O’Donovan Rossa remembered 100 years after funeral

Pearse graveside oration regarded as a rallying cry for republicanism

Thousands of people have attended the commemoration of the funeral of revolutionary Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery.

Bright sunshine accompanied the first State commemoration surrounding the 1916 centenary. Members of the public queued for several hours beforehand to get a vantage point for the ceremony which was performed with full military honours. Some 5,000 people were accommodated within the cemetery or watched on screens outside.

O’Donovan Rossa died in New York on June 29 1915 aged 83.

Among the first wave of activists to join the ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1858, the Skibbereen shopkeeper was jailed for life for high treason after plotting a Fenian rising in 1865. Four years later he was elected a British MP in a by-election in Tipperary while incarcerated although the result was declared invalid.


His release was only secured in the so-called Fenian amnesty after he agreed to live in exile in New York from where he espoused the theory of terrorism and launched the dynamite bombing campaign to attack strategic and economic targets in Britain.

Following his death on Staten Island the IRB set about stage managing his repatriation and burial for maximum effect and publicity.

"Send his body home at once," Tom Clarke, one of the masterminds of the 1916 Rising, cabled to John Devoy who had been exiled with O'Donovan Rossa.

The funeral was a huge occasion in Dublin with an estimated 5,000 people following a guard of honour made up of veterans of the Fenian movement and the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and Fianna Éireann.

Reports say it took just under an hour for the cortege to pass a fixed point as it wound its way from Stephen's Green to Parnell Square and out to Glasnevin past 50,000 people who had lined the streets. Best known for the graveside oration by Pádraig Pearse, the Fenian's burial on August 1st 1915 is widely regarded as a rallying cry for republicanism and an armed struggle against British rule in Ireland.

Pearse’s oration was deliberately provocative and the silence which followed it was only broken by the baying crowds and the defiant firing of three volleys of shots over the grave which some historians describe as the first shots of the 1916 Rising.

There was continuity on Saturday with the funeral 100 years ago with St James's Band providing the recital for the arrival of the main guests, President Michael D Higgins, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys and the Lord Mayor of Dublin Criona Ní Dhálaigh.

Glasnevin Trust chairman John Green described the event as the most significant in the long history of the cemetery stretching back 183 years.

Pearse’s famous oration, recited by actor Jim Roche on Saturday, was a “masterpiece” Mr Green said, “which invoked the passions of the past and laid bare the task ahead.” No Government could break or bend O’Donovan Rossa. “He could not compromise,” he said.

President Higgins laid a wreath on O’Donovan Rossa’s grave. His message as Gaeilge read: “I ndilchuimhne ar Dhiarmuid O’ Donobháin Rosa - loach deorai agus foinse mhisnigh ina shaoil iomlán ar son cúis na hÉireann (in loving memory of Jeremiah O’Donovan-Rossa, exiled hero and a source of encouragement for the cause of Ireland).

One hundred years on, the extensive programme for the original funeral was reproduced for assembled guests. It includes a character study by Pádraig Pearse who described O’Donovan Rossa as not having a broad intellect, but possessed of a “great intellectual intensity”. O’Donovan Rossa had been “unbending to the point of impracticability” and saw only one way forward suspecting those who saw two, Pearse wrote.

It also included a letter from O’Donovan Rossa’s widow written nine days before the funeral. Her husband, she recalled, was “in the dock as an Irishman since he was born”. Even in his last long illness, he was the same “unconquerable Irishman breathing the same unalterable desire for the absolute freedom of his country”.

Where Pearse might have exhibited a degree of ambivalence in print about O’Donovan, he exhibited none in his famous oration.

The oration - with its famous refrain “the fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace” - was read, as it is read most days in Glasnevin, by re-enactor Jim Roche, but not before such a large live audience.

His amplified words echoed around the grandstands and to the public who lined the paths through the cemetery. When it was finished, there was silence and then a ripple of applause as there had been 100 years ago. It was followed by a 21 gun salute from the Army.

It was a proud day for the O’Donovan Rossa family who gathered around the graveside afterwards. The Fenian had 18 children in total with three different wives. Seven of his children with his last wife lived until adulthood in the United States.

Some 20 descendents gathered around the O’Donovan Rossa grave . Most conspicuously of them all were brothers Williams Rossa Cole and Rossa Williams Cole, great-grandsons of O’Donovan Rossa. The brothers, in their dark glasses and pork pie hats, have been in Ireland for the last 10 days making a documentary about their famous ancestor entitled Rossa – Irish Rebel.

Jeannie Knowles, who came from California, is descended from O’Donovan Rossa’s oldest daughter Sheila.

She described the commemoration in Glasnevin as the “greatest honour of my life. It was a once in a lifetime thing in my personal life. I’m so proud of his heritage. He had such a huge effect. Most of us in our lifetime don’t get to have that effect.” Sinn Féin was holding a separate commemoration on Saturday afternoon.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times