Sunday 20 October 2019

Lethal legacy of Pearse's oration at the graveside of O'Donovan Rossa

A composite picture of Patrick Pearse, courtesy of RTÉ
A composite picture of Patrick Pearse, courtesy of RTÉ
O’Donovan Rossa's funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, 100 years ago this weekend
O’Donovan Rossa

Dermot Meleady

On Sunday, August 1, 1915, 100 years ago this month, Patrick Pearse delivered a coded call to arms at the grave of O'Donovan Rossa.

Born in Rosscarbery, Co Cork, and later a shopkeeper in Skibbereen, O'Donovan Rossa was 34 years old when he was arrested in 1865 along with other members of Fenian secret society The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and charged with plotting rebellion. Sentenced to penal servitude for life, he was released and exiled five years later to the US where he spent the rest of his life in the murky world of emigré extremist groups such as Clan-na-Gael.

In the early 1880s, O'Donovan Rossa organised the 'dynamite campaign' - the first-ever republican bombings in British cities. The extremism of his views may be gauged from his response to the 1882 Phoenix Park murders, the savage stabbing to death of the new Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, just arrived in Dublin, and the Under-Secretary, TH Burke, by members of the 'Invincibles' secret society.

Even a veteran Fenian like John O'Leary recorded his "utmost horror and loathing". But O'Donovan Rossa, writing in his New York newspaper, said: "they (the assassins) shall not have one word of condemnation from us."

By the end of his life, however, Rossa had become, according to the 'Daily Telegraph's' New York correspondent, a "mild and genial old gentleman" who had "long ago lost all hatred… against the British government." And the paper produced a telegram from him expressing sympathy with the Allied cause.

But in Dublin, a tiny cabal of conspirators within the IRB, led by Thomas Clarke, were determined to use Rossa's death to further their secret plans for a violent insurrection.

Conditions in Ireland in 1915 were not propitious to their project. The Home Rule Act, the fruit of the efforts of the elected Irish Party, had been signed into law a year earlier by King George, to be implemented at the end of the war. But the IRB wanted to win a republic in arms, not a peaceful evolution to Home Rule.

Clarke and the IRB arranged to have Rossa's body transported to Dublin for burial. John Dillon, the Irish Party's deputy leader, saw the danger. He told a colleague that the funeral would be a "big affair" that would be turned into a "physical force demonstration", but saw no way of taking it out of IRB hands. The outcome exceeded Dillon's forebodings: it was a brilliantly choreographed pageant of separatist propaganda. Rossa's remains, arriving in Dublin on July 27, were taken to the Pro-Cathedral for a memorial service, followed by removal to City Hall for three days' lying in state. An enormous crowd followed the funeral to Glasnevin Cemetery. Members of the Irish Volunteers fired volleys and sounded the Last Post over the grave.

Clarke had asked the writer and poet Patrick Pearse - an IRB member, though not yet inducted into the inner core - to deliver the graveside oration, telling him to "make it as hot as hell".

Pearse did not disappoint. As a boy he had made a pact with his younger brother Willie that they would one day die fighting for Ireland. By 1915, his biggest fear was that the opportunity for such a death might have passed.

So at the grave of O'Donovan Rossa he put his heart and soul into a bloody prediction that stirred the IRB and its sympathisers across Ireland. Referring both to Britain and the peaceful Irish Home Rule party he came to a stirring climax.

"They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that 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."

But Pearse and the IRB still faced an uphill battle in winning Ireland to wholesale insurrection for three reasons.

First, photos of O'Donovan Rossa's funeral appeared in the newspapers alongside pictures of battalions of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and Royal Inniskillings marching through Dublin en route for embarkation to the Front. Majority nationalist opinion was, in 1915, still overwhelmingly pro-Allies; a thousand men each week were enlisting in the Irish divisions of the British Army.

Second, the "oppression" that might have justified a resort to violence was absent. Police harassment of revolutionaries was light. Dublin Castle had forbidden police note-takers at the graveside to avoid provocation. Two months later, under the eyes of the police, James Connolly and Countess Markievicz were able to lead a Citizen Army force in a mock attack on the Castle in full arms and uniform. Similar activities in the Germany of the time would have been met with instant capital punishment. Finally, a quarter century of reforming legislation - much of it won by the Irish Party - had changed the face of Ireland. The Wyndham Land Act had already facilitated the transfer of ownership of 61pc of Irish land from landlords to tenants. State-funded cottages - 45,000 of them - for agricultural labourers had been built since 1906, eliminating the rural scourges of typhoid and cholera. A start was being made in tackling the worst social problem, the slum tenements of Ireland's cities.

A national university had been obtained for Catholics. Rural drainage and urban light rail schemes had been implemented, and the island's vast rail network was still being expanded. Old age pensions began in 1909 and national insurance in 1911.

These major material improvements meant little to Pearse. Given his obsession with dying a hero's death, it is not surprising to learn that he told Denis Gwynn, a fellow-member of the Gaelic League, in 1913 that "it would be better that Dublin should be laid in ruins than that the existing conditions of contentment and confident security within the British empire should continue".

At O'Donovan Rossa's graveside, Pearse simultaneously served notice of his intent to wage war in the name of the Irish people, won his place in the inner 'Military Council' of the conspirators and heralded a century of unmandated political violence.

Ireland, all unknowing that August 1915, would learn the lethal meaning of his words the following year, at Easter 1916.

Dermot Meleady is the author of a two-volume biography of John Redmond, 'Redmond: The Parnellite' (Cork University Press, 2008) and 'John Redmond: The National Leader' (Merrion, 2013)

Irish Independent

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