The May 11, 1901 edition of The United Irishman newspaper began in a sombre note; a eulogy written by one of its co-founders Arthur Griffith in the memory of its other co-founder and one of his closest friends in the fledging nationalist movement, William Rooney, who had passed away several days earlier at just 27 years old.
Griffith made parallels with the great Young Irelander Thomas Davis in commemorating his friend, christening him “the Davis of the National Revival”:
“Like the name of Thomas Davis, the name of William Rooney was no household word in Ireland; but the movements which have revivified a nation sinking into death sprang from his patriotism, were nursed by his genius, and carried to success by his energy, industry, and fiery enthusiasm. The Irish language is today a living force, and to William Rooney let the greater praise belong; the nation rescued from the demoralisation of fetid Cockneyism owes its rescue to the ceaseless toil of William Rooney.”
Twenty years later, as the Civil War brewed in a post-War of Independence Ireland, Michael Collins fondly remembered the teachings of Rooney in The Path To Freedom, writing:
“Rooney spoke as a prophet. He prepared the way and foresaw the victory, and he helped his nation to rise, and, by developing its soul, to get ready for victory.”
Today, William Rooney is almost a forgotten name in the tradition of Irish nationalism, his writings and teachings generally unknown even to many of the most ardent nationalists. His death, at such a young age, younger than even Davis when he died, came at a time when the nationalist movement in Ireland was still fledgling, yet nonetheless his tireless work in those formative years helped set the foundation of what was to come.
William Rooney was born in Dublin on 29 September 1873, the son of a veteran of the Fenian Rising, and was educated by the Christian Brothers. In his youth, he was a member of the literary organisation, The Irish Fireside Club, where he first met Griffith.
They would as adults co-found organisations such as the Celtic Literary Society, where Rooney would edit the Society’s journal An Seanachaidhe, and also Cumann na nGaedheal (Society of the Gaels). During this time, Rooney would become an accomplished writer for many nationalist organs, contributing to the likes of United Ireland, Weekly Freeman, Northern Patriot and the Shan Van Vocht.
The Shan Van Vocht, a highly influential nationalist organ in its own right founded by two young nationalist women from Ulster, Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston (who was known more famously by her pen name Ethna Carbery) folded in 1899. Rooney, who was a frequent contributor to The Shan Van Vocht, took over the newspaper and its subscription lists, and alongside Griffith, co-founded The United Irishman. It was noted by Padraic Colum, a friend of both men, that many of its early editions were almost entirely written by just the two men under several different aliases such was the lack of early support, yet The United Irishman would endure. And it was in The United Irishman that Rooney would first articulate his nationalist programme.
By the early 1890s, a cultural nationalist strain of Irish nationalist thought began to emerge more prominently. In November 1892, Douglas Hyde would give his incredibly influential “The Necessity For De-Anglicising Ireland” lecture to the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, and alongside the Gaelic scholar Eoin MacNeill, the two men would form the Gaelic League, with MacNeill becoming the early editor for its organ, An Claidheamh Soluis.
The Gaelic League became arguably the most powerful and influential nationalist organisation in modern Irish history; commanding interest and support from most if not all walks of Irish life as the preservation of the Irish language and customs became more and more of a vital issue to be confronted.
Rooney, who was one of the earliest and leading figures of this emerging strain of thought, saw the roots of the decline of Gaelicism in the emergence of parliamentarianism with the advent of Catholic Emancipation. For Rooney, integrating the Gael into the institution of parliamentarianism taught the Gael to look to England for its remedies, which ultimately accelerated the wholesale adoption of English customs and the English language by the Irish people.
“I am not now arguing that the Union was not mainly responsible for the downfall of the remarkable prosperity which characterised the last twenty years of the 18th century, but I do assert that much of it was due to the wholesale desertion by our leaders of the Gaelic ideal. The idea of O’Connell using English in his campaign at a time when five-sixths of the people had only the faintest glimmering of that tongue, and his slavish adulation of English sovereigns, did more to degrade, demoralise, and impoverish our people, than all the enactments of the British monarchs or their henchmen in the Anglo-Irish Parliament. By discarding the Irish tongue as a weapon to rouse them to action, he made them think it was a thing to be despised, and by perpetually beslavering whatever sovereign happened to be on the throne he weaned them to a respect for that power which their ancestors had contemned. By teaching them to look for the remedying of their grievances to England, he made them distrustful of their own strength. Catholic Emancipation, by opening up offices to Irishmen in the English service, carried off a host of that brain and talent which had previously worked against Britain.”
