For all that he has been described as the creator of modern terrorism, by the time Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa died, he was a spent force, at least in the United States where he lived. “His whole reputation was made in the 1860s,” says Dr Gillian O’Brien, reader in Modern Irish History in Liverpool John Moores University. Through his August 1, 1915 funeral, she explains, the old Fenian “became more iconic in death than he had been for many decades in life”.
“The whole funeral was completely stage-managed, primarily by Tom Clarke,” she says, pointing out that as a member of the Irish Republic Brotherhood (IRB) since 1878 and a one-time United States resident who carried an American passport, “he was a bridge between the old Fenians and the new generation as represented by Pearse and also a bridge across the Atlantic.”
In seeing the propaganda potential of O’Donovan Rossa’s death and asking Patrick Pearse to speak at the funeral – he told him to make his speech “as hot as Hell” – Clarke was tapping into an old nationalist tradition whereby funerals could double as political rallies, largely immune from attempts to ban them as partisan gatherings.
The roots of the tradition began with the Young Irelanders who first consecrated Wolfe Tone’s grave in Bodenstown as the nationalist pilgrimage site it continues to be to this day, Dr O’Brien argues, with Daniel O’Connell’s funeral in August 1847, when tens of thousands lined Dublin’s streets, being the first of Ireland’s great political funerals albeit one somehow distinct from the general tradition.
“O’Connell had a massive funeral but no one ever talks of it,” she says, identifying the more obvious start of the tradition as the funeral of Terence Bellew MacManus in 1861. MacManus, she points out, is someone who matters “because of his funeral more than anything else”.
Transported to Australia’s Van Dieman’s Land – now Tasmania – after the failure of the Young Ireland rebellion in 1848, MacManus escaped to the United States in 1852. After his death in San Francisco in 1861, Dr O’Brien explains, the Fenians realised he could serve the nationalist cause in death. As his body was brought back to Ireland through America, it stopped along the way in various places, with the stops being used to raise money for the movement.
When his remains finally reached Ireland, they were brought by train from Cobh to Dublin. In Dublin a procession from the Mechanics’ Institute on Abbey Street took MacManus’s bier past such nationalist shrines as the spots where Robert Emmet was executed in 1803 and where Lord Edward Fitzgerald had been shot in 1798, before being buried in the Young Irelanders’ plot at Glasnevin Cemetery after a stirring graveside oration written by the IRB’s James Stephens.
The nationalist writer A.M. Sullivan, then opposed to the Fenians, subsequently described the funeral as “the greatest ever witnessed upon Earth”, continuing, “those who saw the gathering that followed his coffin to the grave, the thousands of stalwart men that marched in solemn order behind his bier, will never forget the sight”.
The execution of the “Manchester Martyrs” in 1867 provided an opportunity for further Fenian commemorations, including mock funerals across Ireland, and a similar ceremony to that for MacManus marked the funeral of the Fenian co-founder John O’Mahony in 1877. An estimated 20,000 turned out in his honour in New York and a further 70,000, by police estimates, watched the 4,000-strong procession to his grave in Dublin. As a graveside oration was forbidden, the Fenian writer Charles Kickham spoke in honour of O’Mahony outside the cemetery gates.
Ecclesiastical attempts to restrain such political funerals, tied with general clerical opposition to the IRB as an oath-bound secret society, did little to limit the popularity and success of the Fenian project to transform their dead into political martyrs to be venerated as part of Ireland’s nationalist pantheon, in their hope that their blood would become, to paraphrase Tertullian, the seed of independence.
Parnell’s funeral fitted awkwardly into this tradition, Dr O’Brien observes, describing how “all sorts of people” turned out among the more than 200,000 thought to have attended. “In death all bets are off,” she explains, speculating that some measure of guilt may have motivated many of those attending, as the nationalist leader’s death in 1891 at the age of 45, so soon after the Irish National Party had split over his relationship with Catherine O’Shea, meant that he never had the chance to be rehabilitated.
By the time O’Donovan Rossa died in 1915, the Fenians were masters of political funerals and the Church had realised that trying to stop them was counter-productive. When O’Donovan Rossa’s remains arrived in Dublin on July 27, 1915, they were taken to the pro-cathedral for a memorial service – an honour denied MacManus and O’Mahony – before being taken to City Hall to lie in state for three days.
Contemporary accounts reckoned that about 200,000 people lined the streets of Dublin during his procession from City Hall to Glasnevin, Dr O’Brien says, pointing out that while O’Donovan Rossa’s glory days in America had long passed, he was still well known in Ireland as someone who “had been treated appallingly in the 1860s”, says Dr O’Brien, and was known of for “his activism and involvement in the skirmishing and dynamiting campaign” in the 1880s.
In stage-managing the funeral, she explains, Clarke chose Pearse to give the graveside oration not merely because of his oratorical gifts but because of his youth. “Pearse as new generation is key,” she says, “and he acknowledges this in the speech, highlighting how rather than being someone who knew O’Donovan Rossa – he refers to them as ‘the grey-haired men who were young with him’ – he represents the new generation.”
Continuity was a central theme in Pearse’s speech, Dr O’Brien points out, saying that Pearse was trying to convey how his generation were standing on the shoulders of giants, sharing the same definition of freedom understood by the United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, and the Fenians.
“Let no man blaspheme the cause that the dead generations of Ireland served by giving it any other name and definition than their name and their definition,” he said, using a distinctive phrase that he would revive when proclaiming Ireland a Republic the following year “in the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood”.
Determined to deny the rebels a succession of posthumous propaganda parades, one of the few prudent decisions the British made in the aftermath of the Rising was to order the bodies of Pearse, Clarke and the others be dumped in a common grave at Arbour Hill prison and covered in quicklime to speed their decomposition.
Ultimately this proved for nothing, however; in the absence of orchestrated propagandist funerals, requiem and month’s mind Masses provided opportunities for popular sympathy for the rebels to rear its head and blossom.