A LETTER FROM IRELAND…
by Cathal Liam
“…but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead…”
Once again, those hallowed, compelling words filled the air. They echoed among the gravestones in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery as they once did exactly one-hundred years ago.
Now, on a fine summer’s morning last month, a special ceremony was re-enacted honouring the burial of a famous Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a man who’d suffered great hardships at the hands of his English jailers. But despite his life’s misfortunes, he managed to overcome each adversity while keeping the dream of Ireland’s freedom alive in his heart.
This tribute marks the first of a yearlong series of forty-some State ceremonies celebrating Ireland’s 2016 Centenary Programme. Rossa, an Irish revolutionary, was a 19th-century Fenian who’d fought long and hard to see Ireland free. His life and subsequent death became a symbol for many Irish nationalists and revolutionaries the world over. His funeral, organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood [IRB] in support of the newly formed Irish Volunteers , was, in effect, a call to arms. It was IRB’s wish to prepare the Irish people for an upcoming rebellion.
In the presence of the Irish Defence Forces’ 6th Infantry battalion, Ireland’s present-day President, Michael D Higgins, led the official State commemoration in Glasnevin. He was accompanied by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys.
Michael D’s stirring words captured the attention of the thousands who’d gathered to witness the observance. “Even 100 years after his death his name is synonymous with the Fenians and with Irish Nationalism. The liberation of his country became his life’s ambition. His funeral remains one of the pivotal moments in Irish history and was an occasion that would be hugely instrumental in shaping the future of our nation.”
O’Donovan Rossa was born in West Cork in September 1831. In the 1850s he moved to Skibbereen, became a shopkeeper and founded the Phoenix National and Literary Society, a republican front-organisation aimed at wrestling Ireland’s freedom from Britain, by force, if necessary. His Phoenix Society soon merged with the newly established IRB in 1858.
Predictably, Rossa’s anti-British activities saw him arrested in 1865. Charged with high treason, he was sentenced to penal servitude for life in England. But, after enduring five-plus years of tortuous confinement, he was deported to the United States on condition he never return to Ireland.
Now ensconced in New York City, he joined forces with friend John Devoy and actively supported Clan na Gael while continuing to fundraise for Ireland’s cause. Despite years of personal disagreement and turmoil, he earned the name ‘Fenian Flame,’ a man who’d dedicate his life to Irish independence.
In June 1915, death claimed him at eighty-three while still residing in his adopted city. When word arrived in Dublin of his death, Tom Clarke, later one of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation and then-leader of the IRB, wrote to Devoy. He instructed him to ship Rossa’s body back home, as he quickly realised Rossa could fulfil one last undertaking for his beloved country. Promptly going to work, the IRB began organising a public funeral scheduled for 1 August.
Concurrently, Clarke started casting about for someone to deliver a powerful eulogy. Despite some misgivings, he chose Pádraig Pearse. After discussing his intentions with the Irish schoolmaster, Clarke directed Pearse to “Make it hot as hell!”, and that’s exactly what the burgeoning author and revolutionary did.
Thus, on 1 August, Pádraig Henry Pearse stepped up before O’Donovan Rossa’s grave and delivered what many believe to be Ireland’s Gettysburg Address.
Among his carefully chosen words, Pearse said, “We stand at Rossa’s grave not in sadness but rather in exaltation of spirit that it has been given to us to come thus into so close a communion with that brave and splendid Gael.”
Later, he stated…
[Speaking of Glasnevin] ”This is a place of peace, sacred to the dead, where men should speak with all charity and with all restraint but I hold a Christian thing, as O’Donovan Rossa held it, to hate evil, to hate untruth, to hate oppression; and, hating them, to strive to overthrow them. Our foes are strong and wise and wary; but, strong and wise and wary as they are, they cannot undo the miracles of God who ripens in the hearts of young men the seed sown by the young men of a former generation.”
Then, in conclusion, he asserted…
”Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but 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.” [The original handwritten script is on display at the Pearse Museum, St. Enda’s, Rathfarnham, Dublin]
But before I end this letter, I thought I’d include a personal remembrance. Back in the early 1990s, while attending the Michael Collins Annual Commemoration at BealnaBlath in West Cork, I met an old farmer. As we talked, the name O’Donovan Rossa came up. He said, “Let me tell you a story about him. Back in those days, it was customary for the expectant woman to have the baby in her family home. So Rossa’s mother, then living in Reeanascreena and knowing her time was near, began walking to her parent’s farm in Roscarbery. Unfortunately, she missed-timed the birth. Alone and squatting down by the side of the road, little baby Rossa was born. Having delivered, she gathered up the child in her arms and continued her walk. To this day the villages of Reeanascreena and Roscarbery both claim O’Donovan Rossa as theirs.”