With the death of Charles Stewart Parnell, widely regarded as Ireland’s greatest parliamentarian, and the subsequent decline of the Home Rule Party that followed, Rooney saw a burgeoning opportunity for the growth of a new nationalist outlook that would look beyond parliamentary agitation and “advanced nationalism”:
“There can be no question that the movement making for the perpetuation of ideas Irish has grown and widened considerably since the fall of parliamentarianism by the death of Parnell. The Irish language movement, the Feis Ceoil, the literary revival, and a few kindred propagandas have to a great extent stopped the dryrot which, commencing with the partial subsistence of Fenianism, had all but entirely emasculated the nation by the Union of Hearts.”
De-anglicisation was paramount in the philosophy of Rooney, railing against foreign sports in preference of the native hurling and Gaelic football, foreign literature (which he termed rather forthrightly the “gutter literature of England”) and foreign fashion. He lamented at the loss of the distinctively Irish placenames which had now been anglicised and was, like many nationalists, eager to stay the emigration which had been a facet of Irish life since the Famine.
“We do not expect that Ireland, any more than other nations, should refuse to accept and applaud anything of worth that has been produced by other peoples; what we complain of is, that while we all but entirely neglect our own productions, we encourage foreign ones simply and solely because they are foreign.”
Rooney however was also quite practical, understanding that much of the Irish nationalist canon had an English-language literature. The prominent Irish Irelander D.P Moran, in his work The Philosophy of Irish Ireland, remarked that the Young Irelanders had “put a few more nails in the coffin of the Gael” by bringing into life “a mongrel thing which they called Irish literature in the English language.”
Rooney however objected to this line of reasoning, stating:
“Surely no one is lunatic enough to imagine that we can de-Anglicise Ireland by teaching the people to regard as non-Irish the writings of Davis, Mitchel, Mangan, and their confréres and followers? Father Hickey, one of the leaders of the present Gaelic movement, has admitted that an essay of Davis’s first directed his attention to Irish. Are we to shut off all possibility of stirring others in the same fashion? Are we to ask the young men and women who have had the misfortune to have never heard Irish spoken to give up reading until they are able to satisfy themselves with the literature of Gaelic Ireland? Are we further to force those of our kith and kin who can write to go over to the service of the enemy because they are unable to give their thoughts to us in a tongue which, through no fault of theirs, they do not know?”
Rooney’s most comprehensive work however can be found in his lecture titled “The Development of the National Ideal”, given to the Celtic Literary Society and published on January 13, 1900 in The United Irishman.
It is, as Rooney admits, not a lecture that treads over original ground, but nonetheless is an excellent lecture on the development of the national ideal throughout the differing periods of Irish history. Rooney traces this national ideal from the commencing of the Norman invasion to the then-present day. In particular, Rooney examines the Remonstrance of the Irish Chiefs addressed to Pope John XXII by Domhnall Ó Néill during the Bruce invasion of Ireland in 1317, where one of the earliest assertions of a separate Irish nationality could be found.
“We will not cease to fight against and annoy them until the day when they themselves, for want of power, shall have ceased to do us harm… Until then we will make war upon them unto death to recover the independence which is our right… willing rather to face danger like brave men than to languish under insults.”
“Let these – the words of Domhnall O’Neill to Pope John – burn into our souls. Six hundred years have elapsed since they were written. Let us show that the spirit which inspired them is still a living, breathing power. Let us teach it to the young, so that if the opportunity is denied to us, they may know the truth and feel their duty.”
To Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, Rooney credits the emergence of the modern national ideal:
“An Irish State self-supporting, self-defending, her flag respected in every port, her shores and her sympathy for the oppressed of every race and colour. Her voice in the council of the nations; her language, her laws, and her achievements the pride of all her people. Such is a national ideal, and to Tone do we owe the fact that any of its most militant features still recommend themselves to the vast bulk of our countrymen.”
Rooney was a prolific and versatile writer, contributing poetry, balladry, historical biographies and political articles to The United Irishman and his untimely death would prove a heavy loss to a movement that was continuing to find its feet. His presence was sorely missed by those who knew him so well, namely Griffith. It is thus easy to see the parallels that have been made between Rooney and Davis for Davis exhibited many of the same qualities; both intensely prolific and idealistic in their journalism, both shared a nationalism rooted in the cultivation of a national culture, both shared a gentle and warm presence in the company of their friends, and unfortunately both shared the same unfortunate ignominy of dying young.
William Rooney did not live to see the revolution that would come, yet the fruits of his work, the ideals and doctrines he asserted would remain in the hearts and minds of successive generations of future nationalists. And as Davis’s untimely death did not lessen his stock amongst the Young Irelanders but rather made his name immortal, let us hope that Rooney’s name, if not as prominent as Davis’s, and indeed his teachings, be rescued from the clutches of irrelevancy.
William Rooney’s works on Cartlann, including a PDF of a collection of some of his writings, can be found here.