Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Sir, – Historians often find it useful to consider figures from the past in relation to their contemporaries. Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League, habitually referred to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa as “O’Donovan Assa”, describing him as “the buffoon in Irish revolutionary politics with no advantage to himself but with terrible consequences to the many poor wretches who acted the Sancho Panza to his more than idiotic Don Quixote”.

Like Davitt, O’Donovan Rossa served a long prison term during which he suffered terrible cruelty. However, the experience did not make him a stronger person; some believed that it made him mentally unbalanced and for the remainder of his life he battled with alcoholism.

Accepting a conditional pardon in January 1871, O’Donovan Rossa settled in New York where he took up a position at the violent end of Irish nationalism, fostering a bombing campaign that extended through the 1880s and sabotaged efforts by constitutional Irish leaders to win British political and public support for Home Rule.

In 1882 his refusal to condemn the Phoenix Park assassinations drew from another ex-prisoner, the Fenian John O'Leary, the comment that "the time when O'Donovan Rossa had any claim to represent any appreciable section of the Fenians is long past". His paper, the United Irishman, and his "bombing school" at Brooklyn acted as magnets for extreme nationalists and were carefully watched by the British secret service. In 1887 Davitt held that O'Donovan Rossa "wittingly or unwittingly led other would-be conspirators into traps where they were condemned to long prison terms . . . His office in New York has been a veritable mousetrap for the British Consul".


Above all, O’Donovan Rossa’s policy of terrorism (he enthusiastically espoused the term) in which ordinary English civilians, including children, were murdered simply alienated the public, undermining sympathy hard won through the efforts of Parnell, Davitt and others. At one point O’Donovan Rossa speculated about the possibility of releasing poison gas in the House of Commons, in which a sympathetic prime minister, Gladstone, would struggle to enact Home Rule for Ireland.

Then there is the moral perspective – while O’Donovan Rossa is a figure for whom we can feel some pity, his philosophy, with its commitment to mindless and counter-productive violence, launched a tradition of which we should be ashamed.

It is therefore deeply saddening that, at a time when the Irish Government and people are loud in our support of reconciliation after the experience of decades of bombing campaigns in British and Irish cities, 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. – Yours, etc,


History Department,

St Patrick’s College,


Dublin 9.