Diarmaid Ferriter: How do you prefer our Fenian dead – revered or reviled?

It seems the Government is not interested in historical nuance or debate about what precisely it is commemorating

How do you prefer our long-dead Irish Fenians? Revered or reviled? The danger of commemoration is that such will be the crude and reductive menu of choices offered.

Earlier this month the first official State ceremony in the Ireland 2016 centenary programme was held to mark the centenary of the funeral of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. But what precisely was being commemorated? O'Donovan Rossa himself and his aims as a Fenian committed to the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland, or simply his funeral as a milestone on the road to the 1916 Rising?

The ceremony prompted a thought-provoking letter to this newspaper from historian Carla King, peerless in her expertise on Michael Davitt, to highlight that Davitt saw O'Donovan Rossa as a dangerous buffoon and that, given his devotion to terrorism, a word he used himself, it is "deeply saddening that . . . 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".

Another historian, Marie Coleman, expressed herself "perplexed and concerned" about "an elaborate commemoration of a terrorist". Both worried about the apparent contradiction between the State ceremony and the need for reconciliation.


Search widely enough for definitions of 'terrorism' and it is a term that can and will be applied to many of the revolutionary generation to be commemorated in the coming years, including Kevin Barry, hanged as an 18-year-old student in 1920 after an IRA attack in Dublin during which three young British soldiers were killed. "Terrorist" was precisely the term used by some of those who opposed the State funeral for Barry and nine other republicans in 2001 whose bodies had lain in Mountjoy Prison since the War of Independence.

An Irish Hitler


Patrick Pearse

a terrorist? As with other Irish Fenians, you can find any Pearse you want, depending on your preferences and your interest in context and polemic.

In 2010, the cover of History Ireland magazine carried a portrait of Pearse with this question: "Patrick Pearse: Proto-Fascist eccentric or mainstream European thinker?" Readers were reminded of the description of Pearse's writings by Xavier Carthy in 1978: "They indicate a narrow fanaticism as well as an obsession with racial purity and the pre-eminence of a mythical Gaelic Race suggesting that if he had not died at Kilmainham he might have been an Irish Hitler".

There was also a reminder that contemporary reaction to Pearse’s histrionic rhetoric, even by those who ultimately revolted with him in 1916, was not always positive.

In response to Pearse's claim, welcoming the outbreak of the first World War, that "the old heart of the earth needed to the warmed with the red wine of the battlefields", James Connolly offered this putdown: socialists "do not think the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think anyone who does is a blithering idiot".

But Connolly also declared that “without the shedding of blood there is no redemption”. Was Connolly a terrorist too? Such a frame of reference is hardly illuminating.


Nor should we forget that the State, in devising a commemorative programme, is not just marking the events that led to the foundation of the State but also commemorating propaganda – exactly what the Rossa funeral in 1915 was designed to maximise, as was, it could be argued, the Rising.

But it seems the Government is not interested in historical nuance or debate about what precisely it is commemorating, as evidenced by an interview with Minister Heather Humphreys gave about the Rossa State ceremony on RTÉ, in which she had absolutely nothing to say about his life and legacy.

It is intent on ensuring that by commemorating as much as it can officially, minus contextual comment, it will prevent Sinn Féin from having the field to itself as it devises its events.

There is nothing new in rival parades: in 1926, on the 10th anniversary of the Rising, Eamon de Valera led an alternative to the State commemoration of the Rising to Glasnevin and maintained, “The homage of our appreciation is not enough whilst the task to which they devoted themselves remains unfinished”. Versions of this piety will undoubtedly emanate from Sinn Féin in 2016.

Historians are correct to critically analyse the figures and events being commemorated, and Carla King’s letter provided a welcome corrective to the prevailing silence about O’Donovan Rossa himself, as opposed to the propaganda value supplied by his funeral.

But we should be wary of defining our role as peacemakers, or offering a neat choice between reverence or repugnance of the Fenian dead. We should let nuance breathe, while politicians attempt to outdo each other in commemorative piety.