By anyone’s standards the Irish revolutionary Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was a remarkable human being. Born into a peasant family in the south-west of Ireland during the early 19th century he survived the worse years of An Gorta Mór, the Great Famine of 1845 to 1852, despite his father’s death from malnutrition and disease, and his family’s impoverishment. The hardship he suffered seems to have spurred him on into becoming a successful local entrepreneur, the founder of the Phoenix National and Literary Society, and later a prominent activist and propagandist with the Irish Republican Brotherhood or IRB. It was his membership of the latter organisation that led him into his life-long career as a professional revolutionary. This entailed frequent confrontations with the British colonial authorities in Ireland, clashes with the Roman Catholic hierarchy (he was once betrayed to the British by a priest-turned-informer), lengthy periods of brutal imprisonment (with and without trial), an election to the UK parliament as the MP for Tipperary, and eventually enforced expulsion from his island home as part of a general amnesty for Irish political prisoners in 1871.
Seeking sanctuary in the United States he was greeted as something of an exiled Gaelic prince, fêted from the Irish communities of New York to the US Congress, quickly associating with the Fenian Brotherhood of America (FBA) and its off-shoot, Clann na nGael (CnaG), both of which joined with the IRB in forming the broader, global Fenian movement. From the pages of his own newspaper, The United Irishman, O’Donovan Rossa urged a campaign of guerilla attacks in Britain by Irish republicans, primarily against high-profile establishment targets, as a means of off-setting the military weakness of progressive Irish nationalists elsewhere. Thus he was one of the main drivers for the famous Fenian “Dynamite Campaign” of 1881 to 1885 as groups from various Fenian bodies struck targets across England, shaking the foundations of the empire and pushing Ireland’s cause to the head of the political agenda, both domestically and internationally. O’Donovan Rossa paid the price of his celebrity with oppressive surveillance by the US and British authorities, and an assassination attempt that left him slightly wounded. After decades of republican activism and banishment, not to mention three wives and eighteen children, O’Donovan Rossa died in 1915 at the age of 83. His life was a testimony to the advanced politics of those who filled the ranks of the Young Irelanders and Fenians in the 19th century.
In British eyes, even to the present day, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was the prototype “international terrorist”, Che Guevara and Osama bin Laden rolled into one, and the Fenian movement the originators of what was to become 20th and 21st century terrorism. Of course one nation’s terrorist is another nation’s freedom-fighter, and O’Donovan Rossa personifies that political aphorism. From the Irish Times:
“President Michael D Higgins will inaugurate a series of events to mark the centenary of the death of the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
Mr Higgins will visit the redeveloped O’Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen on Thursday, June 11th, which will begin seven weeks of international commemorations.
The series will be the largest nationalist commemoration programme this year.
The highlight of the programme will be a re-enactment of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral, which took place on August 1st, 1915 at Glasnevin Cemetery.
The funeral was the largest of its kind in Ireland since the death of Charles Stewart Parnell and all strains of Irish nationalism, from the Home Rule party to the Irish Republican Brotherhood, were represented.
The programme will include a GAA tournament and commemorative social in Gaelic Park, New York and a commemorative mass in Staten Island.
New exhibitions on the life of O’Donovan Rossa will be held in both Skibbereen and at Glasnevin Cemetery. An Post will launch an official commemorative stamp on July 30th before the re-enactment of the funeral, which takes place on August 1st.”
One hundred years ago when the greatest of the Fenians was laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetary many in Ireland’s then political establishment, the Redmond-led Irish Parliamentary Party and its conservative factions, disdained his passing, while the Dublin press, including the Irish Independent and Irish Times, criticised the mass demonstrations which locked down the capital in his honour. Now we hail O’Donovan Rossa as one of the founding fathers of the nation, with the President of Ireland leading those praising his memory. History, as always, makes its own judgements, and far away from the fleeting concerns of those who live in such times.