I first met William Rooney, thirteen years ago, in a back room in a Dublin street, where a score or so of very young men came to work for an Ireland the demigods of the hour despised, and within an hour of our meeting I knew I had met one who could and would do great things. In the years of association and intimacy that followed I came to build my hopes for Ireland on him, and to regard him as the destined regenerator of his people; but it was only in the moment of his death I realised the full nobility and immensity of the man.
When I say that William Rooney, had he lived, would have become, perhaps, the greatest leader Ireland has known, I am aware that to those who did not know the man, and who have little knowledge of his character and his work, my saying so will appear the extravagance of one in whom friendship overrules judgement. Nevertheless, I believe it to be absolutely true. Rooney was the greatest Irishman whom I have known or whom I can ever expect to know. I do not claim him as the greatest of Ireland’s men of genius. Such a claim would be absurd. He was a man of genius, deep learning and ardent patriotism. But there have been many Irishmen of genius as great or greater, of learning as deep or deeper, and some few of patriotism as ardent; but he was dissimilar to other men in this – that he had established between his soul and the soul of Ireland a perfect communion, and all his genius, all his knowledge, all his thought, all his energies, were united and devoted to realising Ireland’s soul to Ireland’s people. No man for generations knew Ireland so well as he did, and as no man loved Ireland better, and united in himself so many qualities effective for the service of his beloved, I hold that no man could have led her so truly as Rooney, had his passion not burned out his life.
In gathering together his poems, I have not been influenced by any desire to exhibit him as a literary artist, for although he was an artist in grain and a poet in soul, he wrote verse merely to rouse his countrymen, even as Davis did, not to gratify his or their literary appetites. Therefore, I have include half-a-dozen pieces which both he and I considered as poor from the literary standpoint.