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100 years on: Explosive story of O'Donovan Rossa

Was Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa a 'militant unconquerable dynamitard', a family man or a talkative west Cork man with a love of sarcasm? He was all of these things and more, according to a new biography. Author Shane Kenna talks to Brian Campbell

Patrick Pearse delivering the oration over the grave of O'Donovan Rossa on 1 August 1915 (Image courtesy of Glasnevin Museum)

JEREMIAH O’Donovan Rossa: it’s quite a name and the man himself has quite a story. A prominent republican, he declared himself the man who invented terrorism after masterminding a dynamite campaign in England.

Rossa was born in west Cork in September 1831 and was active in politics from a young age. He was arrested for plotting rebellions and defended himself in court for 11 hours. He served time in British prison and was elected to the House of Commons while in jail.

He was returned to the Commons in an 1869 by-election for the Tipperary constituency but the election was declared invalid because he was a felon. When he was exiled to the US, he orchestrated a republican bombing campaign in England in the 1880s and became `public enemy number one’. He even survived an assassination attempt by an Englishwoman in New York.

One of the key events in Rossa’s story was his funeral a century ago. After his death in New York aged 83, his body was returned home and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. It was a huge affair which gained massive amounts of publicity for the Irish Volunteers and the more militant IRB.

Patrick Pearse’s graveside oration on August 1 1915, was essentially a call to arms ahead of the Easter Rising eight months later. Pearse's line "...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" is especially well-known.

Add to this that Rossa was married three times and fathered 18 children and it’s surprising that there hasn’t been a Hollywood film made about him.

If such a film does get made, it could be scripted using Shane Kenna’s comprehensive new biography on O’Donovan Rossa. It is subtitled Unrepentant Fenian, taken from Pearse’s description of Rossa at that funeral oration.

Dublin-based Kenna says the funeral – which was given a lavish state re-enactment last month, attended by Irish President Michael D Higgins – was a hugely significant event in Irish history.

“It was a pre-meditated pre-revolutionary act,” says the author. “The idea was to show the British state that they’re there and it was a moral justification for the rebellion.

“Thomas Clark, from Tyrone, [a prominent member of the IRB] genuinely believed that this funeral was going to be the catalyst for the revolution. He takes a huge gamble; he decides to recruit Pearse for the graveside oration.

“That was controversial within the IRB, because nobody really knows Pearse and those that do know he’s a former home ruler and they don’t know where he stands. But Clark fought strongly for Pearse; he thought he could be the youthful face of republicanism. He said to him, 'Make your speech as hot as hell; throw discretion to the wind’.”

When he was in exile in the US, Rossa continued to be a prominent republican – involved with Clan Na Gael, setting up the United Irishman paper and masterminding the 'Fenian dynamite campaign’.

“He argues that it’s terrorism,” says Kenna. “I disagree with that term because I find it’s a very pejorative term in its modern context. He doesn’t refer to himself as a terrorist but to the strategy as terrorism. At his dynamite school in Brooklyn, he had Irish people trained in how to use explosives.

“He perceived that the odds, militarily, were against Ireland. He argues that the only way to take on Britain was to adopt Britain’s tactics. So a lot of the Fenian dynamite campaign, in terms of the terrorism that they adopt, was inspired by the actions of the British army in India, Afghanistan and Africa.

“He was a colourful man and a remarkable man. There are two versions of him: the image in the British press of this militant fire-eating unconquerable dynamitard and then his family image which is completely at odds with that newspaper portrayal.”

The book includes rare and previously unpublished photos, as well as a fold-out reproduction of Robert Ballagh’s painting of Rossa’s funeral. Kenna is off to the US in October for a couple of events and says he’ll meet some of Rossa’s grandchildren, who are planning to release a documentary next year.

The author points out that Rossa had a good sense of humour.

“When he was elected to the House of Commons, he was very sarcastic about it. He wrote a letter to the home secretary in London to ask if he could be transferred to another prison on the basis that it’s less of a commute [to Parliament]. He also said he would give his maiden speech in Irish just to annoy the British politicians. He was a very jovial and very sarcastic man; a typical west Cork man who liked to talk.”

:: Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian is published by Merrion Press (£16.99/€19.99). Shane Kenna will give the annual Harry Holland lecture at the Feile na Carraige at Cumann na Méirleach GAA club on the Upper Springfield Road in Belfast on Thursday October 8 at 7pm.


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