Four decades earlier he was one of the leading voices of violent Irish nationalism, widely known and feared on both sides of the Atlantic. But by the time of his death he had faded into obscurity. Nonetheless, some of the more zealous nationalists in Ireland remembered him and arranged for the return of his remains to Dublin for a massive and highly symbolic funeral that would be long remembered as a key moment in the march toward the Easter Rising and the War of Independence.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was born in Roscarberry, Co. Cork, in 1831. He survived the Famine and eventually opened a store in Skibbereen. A fervent nationalist who came of age in the era of Daniel O’Connell and Young Ireland, he founded in 1856 a secret pro-independence organization called the Phoenix National and Literary Society. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (aka the Fenians) and soon distinguished himself as one of its more effective members. His nationalist activism landed him in jail in 1859 on charges of sedition. Freed eight months later, he began writing for the Fenian paper the Irish People and eventually became its business manager.
In 1865 O’Donovan Rossa and many other Fenian leaders were arrested for plotting an uprising. Convicted of high treason, they were sentenced to life imprisonment. O’Donovan Rossa served eight years in English prisons, enduring brutal conditions he later chronicled in his 1874 book, “Prison Life.” He won election to Parliament in 1869, but never took his seat because of his ongoing imprisonment. In 1871, he and many fellow Fenians like John Devoy were released on the condition of permanent exile.
O’Donovan Rossa, Devoy and the others arrived in New York aboard the ship Cuba and received a hero’s welcome from local Irish nationalists. O’Donovan Rossa took a job managing a hotel and started his own radical nationalist newspaper, the United Irishmen. Week after week his paper fulminated against British domination of Ireland and called for violent insurrection to bring it to an end. In 1875, he started a widely publicized “skirmishing fund” to raise money for purchasing arms and funding terrorist operations in Ireland.
These actions earned O’Donovan Rossa harsh criticism from Americans who abhorred the idea of America being used as a staging ground for violent revolution abroad. The New York Times, for example, took to calling him Jeremiah O’Dynamite Rossa in its scathing editorials.
O’Donovan Rossa’s unabashed advocacy of terrorism and revolution also upset many of his fellow Irish nationalists. Fellow exile John Devoy, a man who also favored physical-force nationalism, came to despise Rossa as a headline-hungry fool whose rantings only brought discredit to the cause of Irish freedom. So-called constitutional nationalists — those who pushed for Irish home rule or independence via peaceful and political means only — and their middle-class supporters decried O’Donovan Rossa for creating the impression that all nationalists were bomb-throwing maniacs. Their dismay only grew more intense during the Land League struggle of the early 1880s when in the midst of Charles Stewart Parnell’s non-violent campaign for home rule, O’Donovan Rossa and his disaffected associates embarked on a bombing campaign in England. Funded by Rossa’s “skirmishing fund,” it began in January 1881 with the bombing of a military barracks. Many subsequent bombing attempts were foiled by British detectives, but they had the desired effect of striking terror into the hearts of English citizens. Yet they also contributed to Gladstone’s decision to adopt the sweeping program of repression against Parnell and the Land League.
The bombing campaign not only left O’Donovan Rossa shunned by nearly every branch of the nationalist movement, it also nearly cost him his life. In February 1885 an Englishwoman named Yseult Dudley met him near Broadway on the pretext of making a contribution to his fund and shot him several times. The incident caused a sensation in New York as O’Donovan Rossa and even his ex-friends declared Dudley to be an agent of the British government. “England’s Bullet — A Hired British Assassin Attempts to Murder O’Donovan Rossa — England Wild With Rejoicing” declared the headlines in the Irish World. Months later, however, Dudley was shown to be a mentally unstable woman acting on her own delusions.
Little was heard from O’Donovan Rossa in the years that followed. He faded into obscurity, poverty and alcoholism. In the 1890s, in an effort to earn some money and regain some of his former notoriety, he wrote his autobiography, “Recollections” (1898). In it, O’Donovan Rossa offered a classic explanation of the exiled Fenian mindset: “Did I call myself an `exile’? An Irishman in New York, an `exile’! Yes, another word, and all the meanings of the word, come naturally to me, and run freely from my mind into this paper. My mother buried in America, all my brothers and sisters buried in America; twelve of my children born in America — and yet I cannot feel that America is my country . . . “
It was this image of the tragic Fenian exile that appealed to the new generation of Irish nationalists emerging in the early 20th century. To romantic nationalists like Padraic Pearse, O’Donovan Rossa represented the highest virtues of nationalist commitment: zeal, fearlessness and, above all, self-sacrifice. So when O’Donovan Rossa died in June 1915, they pounced on the opportunity to both honor a hero and stoke nationalist sentiment to still greater heights. They arranged for his body to be returned for a massive public funeral and burial in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. Many an Irish and Irish-American child would grow up memorizing, along with Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock, the stirring words offered by Padraic Pearse that day: “The fools, the fools, they have given us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree will never be at peace.”
It was this spirit that compelled Pearse and men like Connolly, McBride, Collins, de Valera and others to take up arms in the Easter Rising only eight months later.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
June 26, 1963: President John F. Kennedy delivers his memorable speech at the Berlin Wall. “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I’d take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ “
June 28, 1922: The Irish Civil War commences when forces of the Free State army, under the command of Michael Collins, attack anti-Treaty Republicans occupying the Four Courts in Dublin.
June 25, 1870: Nationalist Erskine Childers is born in London.
June 27, 1846: Home Rule movement leader Charles Stewart Parnell is born in Avondale, Co. Wicklow.
June 29, 1907: Civil rights lawyer and politician Paul O’Dwyer born in Bohola, Co. Mayo.