Our Fenian Dead

“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” – Patrick Pearse

This passionate call to arms and declaration of war was delivered by Patrick Pearse at the graveside of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.  It is one of the most famous speeches in Irish history and O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral was a show of military might, a genius stroke of propaganda created by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and one of the catalysts that led to the Easter Rising in 1916. It took place on this day in 102 years ago.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral was militant, proud, ominous, and powerful just like the man himself. He created the Phoenix National and Literary Society in 1856, which was the precursor organization to the IRB. After a lengthy prison sentence, O’Donovan Rossa was exiled to America, where he joined Clan Na Gael and the Fenian Brotherhood, two American organizations determined to aid in the fight for Irish freedom. He edited a newspaper called The United Irishman, which was dedicated to overthrowing the English government. He was also the first man to organize a bombing campaign in England, using dynamite to punctuate his goal of Irish independence. On more than one occasion he openly advocated for violence and assassinations.

O’Donovan Rossa’s power reached across the ocean, but he was not allowed to live at home in Ireland. In his later years, he mellowed and even regretted some of his deadly actions and as dementia took hold, he spoke nothing but Irish and became quite feeble. However, that is not how he is remembered which is largely due to one of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s chief strategists, Tom Clarke. He sent word to American Irish Republicans to deliver O’Donovan Rossa’s body immediately and began planning a spectacular show of strength for the old Fenian’s highly publicized funeral.

The crowds were enormous. Thousands of people from all over Ireland came to pay their respects while the Fenian’s body was displayed and thousands more traveled into Dublin for the funeral itself. The procession included every Republican organization from every county in Ireland and it took more than four hours to get through Dublin. Columns of armed Irish Volunteers followed the casket and the steady parade also included members of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, the young men of Na Fianna Éireann, and the ladies of Cumann na mBan. It was the first united display between these groups and an unforgettable sight for those who watched. Tens of thousands of spectators watched the lengthy procession and the rising tide of Nationalism was prominently displayed for everyone to see. It was an omen of things to come.

The funeral march ended in Glasnevin Cemetery where only those with printed tickets could enter. Thousands of others stood outside the gates while Patrick Pearse delivered his blazing graveside oration which was less about O’Donovan Rossa himself and more about fighting and dying for Ireland. Pearse christened the dead man as an unrepentant Fenian and that is exactly how he is still remembered today. Even now thousands flock to O’Donovan Rossa’s grave to pay their respects to both the man and his funeral. After all, it ended up being one of the loudest shots fired in the long war for Irish freedom, just as the men of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the future leaders of the Easter Rising had planned.

If you’d care to watch some of the funeral footage, click here.

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