Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was born Jeremiah O’Donovan in Reenascreena, County Cork on 10 September 1831. While he was the son of tenant farmers, the family could trace their ancestry back to nobler days when before the English confiscation of Irish land they had held the parish of Kilmeen, the honorary title “Rossa” coming from the town of Rossmore in that parish. Rossa saw the horrors of the Great Hunger and Britain’s indifference to Irish suffering first hand as a child; losing his own father to starvation in 1847. He was then taken in by a cousin to work in his shop in Skibbereen; and, as per the song, the rest of his life would be dedicated to “Revenge for Skibbereen “.
In 1856, the young O’Donovan Rossa formed the “Phoenix National Literary Society”; a cover for a less prosaic secret society dedicated to the liberation of Ireland. The name O’Donovan Rossa chose for his liberation effort was particularly apt; the Phoenix being the mythical Firebird bird that is reborn from its own ashes which would become an enduring symbol of Ireland’s quest for freedom. The “Phoenix National Literary Society” was a precursor to, and would later merge with, the much larger Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) found in Dublin two years later. It would be future members of the IRB that O’Donovan Rossa help found that would lead the Rising in 1916. The IRB would also adopt the name “Fenians” based on the legendary warrior poets of Irish myth the Fianna.
O’Donovan Rossa quickly gained notoriety as one of the IRB’s most effective members, so much so that he was jailed by British Authorities for ten months without trial in in 1858. Upon his release, he became the editor for the Fenian newspaper “The Irish People” while secretly preparing for a rising to liberate Ireland. In 1865, the British authorities closed down “The Irish People” and arrested most of the IRB leadership including O’Donovan Rossa. O’Donovan Rossa was tried and convicted on the charge of high treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. He would spend the next six years in some of Britain’s most notorious prisons. At one point O’Donovan Rossa was manacled to a wall continuously for 35 days; another time he was put into solitary confinement on bread and water for refusing to take off his cap to the prison’s doctor. In 1869, he was elected to the House of Commons to represent Tipperary, though the election was voided as O’Donovan Rosa was an imprisoned felon.
In 1871 after a public outcry over the scandalous conditions prevalent in the British prison system, O’Donovan Rossa and four other imprisoned Fenians, including the future IRB leader John Devoy, were offered release from prison on the condition that they would accept self-imposed exile. Boarding the S.S. Cuba, the “Cuba Five” as they became known received a hero’s welcome when they arrived in New York which O’Donovan Rossa was to call home for the rest of his life. Such was O’Donovan Rossa’s popularity that he was on his landing in New York put forth as a candidate for Mayor in an unsuccessful bid to oust Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall. O’Donovan Rossa established his own newspaper The United Irishman and instituted a “skirmishing fund” to finance future risings in Ireland. His continued advocacy and use of physical force in England to achieve Ireland’s independence soon caused a rift between O’Donovan Rossa and John Devoy, but it did bring Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill for Ireland to the floor of the British Parliament. In 1885 he was shot by an Englishwoman; the British government denied responsibility, but even O’Donovan Rossa detractors did not fully believe this.
O’Donovan Rossa faded into the background as a new generation under Parnell attempted to secure Ireland’s independence by constitutional methods However, the futility of trying to achieve Ireland’s freedom through constitutional methods was clearly realized during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-1914 when Britain with a wink and a nudge allowed self-described loyalist in Northern Ireland to block the legally enacted Third Home Rule Bill. On June 29th, 1915 the unrepentant Fenian O’Donovan Rossa passed away in Staten Ireland at the age of 83 after a long illness. Ironically, despite a life dedicated to Ireland’s freedom, it would be O’Donovan Rossa’s death where he would make his greatest contribution. Realizing that constitutional methods were ineffective in dealing with an imperial empire that would change the rules to its own ends, Irish Nationalist saw the powerful symbology of O’Donovan Rossa and his link to the earlier armed struggle for Ireland’s independence. While political rallies could be suppressed, not even the British authorities would interfere with a funeral. Tom Clarke, who would be the first signatory of the Proclamation a year later, telegraphed IRB leader John Devoy “Send [O’Donovan Rossa’s] body home at once“.
The body of O’Donovan Rossa was received home to a hero’s welcome. His funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Dublin, Ireland was united in its grief and respect for the old unconquered Fenian with a procession of over 6,000 members of the Irish Volunteers, Catholic Church, GAA and other organizations marching in the funeral procession to Glasnevin Cemetery in front of an estimated 60,000 onlookers. It was then that a young school headmaster named Patrick Pearse stepped forward to give O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral oration, a speech that is one of the greatest orations in history and whose call still speaks to us today:
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.
Like the phoenix he chose to symbolize his first efforts to win Ireland’s independence, Ireland’s march to freedom would arise again new from O’Donovan Rossa’s ashes at Easter 1916.
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian