Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was born Jeremiah O’Donovan in Roscarbery, West Cork on 10 September 1831. He took the appendage Rossa at a later date in deference to the family’s perceived Celtic roots in the Rossmore area of Cork. His family were hit hard by the famine of 1845-52 and suffered greatly. They lost their linen bleaching business, all the money they had was used to pay their rent and the family risked starvation and eviction. He later described their plight:
"I did not know how my father felt, I did not know how my mother felt; I did not know how I felt myself. There were four of us children. The potato crop had gone. The wheat crop had gone".
To relieve his family’s distress Rossa’s father, Denis, took a job as a supervisor with the Board of Works. Working on a road through Rory Glen, he employed Rossa as one of his workers. However, Denis O’Donovan contracted famine fever and died on 25 March 1847 leaving the family penniless. The famine had a profound impact on the young Rossa and influenced his Republicanism. This was represented by his best-known poem ‘Jillen Andy’, which written twenty years later graphically illustrated the horrors of the Famine. To the end of his life Rossa refused to acknowledge that the Famine was an act of God, considering it a blasphemy to blame God. He believed that the British government was to blame, and that they were ‘worse than the demons of Hell’.
In 1856 Rossa was a founding member of the Phoenix National and Literary Society in Skibbereen, West Cork. He chose its name in deference to the Phoenix, famed for its ability to rise from the ashes and saw this as representing Ireland rising phoenix-like once again. The society grew throughout the area, its members were nationally minded and disaffected with the nature of British rule in Ireland. Within two years of its foundation a further organisation had been established in Dublin, 17 March 1858, known as the Brotherhood and later the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Rossa was an early recruit to the IRB and facilitated a merger between the two societies. He recalled how ‘we were not long working when a great change was noticeable in the temper of the people. In the cellars, in the woods, and on the hillsides, we had our men drilling in the night time, and wars and rumours of wars were on the wings of the wind.’ He was not long at work when, based on the information of an informer within the Phoenix Society, he was arrested and imprisoned in Cork Jail and was held without trial until July 1859. Rossa remained active within the IRB and in May 1863 left Ireland for New York City on Fenian business, returning home later that year on foot of an offer to be involved with an IRB newspaper, The Irish People.
Rossa's Final Years
On 19 May 1894 O’Donovan Rossa left New York returning to Ireland for the first time since his trial in 1865. He was met by a huge crowd that had assembled in anticipation of his arrival in Cobh harbour. His return was stage-managed by the IRB and amongst the crowd were armed men for his protection in case an attempt was made to arrest him. He set off on a lecturing tour of Ireland and travelled throughout the country discussing his experiences in prison and unveiled a monument to Manchester martyrs in Birr, Co. Offaly on 22 July. He returned again in 1905 with his wife Mary Jane. They intended to settle in Cork but Mary Jane’s health declined and they were forced to return to New York. While his wife’s health improved, Rossa increasingly displayed a marked deterioration and was plagued with muscular spasm and degeneration. Diagnosed with chronic neuritis, he was confined to bed. In his final years he displayed signs of dementia and believed himself to be back in prison. Moved to St. Vincent’s Hospital Staten Island, he was confined to a wheelchair being ‘wheeled around the halls and wards’, where he spoke nothing but Irish and regressed into his childhood. Dying on 29 June 1915 his wife, Mary Jane recalled ‘there was no struggle. There was no pain. He simply stopped breathing and lay perfectly still with a large, conscious solemn gaze as if he saw grand visions of the future that satisfied his heart and soul.’
