2015 Press Releases

O’Donovan Rossa remembered 100 years after funeral

4 Aug 2015
Gabriel Doherty, UCC School of History at the State Commemoration of O'Donovan Rossa on the RTÉ TV 9pm News, Saturday August 1.

Thousands attended the State commemoration for the centenary of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery  at which UCC’s historian Gabriel Doherty was interviewed for the RTÉ 9pm News.

Gabriel Doherty also gave a talk on Sunday at the Pearse Museum, St Enda’s Park, Rathfarnham, on Pearse’s oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s graveside – see text below.

 "May I begin by expressing the most sincere thanks possible to Brian Crowley, the director of the Pearse Museum, for the invitation he has extended to me to say a few words at the opening of this timely, stunning, exhibition. For someone, such as I, who regards Pádraig Pearse as the magnificent soul of Irish history, as the figure who first inspired me to study that history, and by so doing, to become a better citizen, a better man, an invitation such as this is not just a professional honour, it is accompanied by a sincere sense of personal pleasure, and one that I shall treasure for a very long time indeed. Brian – thank you.

This occasion arises, of course, from yesterday’s magnificent commemoration of the centenary of one of the greatest graveside orations of not just Irish, but world, history. With today’s surroundings in mind, I am all too conscious of the impossibility of trying to compete with the soaring words penned by Pádraig Pearse for, and spoken by him on, that occasion - words that are quite rightly regarded as lighting the rhetorical fuse for the 1916 Rising, and whose fame shall endure as long as inspiring words last, as long as noble ideals last, as long as honourable principles last, as long as Ireland itself lasts. Fortunately my task today is a trifle easier than Pearse’s a century ago, for I am not seeking to inspire anyone present to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them. No, my purpose is more narrowly defined. What I hope to achieve in the 7 or 8 minutes or so at my disposal (and I promise I shall not exceed them) is simply to offer a personal perspective on two of the towering figures within the Irish Fenian tradition specifically, and of the nation’s history generally.

In another setting, I would be obliged, and would seek, to investigate the differences between the two men, for differences there were, but I hope I shall be forgiven if I concentrate today on what united them, for these similarities are more numerous, more significant, more striking than the minor points on which some distance can be discerned between them. I hope I shall also be forgiven if I use as my focus, not just Pearse’s graveside panegyric, but his less well-known, but, in some respects, even more enlightening ‘Character Study’ of O’Donovan Rossa – both of which texts appeared, of course, in the souvenir booklet that was produced in conjunction with the original funeral and which has been reproduced by Glasnevin Trust for this centenary – for which publication and for whose hospitality yesterday many thanks are due to its chairman John Green, its chief executive George McCullough, and all the staff of the Trust.

I take both the oration and the study as my sources, because together they tell us a very great deal about the character, hopes and ideals of both men, their subject (Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa) and their author (Pádraig Pearse). They shed light not merely on Pearse’s state of mind when he was about to ‘go public’ on his personal commitment to revolution, but, more importantly, on his rationale for such action from a national standpoint. The occasion for this exposition was, lest we forget, the burial of a man who was correctly regarded across the entire Irish political spectrum as not just an but the unrepentant Fenian, par excellence – a view that was shared by the most advanced physical force republican separatist through the broad home rule constituency and on to the most doctrinaire unionist. For Pearse, the death at this precise moment in Irish history of a figure that he and so many others regarded as the personal embodiment of the unbroken and unbreakable Fenian tradition was not just a happy coincidence but an event positively providential in its augury of a new epoch.

For Pearse and O’Donovan Rossa looked to the Irish past, not as we are now constantly enjoined, indeed press-ganged, to see it, as a nightmare from which the Irish nation should seek to awaken (though both acknowledged its nightmarish qualities), but rather as a source of limitless inspiration for the future for the imaginative and the daring. For both men this tradition was not just characterised by abiding glories throughout its long past – a distinctive, indigenous culture, a religious faith inseparable from the popular will, a sense of shared collective destiny that required complete freedom – but this historic tradition demanded the performance of glorious actions in the ever-present.

