The 1916 Societies recently hosted a talk on the legendary Fenian Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. The talk was delivered by Shane Kenna.
This July 20th sees the release of the much-anticipated book ‘Unrepentant Fenian’ by esteemed author Dr. Shane Kenna, on his personal hero, the great and unbreakable Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. The Séan Heuston Society Dublin, as a precursor to this, held a talk with Dr. Kenna on the life and times of the man himself, in a well-attended lecture in the National History Museum in Dublin city centre.
From the off Dr. Kenna let it be known Rossa was a hero to him for a variety of reasons. Starting from his early childhood and informing the assembled of his bizarre fear of fairies, which wasn’t the start we were expecting – considering Rossa was seen as indomitable! Rossa had a happy childhood though and over the course of his life married three times and had an amazing eighteen children in that time.
Rossa was involved at an early age in republicanism, forming the ‘Phoenix National and Literacy Society’ (later amalgamated into the IRB), whose sole aim was the ‘liberation of Ireland through force of arms’. So he had set out his stall early in life. His love for Thomas Davis and the progressive politics he espoused was discussed, showing Rossa was not simply a ‘Brits Out’ man but believed, as did Davis, in the emancipation of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irishman, and in a more just and equal society for all.
Dr. Kenna detailed Rossa’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment in England, which was most-noted for the harsh treatment meted out to Rossa. He remained defiant through all this with one notable episode, whereby he refused to take off his cap to the prison doctor and thus got three days in solitary confinement on a bread-and-water diet for his troubles. Added to that he had himself shackled for thirty-five days for throwing a chamber pot at the prison governor, saying something to the effect of ‘that’s the only salute you’re deserving off of me!’ Despite all this and the never-ending hardship he suffered, such was the man he managed to get elected as an MP for the Tippeary constituency, which was declared void by the embarrassed British because he was an ‘ imprisoned felon’.
He was released from prison and exiled to the USA for the rest of his sentence in 1871, following an investigation into the conditions at which Fenian prisoners were being kept. He joined John Devoy, along with three others, on the S.S. Cuba to the USA, which saw them dubbed ‘The Cuba Five’. Dr. Kenna told of his determination to be as much a thorn in Britain’s side as possible from the other side of the Atlantic. And that he did, joining Clann na Gael and setting up his own newspaper titled ‘The United Irishmen’, where he advocated openly the use of arms to dislodge Britain from Ireland. There was of course his famous ‘skirmishing fund’, which he used to raise funds for the republican cause back in his beloved homeland.
Quite rightly in summarising, Dr. Kenna bemoaned the fact O’Donovan Rossa was largely forgotten for his life but remembered more for his famous funeral, that saw the immortal speech by Pearse at his graveside where he proclaimed that ‘Ireland unfree would never be at peace’. It was not however surprising, as his funeral was seen as a precursor to the Rising itself. Tom Clarke and others knew the propaganda coup his funeral would be, telling those in America to ‘get his body home at once’. And that is was and then some, but sadly it was this that has relegated his life in struggle to a footnote in history in comparative terms to his death and funeral.
If Shane Kenna’s talk is anything to go by his upcoming book is sure to be a treat. He will be speaking at the National Grave Association’s unveiling of a plaque on the O’Donovan Rossa Bridge on August 1st, 100 years to the day of his funeral, at 3pm. Also, on August 2nd there is an independent ‘People’s Celebration’ taking off from City Hall at 2pm to his graveside in Glasnevin Cemetery. We’d like to thank Shane for for giving us his time on what was a busy day for him.