Wednesday 22 May 2019

My 1916: The funeral oration that sparked the Rising

Pearse's speech at the graveside of O'Donovan Rossa is commemorated as a key moment in history, Glasnevin Cemetery tour guide Bridget Sheerin says

Tour Guide Bridget Sheeran pictured in Glasnevin Cemetery
Tour Guide Bridget Sheeran pictured in Glasnevin Cemetery

My great grand-aunt was one of the founding members of Cumann na mBan in 1914, the women's organisation which would take an important role in the Rising.

Her husband was the medical officer to St Enda's school in Rathfarnham which was run by headmaster Padraig Pearse, and their son Patrick Tuohy was a pupil there. Patrick went on to become one of our foremost portrait artists, but at the time his surgeon father wanted his son to follow him into medicine.

This led to a bit of an impasse, but Willie Pearse, who taught art at St. Enda's, recognised Patrick's potential as an artist and it was Willie that persuaded the father to let his son attend the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he trained under William Orpen.

Patrick would go on to become portrait painter to the Joyce family. His mother would have moved in very cultural circles. She would have known influential figures including Maud Gonne, Countess Markievicz and Jenny Wyse-Power.

I'm not sure if Patrick was in the General Post Office during the Rising. Some records say he was, but looking at the witness statements that have come out, I have not been able to find him. I have certainly found his father, who was across the road from the GPO in what was then a bank. He was with a group of Red Cross nurses tending to the many injured. The family are all buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

On August 1, the Cemetery will host events to commemorate the centenary of the burial of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. The funeral of the Fenian leader set the ball rolling for the events of Easter 1916. He was a teenager during the Great Famine and had witnessed the terrible hardship that it brought. In 1856 he founded the Phoenix National and Literary Society. It was a cultural movement, but one aimed at getting an Irish Republic. This society joined up with the Irish Republican Brotherhood of James Stephens to become the Fenians.

Rossa was jailed in England in extremely harsh conditions, before an amnesty in 1870 for Fenian prisoners offered him a choice. He could spend the rest of his life in an English prison or exile himself from Ireland. He chose exile and he and four others went to America. There he became deeply attached to the Fenian cause, and was involved in orchestrating a bombing blitz campaign in England.

Before his death in June 1915 he became unwell, and suffered symptoms of dementia. It was a sad end for a man who'd demonstrated such lifelong courage.

Meanwhile back in Ireland and Britain, DORA, the Defense Of The Realm Act, had been passed as a response to the Great War. This draconian piece of legislation clamped down heavily on civil liberties. You could not assemble in public. You could not even organise a football match.

But Tom Clarke, who had spent 15 years in prison for his part in the English bombing campaign, saw the opportunity provided by Rossa's passing, as did the Fenian leader John Devoy. Rossa had said he'd be happy to be buried in an unmarked grave like his father. But Devoy decided no, the veteran Fenian would be brought back and buried among the greatest.

Far more than 10,000 turned out for the O'Donovan Rossa funeral. Connolly's Citizen Army was there, fully armed. The Volunteers were there, fully armed. The authorities were also there, as well as Cumann na mBan, who were on the funeral organising committee.

Tom Clarke had asked Padraig Pearse to do the oration. Out of the crowd stepped Pearse in the uniform of the Volunteers and he gave one of the great speeches of Irish history, ending with: "The fools, the fools, they have left us with our Fenian dead. And while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace."

That speech transformed the political landscape. People went home and talked about it. They analysed it, they printed it, they circulated it. Less than a year later the Rising took place.

I was a teenager when the 50th anniversary of the Rising happened. I was very excited about it. I remember thinking, 'wouldn't it be amazing to be alive for the 100th anniversary?'

Little did I realise then that as we approach such a great event, I'd be working in such a hallowed place as Glasnevin Museum and Cemetery. Something else I'm so pleased about is that here at Glasnevin we have a wonderful education programme run by Annie Birney which includes tours based around the events of Easter 1916. One of the ideas Annie has come up with is a speech-making workshop based on Pearse's graveside oration at the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa exactly 100 years ago.

We want to give children the opportunity to visit the graves, to go out on the tour, to learn about the people out there, and then to come back and make their own oration about what they would have said about a person they came across.

When I was a teenager, for the 50th anniversary I knew little about the Ireland in which the Rising took place. All I knew was that Irishmen died. I thought they were heroes and felt very sorry for them. Today I know the broader picture. I'm now aware of all the men in the trenches, which weren't mentioned 50 years ago. I'm especially aware now of the Cumann na mBan women who played such an active part in the Rising, 36 of whom are buried here.

The tour at Glasnevin speaks to this broader picture, while still fully honouring those who fought and died for Irish freedom.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News