A belated happy Lá Lúghnasa to one and all as we celebrate the traditional harvest festival marking the commencement of the third quarter of the year in the indigenous calendars of Ireland and the Gaelic world. Unfortunately my day has as been consumed with rather more contemporary work, leaving me little time for festivities. However it’s pleasing to note that this date also marks the one hundredth commemoration of the funeral of the influential Irish revolutionary leader Diarmaid Ó Donnabháin Rossa (Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa). The last of the original generation of Irish-born Fenians he died in the city of New York on June 29 1915, at the ripe age of 83, and was buried with republican honours at Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin, on August the 1st 1915. His highly publicised funeral is regarded by most historians as heralding the revolution that would follow nine months later (that “nine” being another symbolically pleasing Irish and Gaelic characteristic) and today the capital saw official ceremonies attended by the Uachtarán, Taoiseach and the great and the good of politics, the military, the arts and the media. Ó Donnabháin Rossa has made a long journey from being Victorian Britain’s “number one terrorist” to modern Ireland’s icon of patriotism.
You can read more on the truest of our Fenian dead here.
I once worked for a company called Book People in London, which basically meant you drove to various workplaces and set out books for people to buy. Quite a hard job physically. I was at an IT company in West London and this lady came in and purchased two books on her credit card: Her name was O’Donovan Rossa: said you must be some relation
She replied “Yes but I work for the civil service, it’s not something you want to mention.”
He had 18 kids apparently: some of em obviously went to London as well as New York.
Fixed that Comment for you, John, and welcome back. Yep, a lot of his descendants are around and most are very aware of his historical stature in Irish and Irish-American circles. I have been contacted by a couple of them in recent weeks and hope to get a guest post up by one after he returns to the US, giving his experience of last weekend’s events.
Letter to today’s Irish Times…not saying I necessarily agree with all of it, but an interesting counter perspective to An Sionnach
Sir, – Historians often find it useful to consider figures from the past in relation to their contemporaries. Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League, habitually referred to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa as “O’Donovan Assa”, describing him as “the buffoon in Irish revolutionary politics with no advantage to himself but with terrible consequences to the many poor wretches who acted the Sancho Panza to his more than idiotic Don Quixote”.
Like Davitt, O’Donovan Rossa served a long prison term during which he suffered terrible cruelty. However, the experience did not make him a stronger person; some believed that it made him mentally unbalanced and for the remainder of his life he battled with alcoholism.
Accepting a conditional pardon in January 1871, O’Donovan Rossa settled in New York where he took up a position at the violent end of Irish nationalism, fostering a bombing campaign that extended through the 1880s and sabotaged efforts by constitutional Irish leaders to win British political and public support for Home Rule.
In 1882 his refusal to condemn the Phoenix Park assassinations drew from another ex-prisoner, the Fenian John O’Leary, the comment that “the time when O’Donovan Rossa had any claim to represent any appreciable section of the Fenians is long past”. His paper, the United Irishman, and his “bombing school” at Brooklyn acted as magnets for extreme nationalists and were carefully watched by the British secret service. In 1887 Davitt held that O’Donovan Rossa “wittingly or unwittingly led other would-be conspirators into traps where they were condemned to long prison terms . . . His office in New York has been a veritable mousetrap for the British Consul”.
Above all, O’Donovan Rossa’s policy of terrorism (he enthusiastically espoused the term) in which ordinary English civilians, including children, were murdered simply alienated the public, undermining sympathy hard won through the efforts of Parnell, Davitt and others. At one point O’Donovan Rossa speculated about the possibility of releasing poison gas in the House of Commons, in which a sympathetic prime minister, Gladstone, would struggle to enact Home Rule for Ireland.
Then there is the moral perspective – while O’Donovan Rossa is a figure for whom we can feel some pity, his philosophy, with its commitment to mindless and counter-productive violence, launched a tradition of which we should be ashamed.
It is therefore deeply saddening that, at a time when the Irish Government and people are loud in our support of reconciliation after the experience of decades of bombing campaigns in British and Irish cities, the first act in our official commemoration of the 1916 events is to honour a man who dedicated his life to attempts to bomb his way to Irish independence. – Yours, etc,
St Patrick’s College,
King is a fairly heavyweight historian-author so I wouldn’t discount her opinions, and O’Donocan Rossa divided opinions even amongst the most revolutionary-minded. He had his supporters and detractors, though the views of the latter owe something to competing rivalries or claims to lead the Fenian movement. He was certainly not a hero in any conventional or simplistic Hollywood sense. However, how could he be otherwise? He was a child of the “Irish Holocaust”, a survivor in every sense of the word. As well expect moderation from the first generation of European-born Israelis in the 1940s and ’50s. Put all that to one side, he did what he could, with what he could, at a time when the Irish people had three options in life: servility, the grave or the ship.
As for Parnell, he welcomed the support of the “hillside men” when he needed it. Running with fox and hounds, including the O’Donovan Rossa.