The Gaelic American Cover (1831/1915)Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
Organising History: Part One
When O’Donovan Rossa passed away questions were immediately raised as to what funeral arrangements would be made. The issue of a public funeral for Rossa had come to the fore long before his death and a series of events in 1914 highlighted its possible importance and placed it on the path to becoming a historic event. At this time the issue of Home Rule was dominating Irish politics but Rossa’s poor health meant that he could not give any opinion publically on Irish political affairs. In April 1914 rumours that he was on the verge of death prompted a push for control of a possible public funeral and set off a series of events that would lead to the historic day the following year at Glasnevin Cemetery. Despite his age Rossa’s name was still a powerful one and some of those in favour of Home Rule clearly had fears about what his funeral might become. A small group approached his wife, Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa, offering to raise money for the funeral of her husband that would see him brought home to Ireland and she consented to their request. John Devoy (TD 32, South New Chapel), the old Fenian and one of the Cuba Five, was supportive of the family and made aware of the fund raising exercise approached the family to inform them of his opinion that the men were not being entirely forthcoming with their motives. Mary Jane made her unhappiness at the situation clear in her correspondence with Devoy: “…I took it for granted all Rossa’s friends were of his way of thinking that they were all revolutionists but they knew very well what my sentiments were and that I’d rather chop my fingers off than sign a paper that would result in handing over control of Rossa’s funeral to any ‘ites but full freedomites like himself.” The events made completely clear how politically important the funeral of Rossa could potentially be and also prompted Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa to place her confidence in John Devoy for any future plans relating to the funeral of her husband. She made a clear statement that “John Devoy represents Rossa’s family in this matter, fall in under his instructions”
Organising History: Part Two
It was over a year later when Rossa did pass away and no time was wasted in putting plans into place for the funeral. Devoy quickly relayed the news to his old friend Tom Clarke in Dublin. Clarke had worked alongside Devoy in Clan na Gael, the American sister organisation of the IRB. He previously spent fifteen years in prison for his part in the dynamite campaign advocated by Rossa and was now a prominent figure in the IRB in Ireland. His wife Kathleen later recalled that on hearing the news of Rossa’s passing he stated that “if Rossa had planned to die at the most opportune time for serving his country he could not have done better” It was with good reason that Clarke made these comments. Since shortly after the outbreak of the First World War plans were being formulated for an armed insurrection against British rule in Ireland. The funeral of such a well-known Fenian figure as Rossa presented a unique opportunity to organise a large-scale public act of defiance and open the pathway to what would become the 1916 Rising. It was a chance to heighten expectations of action and to make the statement that although Rossa and many of his generation had passed on his ideals lived on. In America Devoy made the arrangements for the return of Rossa’s remains and sent money to support the event. In Ireland Tom Clarke set up an organising committee to deal with the arrangements for the funeral and took command of it. By early July over sixty men and women had joined the funeral organising committee. It was broken down into sub-committees dealing with every aspect of the event including publicity, finance, trains and transport, receptions and obsequies. Each sub-committee elected a Chairman and Secretary who in turn reported to the general committee. The committee included the names of many who were destined to become some of the most well known figures in Irish history, including; James Connolly, Arthur Griffith, Eoin MacNeill, Countess Markievicz, Joseph Plunkett and many others. No element of the funeral was left to chance and Tom Clarke worked tirelessly on the project. He picked Glasnevin Cemetery as the place to bury Rossa and in particular a part of the cemetery that had a significant history. In 1867 John Martin, a well known Young Irelander, purchased a plot in the South section of the cemetery. To this empty plot he organised a symbolic funeral march on 8 December 1867 honouring three men known as the Manchester Martyrs who had been executed in Salford Gaol. A memorial was placed above the unused grave and in the following years it became a focal point of commemoration and political demonstration. When James Stephens died in 1901 and John O’Leary in 1907 they were both buried alongside the memorial to the Manchester Martyrs. The result was that this particular area of Glasnevin Cemetery, which eventually became known as the Republican Plot, had begun to be imbedded as a place of importance in the conscience of those seeking an independent republic in Ireland. What happened at the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa only acted to reinforce this.
The Republican Plot at Glasnevin (1831/1915)Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
Republican plot, Glasnevin cemetery. Dublin.
