‘O’Dynamite’ Rossa: Was Fenian leader the first terrorist?

Radicalised by the Famine, his funeral became a propaganda coup for the movement

'Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa creates terrorism as we understand it in the 20th century," the historian Dr Shane Kenna, author of a book called Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian, says. "He sees himself as the progenitor of terrorism. He's the man who develops the strategy, and he said that future terrorist groups should pay him a royalty for it."

Calling O’Donovan Rossa a terrorist shouldn’t be particularly controversial – although Kenna winces when he does so.

O'Donovan Rossa embraced the word. He ran a "dynamite school" in the United States and boasted of bombing campaigns in his self-published newspaper.

Like the terrorists of today he embraced new technologies of destruction and communication, ran bombing campaigns from afar and revelled in being a hate figure in Britain.


He teased his long-suffering third wife, Mary Jane, about being married to such a “great dynamite fiend”.

Most people know of O'Donovan Rossa because of Patrick Pearse's graveside oration in 1915, the one that concludes: "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."

His funeral was 100 years ago, on August 1st, 1915.

In death O’Donovan Rossa became a unifying symbol of revolutionary continuity. In life he was more divisive.

Nowadays we would ask, of a young man like O’Donovan Rossa, what radicalised him. The answer is relatively simple: he lived through the Famine.

“Annihilated in the Famine”

“His family are annihilated in the Famine,” Kenna says. “They really fall from a high position down to so low that they have to emigrate. He remembers his father let some friends live in their property. They had a donkey, and he was devastated when he discovered the family were forced to eat the donkey.

“On another occasion he had to bury a woman in a shallow grave. He recalls putting a pillow over her head and a tea cloth over her face. He argued very prominently that to call the Famine an act of God was an act of blasphemy, that it was the British government’s fault.”

As a shopkeeper in Skibbereen in 1856 O’Donovan Rossa founded the Phoenix National and Literary Society to “liberate Ireland by force of arms”.

This was two years before the founding of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, with which it eventually merged.

He was jailed without trial from December 1858 until July 1859, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason in 1865.

O’Donovan Rossa ended up imprisoned in Britain, where he deplored the abuse of prisoners and refused to co-operate with his jailers.

He successfully ran as MP for Tipperary from prison in 1869, but the election was declared invalid.

In the 1870s he was released as part of an amnesty on condition that he not return to Ireland.

He and four others, including his friend John Devoy, boarded the SS Cuba for the United States; Irish America received them like celebrities, as the Cuba Five.

“His first bit of notoriety came from his prison experiences,” Kenna says.

O’Donovan Rossa and his family - he had 18 children - settled into Irish America, and he began life as patriot in absentia. He met President Ulysses S Grant in 1871.

He railed against the corruption of Tammany Hall and tried to win political office against Boss Tweed as a member of the US Republican Party.

But his real political interests were back home. He saw dynamite as the great political leveller.

“He genuinely believed that dynamite was a gift that put an even basis between the Fenians and the British army,” Kenna says.

“He argued in the late 1870s that this idea of Irishmen going out to fight Britain as a regular army is nonsense and that the only way to beat them was to use explosives in a guerrilla campaign.”

O’Donovan Rossa started a dynamite school and a dynamite fund and, impatient with Fenian inaction, orchestrated bombing campaigns of Britain. A young boy was killed in one explosion.

“He had a newspaper called the United Irishman,” Kenna says. “It was the strangest newspaper. He used it as his own tool of propaganda and would claim responsibility for anything and everything.”

Some republicans weren’t pleased. “Clan na Gael and the Irish Republican Brotherhood were horrified by the campaign, on the basis that he was telling everyone about it in the newspaper.”


Sometimes it was hot air. “On one occasion

Queen Victoria

sprained her ankle,” Kenna says.

“O’Donovan Rossa claimed that it was his men who soaked the staircase. He understood the economics of a bombing campaign, what we today we would call the economics of terrorism.

