JUNE 30TH, 1915: O'Donovan Rossa's death famous for oratory at grave


BACK PAGES:THE DEATH of Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in New York in 1915 struck The Irish Timesof the day, preoccupied with the first World War, as an interesting item from history. O’Donovan Rossa had been effectively exiled for some 45 years – he was 83 when he died – but remained active in Fenian politics: his main claim to fame subsequently came from the stirring oration by Pádraig Pearse at his graveside in Glasnevin Cemetery a month after his death.

The death of O’Donovan Rossa in New York is announced this morning. There was a time in Ireland when his death would have created a sensation, but it is no exaggeration to say that today there are many who had almost forgotten his existence, and if they thought of the part he played in the Fenian movement of the Fifties and the early Sixties of last century, it was in a spirit of mere passing curiosity. To go back in imagination from the present world war to the futile schemes of Rossa and his fellow workers is like passing suddenly from tragic actuality into the realm of make-believe. The danger that then loomed so large is seen today in something like its due proportion. Men faced by the armed millions of the German warlord have attained a larger and a nobler view of patriotism. The Ireland aimed at by O’Donovan Rossa and by some of those who struggled with him falls into the category of

“Old, unhappy, far off things,

And battles long ago.”

The brighter and nobler Ireland is the Ireland, one with England in the cause of truth, which may have tinged the imagery of the old Fenian’s closing dream.

O’Donovan Rossa must have passed the period of something like four score years. He was over 30 years of age in 1865, the time of the first Fenian arrests in Dublin. His connection with the Fenian movement appears to date from 1858, when Stephens undertook to develop The Phoenix National Literary Society – an association then established in Skibbereen – into a branch of the secret society he was promoting. Rossa is described as being then a young man of the peasant class, tall – he was 6ft 3in in height – pale faced, with wonderfully keen and piercing eyes, kindly by nature and with the courage of a lion, but withal inclined to pose upon occasion. Stephens found in him a ready coadjutor. Among the incidents which marked his progress was his theatrical appearance at the Dublin meeting, presided over by The O’Donoghue, to discuss a site for an Albert Memorial. Rossa and his companions wrecked the furniture of the Rotunda, and broke up the meeting.

It was in September 1865 that the Irish Peoplewas seized, O’Donovan Rossa, Thomas Clarke Luby, John O’Leary, Pierce Nagle (who turned “informer”) and several others were arrested. Rossa was tried and sentenced to imprisonment for life upon a charge of treason. His conduct throughout the trial was and his speech at the close was scathing; there was something in bearing that looked like studied pose. In 1871 he was released. He went to the United States, where, with the exception of a short visit to Cork, the remainder of his life was spent.