The Funeral: Part One
The remains of Rossa were brought from New York to Liverpool where they were transferred to the S.S. Carlow bound for Dublin. Even the seemingly simple process of moving Rossa’s coffin from the American ship to the Irish ship became an elaborate affair involving fifty Irish Volunteers carrying him two miles. Frank Thornton (SD 24 South New Chapel) later recalled the incident: “I got instructions to make arrangements with the Old City of Dublin Steampacket Company to have their boat draw alongside the American liner ‘St. Paul’ in the Mersey when O’Donovan Rossa’s body arrived on that boat. The whole anxiety of our American friends of the Clann na Gaedheal and also of the I.R.B. and the Volunteers in Dublin was to ensure that Rossa’s body did not touch English soil on its way back to Ireland for burial. All arrangements were made to have the City of Dublin boat alongside, but owing to the late arrival of the ‘St. Paul’, brought about by bad weather, this was not possible. However, we got over the difficulty in another way. We mobilised fifty members of our Volunteers in Liverpool and boarded the ‘St. Paul’ at Prince’s Landing Stage and carried the body from there right along the Dock Road to the Nelson Dock on Irish shoulders, the journey being over two miles.” When they finally arrived on Tuesday 27 July at the North Wall in Dublin his remains were removed to the Pro-Cathedral where they stayed until the following day when they were brought to City Hall following requiem mass. Here they lay in the vestibule, the coffin on view with a special glass cover to allow people to see the Fenian leader. On Sunday 1 August, the morning of the funeral, all the planning came together. Trains from all parts of the country began to arrive and unloaded the day-trippers who took up their positions throughout the city. Coming from Offaly, Cavan, Galway, Sligo, Mayo, Derry, Antrim, Derry and Cork amongst many other counties they converged on Dublin en masse around 11am.
Ribbon worn at the funeral.
The Funeral: Part Two
At 2.25pm on Sunday 1 August 1915 Rossa’s coffin was placed on a hearse led by four horses and departed for Glasnevin fifteen minutes later. The organisation of the procession was the responsibility of Thomas MacDonagh. The St. James’s Band followed by Dublin members of the Irish Volunteers and their mounted section led it. Next came the hearse, flanked by a guard of honour comprising of veterans of the Fenian movement and members of the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and Fianna Éireann. Rossa’s widow and daughter came next in a carriage accompanied by Father Michael O’Flanagan who was to conduct the service. Immediately behind were members of various organisations and bodies representing a wide cross section of Irish society and politics. These included various companies of the Irish Volunteers from all parts of the country, members of the Irish National Volunteers, Hibernian Rifles and Cumann na mBan. Also represented were a large number of trade societies, public bodies, the Gaelic Athletic Association, Irish National Foresters, Ancient Order of Hibernians and numerous other groups. The crowd following the hearse was estimated at 5,000 and it took just under one hour for the cortege to march past a fixed point. It was also estimated that about ten times that figure lined the streets on the way to the cemetery. The procession began at a slow pace to the sounds of the Death March but soon quickened to the tones of more triumphant marching music. The funeral organisers had every intention of making history and it was hoped that as many people would witness it as possible. Turning up George’s Street they made their way to St. Stephen’s Green, down Dawson Street to College Green and across the Liffey making their way to Parnell Square. From here the cortege cut across to the Phibsborough Road and continued on towards Glasnevin Cemetery. Given the scale of the procession and the distance it covered it was understandable that it took over three hours to reach the gates of the cemetery arriving at 6pm. Thousands of people had gathered at the entrance but admittance was regulated and ticketed by the organisers. The remains of Rossa were brought into the mortuary chapel under the shadow of the O’Connell tower and prayers were recited. The coffin was then carried the short distance to the grave. Here those admitted to the graveside formed a square and Father O’Flanagan recited the burial service and prayers in Irish. When he was finished Patrick Pearse stepped forward to deliver the funeral oration, a speech that would leave its mark on Irish history. As Pearse finished the crowd stood in silence for some moments before breaking into applause and cheers. Then, in a further act of defiance, the firing party stood forward and fired three volleys over the grave, followed by the Last Post. Many would later see those volleys as the first shots of the 1916 Rising and as Pearse dictated a new generation had at this moment stepped forward, aware of their predecessors but determined to shape their own destiny.
Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa Memorial Card.
The Funeral in Photographs
The Funeral in Photographs.
The funeral procession as it prepares to leave City Hall for Glasnevin.
Rossa’s coffin being brought to the hearse on 1 August 1915 (1831/1915)Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
Hearse Passing through Dame Street on 1st August 1915.
State Commemoration (2015/2015)Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
Saturday 1st August 2015. The official State commemoration of the centenary of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa Grave 2015 (2015/2015)Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
The grave of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa
A copy of the oration made at the graveside of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. 1st August 1915.
The Speech (1831/1915)Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
Colour version of the famous photo - “The Fools, the Fools, the Fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead – Patrick Pearse, Glasnevin Cemetery 1915.
Exhibit compiled and completed for Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
Luke Portess - Digital Manager
Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
Conor Dodd - Historian
Glasnevin Cemetery Museum
With thanks to
Davide Cavagnino & Dirk Friedrich Google Cultural Institute