It was their secure grounding in this confident shared perspective of their national past that enabled both men to be so audacious in their thoughts and in their deeds, in what they did and in what they failed, or rather refused, to do. This reading of Irish history emboldened them to attack their enemy (and it makes little sense to deny that both men, and so many others of the day, regarded Britain as their enemy) not where it was at its weakest, but where it appeared to be at its strongest – from Rossa’s viewpoint, by his militant defiance of a localised prison regime whose purpose was to break an individual’s spirit; from Pearse’s viewpoint, by his military defiance of a globalised political regime whose purpose was to break the nation’s spirit. Citadels of British power were thereby transformed by a shared sense of history into crucibles within which the dignity of their personal, and Ireland’s national, struggle of and for principle was cast into permanent shape.

Here, Pearse’s praise for Rossa in the ‘Character Study’ is extraordinarily enlightening, for it lists the personal qualities possessed by Rossa that Pearse, and others, sincerely believed to be the defining characteristics of the Irish people as a whole – lovable, understanding, out-going, warm, humane, picturesque, wise, at one and the same time intellectually intense yet also gleeful, simultaneously defiant and humorous: in a word, gaelic, a concept he understood not as an antiquarian relic but as a vital, dynamic, all-embracing, all-nurturing, eternal cultural well-spring. For Pádraig Pearse to be the greatest man or Fenian was not to be confused with being the most typical man or Fenian, but it is striking that of the two the same Pádraig Pearse – that extraordinarily atypical genius - preferred the latter. It was Rossa’s stereotypical qualities as a ‘mere’ Irishman, naked and unashamed, that Pearse treasured most – for if one such man, if one such typical man, could achieve greatness, maybe even immortality, by attacking Britain’s hold on Ireland where it appeared to be not alone at its strongest, but positively impregnable, then there was nothing (including national freedom itself) that could not be achieved by other typical Irish men and Irish women acting along similar lines. Pearse found in Rossa not alone someone whose political beliefs mirrored his own, but someone whose personal convictions could help bring these beliefs to glorious fruition, for the benefit of all.

To take this point further, two of the most revealing passages in the entire canon of Pearse’s writings are, first, his endorsement of Rossa’s rejection of the ‘new departure’ of 1879, that juncture of physical force separatism, social agitation and parliamentary pressure championed by Devoy, Davitt and Parnell; and, second, his description of home rulers (though intriguingly not home rule itself) as foolish and dishonest. Surely here we have the definitive proof of Pearse finally breaking free of the ideological cocoon within which he had been transformed, nay transfigured, over the previous 2-3 years. We see him almost literally casting off the self-imposed mental shackles necessitated by voluntary political subordination to Britain, and his unfettered passage into the wide open and welcoming territory of the authentic intellectual and political freedom that could only be realised in a republic faithful to its national traditions - a free republic of the imagination of which O’Donovan Rossa had always been a citizen.

Pearse’s championing of the memory of O’Donovan Rossa at his graveside at this time is sometimes dismissed as a mere tactical gesture, as if, to use the modern parlance: ‘Any Dead Fenian Will Do.’ Such a view could not be more wrong – Pearse regarded O’Donovan Rossa as a unique figure, one who stood outside of history for his embodiment of transcendent, unchanging national values. For Pearse O’Donovan Rossa was not some form of political base metal, whom he could transform by rhetorical alchemy into ideological gold; rather was he a diamond, a national jewel who had been formed by being subject over time to unimaginable pressures – and as with all diamonds, as with his west Cork native hearth, he was both beautiful and tough; indeed O’Donovan Rossa’s principal beauty for Pearse lay precisely in his toughness.

At the time of his death O’Donovan Rossa was a living legend, whose name, as Pearse noted in his character study, had already ‘passed into a proverb.’ For a man like Pearse who famously cared not for death so long as his fame lived after him - not because he was personally vain or ambitious, but because he recognised the inspirational value of heroism – O’Donovan Rossa already was what he wished to be. As journalists and poets, both were already Men of The Word, and Pearse, by his sacrificial leadership in 1916, was soon to join O’Donovan Rossa as a Man of The Deed.

And so we have come here today to honour the memory of two men: Pádraig Pearse, the magnificent soul of Irish history, and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, her unrepentant Fenian, and I, for one, am proud to speak in praise of both."

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF