

    Also, for those interested Merrion Press have just published ‘Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa – Unrepentant Fenian’ by Dr Shane Kenna. The Dublin and Tyrone book launches have been and gone, but there’s one in Newry this Saturday 8th August at 2pm in the Sean Hollywood Arts Centre.

    Belfast, West Cork and Cork City launches to follow, and New York book launch at the Irish American Historical Society Building, 5th Avenue, NYC on 15 October 2015.

    I don’t have any connection to this book or author, just thought a few folk here might be interested. Unrepentant Fenians of the world unite!

  3. Iolar August 4, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    “The atmosphere of the time demanded that the body of Rossa be returned to Ireland and be used as a propaganda coup… The provocative graveside oration of Pearse…Pearse had one simple instruction whilst preparing his oration, from IRB leader Tom Clarke: “Make it as hot as hell, throw discretion to the wind” and that he undoubtedly did.”

    It may help to contextualise the discussion with reference to the Act of Union in 1800 given the legacy of the Penal Laws in Ireland, An Gorta Mór which decimated the population in Ireland and the use of Irish men as cannon fodder in the ‘war to end all wars’. Is there a source for the comments ascribed to Tom Clarke, after all Pearse had a trained legal mind.

    It is interesting to read about Pearse’s “provocative graveside oration.” Raidió Teilifís Éireann featured an unrelated television programme on 2 August 2015 in which a contributor referred to Waterford as “a bastion of Britishness”.

    In 1826, Waterford returned Henry Villiers Stuart to Parliament against the opposition of of Lord George Beresford a landowner in the district. Stuart was supported by Daniel O’Connell in a bid to pursue Catholic Emancipation. Waterford was spared some of the worst ravages of An Gorta Mór given the availability of large quantities of rice, while large quantities of food were removed from Ireland under armed guard. There was a permanent military presence in Waterford complete with a cavalry barracks at the end of the 18th century.

    “…are we in for a year of romanticising while ignoring the militaristic nature of Ireland’s history and the formation of the Free State / 26 county Republic?” On 31 July 2015 there was yet another band parade in Belfast, complete with uniformed men dressed in military uniforms, marching in military formation surrounded by paramilitary flags. It is not a breach of the peace to erect a paramilitary flag but it is a breach of the peace if someone endeavours to remove a paramilitary flag or emblem. It appears not to be a breach of the peace to burn the Irish Tricolour or to burn tyres on bonfires.

    The adjective, “provocative” tends not to appear in reporting such cultural events.

  4. philip kelly August 4, 2015 at 11:03 am #

    very uncomfortable reading for the free staters of Fine Geal/ Labour,and Fianna Fail especially Devs grandson who has claimed that sinn fein have hijacked the commemoration, i would think that the only thing sinn fein did was provide the truth of what and who O’Donovan Rossa really was and how he inspired our on going struggle for freedom with equality and social justice .
    so the current leaders of this free state need to remember what just one man committed to justice and equality and freedom can do to ignite that flame of love of ones people and country

  5. Ceannaire August 4, 2015 at 12:51 pm #

    Ignore the official ‘commemoration’ by the hypocrites. I attended the People’s tribute later that day, when thousands wound their way through Dublin’s streets in a re-enactment of the funeral. People from every county were there, paying their tributes.

    I’m sure ODR would have been more proud of the people’s tribute than insincere officialdom.

  6. Mitchel August 4, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

    Excellent article. I watched the state’s commemoration on RTE and wasnt surprised with their lack of appetite – it was a gesture more than anything else – Kenny looked as though he didnt want to be there. We seen how the government rolled out their centenary programme, they failed to make any direct relevance to the Rising, as they dont want to go there. I agree with a lot of the sentiments you express and believe the State are embarrassed with what it seems they are HAVING to commemorate as opposed to wanting too.