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Sunday 27 May 2018

How a graveside call to arms changed the fate of a nation

Author Shane Kenna recounts how Patrick Pearse's graveside oration for Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa fanned the flames of Fenian fervour

Patrick Pearse delivers the oration over the grave of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa on August 1 1915. Major General John MacBride (standing behind Pearse) and Thomas J Clarke (far right of picture) would also be shot for their part in the Easter Rising the following
Patrick Pearse delivers the oration over the grave of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa on August 1 1915. Major General John MacBride (standing behind Pearse) and Thomas J Clarke (far right of picture) would also be shot for their part in the Easter Rising the following year.
O’Donovan Rossa
Dr Shane Kenna's new biography ‘Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian’

Shane Kenna

On 29 June 1915 Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa died in St Vincent's Hospital, Staten Island. His life was dedicated to the cause of Irish independence, a cause for which he had suffered imprisonment, exile and attempted assassination. For Patrick Pearse he was one of the most famous Fenians of his generation and represented "a man that to the masses of his countrymen then and since stood most starkly and plainly for the Fenian ideal".

When Rossa died in 1915, it was decided that his death could be used as a catalyst for the forthcoming Easter Rising. In America the preparations for his funeral were undertaken by veteran Fenian and Rossa confidant, John Devoy. Devoy had liaised with Rossa's wife Mary Jane and had sought the repatriation of Rossa's remains to Ireland.

With Mary Jane's support, Devoy had recommended that preparations for the funeral should be left in the hands of Thomas J Clarke. Clarke, the future signatory of the Easter Proclamation, was a revolutionary in the mould of Rossa and saw the potential in the timing of Rossa's death as a catalyst for rebellion, considering the growth of the Irish Volunteers and the war in Europe. Indeed, he had privately conversed with his wife Kathleen noting: "If Rossa had planned to die at the most opportune time for serving his country, he could not have done better."

On Devoy's initiative, Mary Jane sent Thomas Clarke £20 Sterling to purchase a grave for O'Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. On her behalf, Clarke had purchased a grave under the shadow of the Daniel O'Connell monument, beside Republican icons James Stephens, John O'Leary and within walking distance of Ann Devlin.

To prepare for the funeral, Clarke organised a committee known as the Wolfe Tone Memorial Association. It included a veritable Who's Who of Irish history, including Edward Daly, James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Major John MacBride - all of whom would tragically be executed following the Easter Rising in 1916.

Other notable members of the funeral committee included Eamon de Valera - soon to become the dominant political voice of his generation - Cathal Bruga, Richard O'Carroll, Countess Markievicz, Arthur Griffith, Darrell Figgis, Kathleen Clarke, Seán McGarry and James Stritch.

Clarke had chosen Thomas MacDonagh to oversee the details of the funeral procession, which also included members of the GAA, the trades unions, the Irish Citizen Army and Redmond's National Volunteers. Interestingly, the funeral of O'Donovan Rossa would be the one and only time that the four organisations would parade together.

When the body of O'Donovan Rossa arrived in Ireland, his remains were escorted to Dublin's Pro-Cathedral.

Here Rossa was received by the Rev Father Bowden who recited prayers for the dead with Mary Jane and her daughter Eileen. As organiser of the funeral, Thomas MacDonagh had arranged for a requiem mass at 11am on Wednesday July 28 celebrated by Fr JP Flanagan. Attended by Mary Jane and Eileen, it was noted that in death he drew a large clerical attendance, with representatives of the Dominicans, Benedictines, Carmelites and Capuchins, to name but a few.

From the Pro-Cathedral, the Irish Volunteers led the funeral procession toward Dublin's City Hall on Dame Street, where O'Donovan Rossa was to be held until his funeral on Sunday 1 August. The removal to City Hall was also viewed as an opportunity for the Irish people to pay their respects to the deceased Irishman as the coffin was placed on a catafalque with the upper portion of the casket removed to allow for viewing. In a militaristic show, his body was protected by a guard of honour led by Edward Daly.

At City Hall a private service for the family and a small coterie of invited guests was held. It was presided over by the nationalist Priest Fr Michael O'Flanagan, who delivered a fiery oration celebrating the life of O'Donovan Rossa holding how he represented a "manly hatred of the oppressors of Ireland".

In anticipation of the funeral, Clarke had recruited Patrick Pearse to deliver the graveside oration. Clarke had been inspired by his speech-writing capabilities and oratorical skills, believing that Pearse had the potential to be the vocal and youthful face of Irish Republicanism. The choice of Patrick Pearse to deliver the graveside oration, however, was a gamble: Pearse was a novice within the Republican movement. But in choosing Pearse, Clarke had sought to add vibrancy to the funeral proceedings.

He instructed an anxious Pearse, who knew that he was to deliver one of the most inspiring speeches of his career, to make his oration "as hot as hell and throw discretion to the winds".

Beginning at City Hall on August 1, 1915 the O'Donovan Rossa funeral procession, led by the James's Street Band and followed by the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, the Fianna, Cumann na mBan and the National Volunteers, proceeded to Glasnevin Cemetery. Arriving at the cemetery, the funeral cortège was met by Irish Volunteers who had formed a line from the Mortuary Chapel to the cemetery gate.

Pearse awaited at the graveside and, following a brief requiem mass and the lowering of Rossa into his grave, Patrick Pearse, in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers, rose to deliver his oration.

Delivering a remarkable speech, he finished with a threat that would become one of the most important verses in Irish History:

"The defenders of this realm have worked well in the secret and the open. They think they have pacified Ireland. They think they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think they have foreseen everything, think they have provided against everything; but 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!"

It was followed by a volley of shots over the grave, led by Captain James O'Sullivan of the Irish Volunteers. Pearse's speech struck a cord with the assembled and symbolised an ideological justification of the forthcoming Easter Rising in 1916.

Dr Shane Kenna holds a PhD in Irish History from Trinity College, Dublin. His new biography 'Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian', has just been published by Merrion Press

Irish Independent

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