The Catholic Press – 19 August 1915

O’Donovan Rossa


    The late O’Donovan Rossa—or, to give him his baptismal name, Jeremiah O’Donovan —is not one of the eminent figures in Irish history. He was not even one of the eminent figures in Fenian history. At the same time, he won a place of his own in the imagination of his contemporaries. He was deeply loved and deeply loathed during a great part of his life as one of the brave race of the irreconcilables. There was a good deal that was wild and dramatic about his career. He had many of the characteristics of the less philosophical kind of Continental anarchist. He was a rebel to his marrow, and not, like the great insurgents, a constructive rebel, but a destructive rebel. He stood above all things for the courage of defiance. He may have had his extravagant side, his vain side, his boastful side; he may have been, and no doubt was, rough in his ideals and in his ideas; but none of those things can destroy the picture of him as the man who through years of suffering never blenched. He was always gaily ready for the battle, whether it was with judge or with gaoler or with an Empire. Davitt once spoke of him as a “blatant ass,” who, so far from being a dangerous revolutionary, “had not sufficient courage to set fire to a British haystack.” But Davitt often spoke in his haste. Rossa’s courage was of the showy kind, but it was the courage of a man who could receive a sentence of penal servitude for life with a smile.

The Coming of the Fenians.

    Rossa, however, is memorable for another reason. He is one of those figures who represent the coming of Demos into Irish politics. Hitherto Irish revolutions had for the most part been led by men of the propertied and intellectual classes. The Fenians changed all that. They were not leaders of the people; they were the people themselves. It was largely from America that the impulse to democracy came. Sturdy young men, driven into exile by famine and eviction, learned in America that “One man is as good as another” is not only good theory, but good practice, and they sent the lesson home with shiploads of arms to reinforce it.
    Hence we find men like O’Donovan Rossa, the spirit-grocer of Skibbereen, taking a new prominence in Irish politics. It was with difficulty that Rossa himself succeeded in getting married in those days.

A Defiant Rebel.

    Rossa in those days openly hung up his rifle, his sword, and his old Croppy pike in the spirit-grocery at Skibbereen to encourage his neighbours. Meanwhile, he had moved to Dublin, where he worked as business manager of “The Irish People,” the Fenian weekly paper. He is best remembered, however, not for his business talents, but for his marvellous efficiency as an organiser of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the province of Munster.
    The great day in his life came in 1865, when the office of “The Irish People” was raided and the Fenian leaders arrested on the word of an informer. Keogh, the bankrupt Irish leader who had sold himself and his country for a judgeship, was one of the judges who tried the prisoners, and Rossa, who insisted on defending himself, made the dock a platform from which to preach the most extreme sedition and contempt of Keogh’s treachery. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty. In his address to the prisoner Keogh observed that the latter had been connected with seditious transactions as far back as the year 1863. “Ah,” Rossa corrected him contemptuously, “I am an Irishman since I was born.”
    His defiance in the dock was followed by a career of even more vigorous defiance in one prison after another. At Portland, at Pentonville, at Millbank, at Chatham, he was still the rebel against all injustices and indignities, and the punishments that his gaolers heaped upon him, in order to break his spirit, are one of tho scandals of English prison discipline in the nineteenth century. On one occasion he was kept with his hands manacled behind his back, except when at meals and asleep, for 34 consecutive days. When the facts were made public the “Spectator” denounced this as a “torture of a novel kind, certainly, but quite as brutal as the boot, and protracted with a vindictive pertinacity unprecedented, we hope and believe, in this century on this side of the equator.” Ultimately, in 1870, Gladstone amnestied the Fenian prisoners, but issued a decree of banishment against them.

Desperate Remedies.

    It is a miracle that Rossa survived the five years as a convict continually at war with stone walls and a system scarcely more human. If his spirit was not broken, however, it was embittered. The Rossa who had gone to gaol cheerfully as a soldier of the Irish Republic, eager for open battle, came out a pessimist who could see no hope save in dynamite. John O’Leary, that noble and gentle Fenian, wrote of him:
    “He lost a head, not naturally too strong, in prison, was made to suffer for his folly, came out of prison soured in temper. . . . Hence . . . much of the dynamite and explosive business of his, which, however, in his case has been mostly mere talk, though very wicked talk indeed.”

Rossa ‘s policy in the fierce days of the eighties may be gathered from his declaration that he was in favour of “dynamite, Greek fire, or hell fire if it could be had” for the destruction of the enemy of his country. Let no one be unjust to Rossa, however. He is the type of rough hero who is to be found in all revolutions—in Russia, in Poland, in France, in Italy. In temper he is more unlike the constructive Irish Nationalist like Thomas Davis than the destructive Irish Unionist of recent years. Even those j,w!ho disagree with his later theory of violence, however, cannot but respect his sinewy courage and his faith in an ideal. He was not a man who shook hi fist against the sunrise. He believed in the light, and struck out right and left, sometimes most vulgarly, in its defence. He was a bold and honest Fenian, who risked all things for his faith. That is an epitaph of which no Irishman need be ashamed!


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