The more voice you add to a bombing the more you got subscriptions from supporters. So when he claimed responsibility for something he didn’t do there was always a peak in donations to his dynamite fund.”

Did O'Donovan Rossa embrace celebrity? "He was a showman," Kenna says. "When any attack took place in England he was the man who gave a speech and justification for it.

“And he revelled in this idea of being Britain’s greatest enemy. For him it was an honour because of what he went through and the fact that he was exiled out of Ireland.

"He became the personification of Irish resistance to British rule. All the newspapers talked about him. He was referred to as Jerry O'Dynamite or Dynamite O'Donovan Rossa all across Europe. "

He wasn’t the best at being a secret conspirator, and he fell out with Devoy as a result. They later reconciled.

As well as boasting in print about his paramilitary activities he had a tendency to welcome into the fold anyone who professed a hatred of Britain.

The agent provocateur Red Jim McDermott infiltrated and destroyed many Fenian cells after donating money to O’Donovan Rossa and receiving a letter of introduction in return.

McDermott survived an assassination attempt, then faked his own death and blackmailed his handler.

Another double agent, Thomas Phelan, was stabbed several times in O’Donovan Rossa’s office before falling down some stairs into the street below. Surprisingly, he survived.

“It was like something from Gangs of New York,” Kenna says.

In 1885 O’Donovan Rossa agreed to meet a potential donor, an Englishwoman named Yseult Dudley. She was mentally ill, and she shot him several times. “He was very lucky to survive,” Kenna says.

The British press “were jubilant condoning the behaviour of Yseult Dudley. Rossa asked, ‘Why is it murder when we do it and when you do it it’s something to be celebrated?’ It was a remarkable propaganda coup.”

Couldn’t have died at a better time

O’Donovan Rossa finally travelled back to Ireland in 1894. Treated like a returning hero, he embarked on a lecture tour.

He returned to similar acclaim in 1904 but was hugely disappointed by the growth of constitutional nationalism and the decline of Fenianism.

Back in New York he declined into neuritis and dementia, and believed himself to be back in prison. Although he didn’t know it, by 1915 the physical-force tradition was resurgent.

He couldn’t have died at a better time. In death his more divisive edges were forgotten and everyone tried to claim his legacy.

Constitutional nationalists spread rumours that he had, on his deathbed, named John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, the greatest statesman of the age. The IRB had a more credible claim to him.

“When he dies the 1916 leader Thomas Clarke telegraphs John Devoy very dramatically – ‘Send his body home at once’ – because he realises that there’s great potential to mobilise the Irish people behind this man’s nationalism,” Kenna says.

The event was carefully managed from the start. His body was returned from the United States.

Crowds lined the streets to see him brought to Glasnevin Cemetery, where Irish Volunteers fired shots over the coffin. Thomas MacDonagh wrote a poem about him.

Clarke chose Patrick Pearse, then a little-known schoolteacher and former Home Ruler, for the graveside oration.

“He saw potential in Pearse as a bloody good orator and an absolute fantastic showman,” Kenna says. “He asked Pearse to ‘make your speech as hot as hell’ and to ‘throw discretion to the wind’.”

The funeral created a template for future republican funerals and established Pearse as a republican leader.

“And when he delivered the oration,” Kenna says, “it was seen as a moral justification for the forthcoming rebellion.” And this became the resonant part of O’Donovan Rossa’s legacy.

He may not have wanted it any other way. He was motivated, Kenna says, by revenge. “He wanted revenge for what took place to his family and revenge for what took place in his country and revenge for what took place in prison . . . He said that the British had boasted they had got rid of the Irish with a vengeance, and now it was time to send vengeance back.”

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian is published by Merrion Press

Glasnevin Cemetery will host a ceremony on Saturday, August 1st, to commemorate the centenary of O'Donovan Rossa's funeral; it is the first event in the official centenary programme to commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916