A Character Study
O’Donovan Rossa was not the greatest man of the Fenian generation, but he was its most typical man. He was the man that to the masses of his countrymen then and since stood most starkly and plainly for the Fenian idea. More lovable and understandable than the cold and enigmatic Stephens, better known than the shy and sensitive Kickham, more human than the scholarly and chivalrous O’Leary, more picturesque than the able and urbane Luby, older and more prominent than the man who, when the time comes to write his biography, will be recognised as the greatest of the Fenians — John Devoy — Rossa held a unique place in the hearts of Irish men and Irish women. They made songs about him, his very name passed into a proverb. To avow oneself a friend of O’Donovan Rossa meant in the days of our fathers to avow oneself a friend of Ireland; it meant more: it meant to avow oneself a ‘mere’ Irishman, an ‘Irish enemy’, an ‘Irish savage’, if you will, naked and unashamed. Rossa was not only ‘extreme’ but he represented the left wing of the ‘extremists’. Not only would he have Ireland free, but he would have Ireland Gaelic.
And here we have the secret of Rossa’s magic, of Rossa’s power: he came out of the Gaelic tradition. He was of the Gael; he thought in a Gaelic way; he spoke in Gaelic accents. He was the spiritual and intellectual descendant of Colm Cille and of Seán an Díomais. With Colm Cille he might have said, ‘If I die it shall be from the love I bear the Gael’; with Shane O’Neill he held it debasing to ‘twist his mouth with English’. To him the Gael and the Gaelic ways were splendid and holy, worthy of all homage and all service; for English he had a hatred that was tinctured with contempt. He looked upon them as an inferior race, morally and intellectually; he despised their civilisation; he mocked at their institutions and made them look ridiculous.
And this again explains why the English hated him above all the Fenians. They hated him as they hated Shane O’Neill, and as they hated Parnell; but more. For the same ‘crime’ against English law as his associates he was sentenced to a more terrible penalty; and they pursued him into his prison and tried to break his spirit by mean and petty cruelty. He stood up to them and fought them: he made their whole penal system odious and despicable in the eyes of Europe and America. So the English found Rossa in prison a more terrible foe than Rossa at large; and they were glad at last when they had to let him go. Without any literary pretensions, his story of his prison life remains one of the sombre epics of the earthly inferno.
O’Donovan Rossa was not intellectually broad, but he had great intellectual intensity. His mind was like a hot flame. It seared and burned what was base and mean; it bored its way through falsehoods and conventions; it shot upwards, unerringly, to truth and principle. And this man had one of the toughest and most stubborn souls that have ever been. No man, no government, could either break or bend him. Literally he was incapable of compromise. He could not even parley with compromisers. Nay, he could not act, even for the furtherance of objects held in common, with those who did not hold and avow all his objects. It was characteristic of him that he refused to associate himself with the ‘new departure’ by which John Devoy threw the support of the Fenians into the land struggle behind Parnell and Davitt; even though the Fenians compromised nothing and even though their support were to mean (and did mean) the winning of the land war. Parnell and Davitt he distrusted; Home Rulers he always regarded as foolish or dishonest. He knew only one way; and suspected all those who thought there might be two.
And while Rossa was thus unbending, unbending to the point of impracticability, there was no acerbity in his nature. He was full of a kindly Gaelic glee. The olden life of Munster, in which the seanchaidhe told tales in the firelight and songs were made at the autumn harvesting and at the winter spinning, was very dear to him. He saw that life crushed out, or nearly crushed out, in squalor and famine during ‘47 and ‘48; but it always lived in his heart. In English prisons and in American cities he remembered the humour and the lore of Carbery. He jested when he was before his judges; he jested when he was tortured by his jailors; sometimes he startled the silence of the prison corridors by laughing aloud and by singing Irish songs in his cell: they thought he was going mad, but he was only trying to keep himself sane.
I have heard from John Devoy the story of his first meeting with Rossa in prison. Rossa was being marched into the governor’s office as Devoy was being marched out. In the gaunt man that passed him Devoy did not recognise at first the splendid Rossa he had known. Rossa stopped and said, ‘John.’ ‘Who are you?’ said Devoy. ‘I don’t know you.’ ‘I’m Rossa.’
Then the warders came between them. Devoy has described another meeting with Rossa, and this time it was Rossa who did not know Devoy. One of the last issues of The Gaelic American that the British Government allowed to enter Ireland contained Devoy’s account of a recent visit to Rossa in a hospital in Staten Island. It took a little time to make him realise who it was that stood beside his bed. ‘And are you John Devoy?’ he said at last. During his long illness he constantly imagined that he was still in an English prison; and there was difficulty in preventing him from trying to make his escape through the window. I have not yet seen any account of his last hours: the cabling of such things would imperil the Defence of the Realm.
Enough to know that that valiant soldier of Ireland is dead; that that unconquered spirit is free.
Do hiarraḋ orm-sa laḃairt indiu ar son a ḃfuil cruinniġṫe ar an láṫair so agus ar son a ḃfuil beo de Ċlannaiḃ Gaeḋeal, ag molaḋ an leoṁain do leagamar i gcré annso agus ag gríosaḋ meanman na gcarad atá go brónaċ ina ḋiaiḋ.
A ċáirde, ná bíoḋ brón ar éinne atá ina ṡeasaṁ ag an uaiġ so, aċt bíoḋ buiḋeaċas againn inar gcroiḋṫiḃ do Ḋia na ngrás do ċruṫuiġ anam uasal áluinn Ḋiarmuda Uí Ḋonnaḃáin Rosa agus ṫug sé ḟada ḋó ar an saoġal so.
Ba ċalma an fear ṫu, a Ḋiarmuid. Is tréan d’ḟearais caṫ ar son cirt do ċine, is ní beag ar ḟuilingis; agus ní ḋéanfaiḋ Gaeḋil dearmad ort go bráṫ na breiṫe.
Aċt, a ċáirde, ná bíoḋ brón orainn, aċt bíoḋ misneaċ inar gcroiḋṫiḃ agus bíoḋ neart inar gcuirleannaiḃ, óir cuiṁniġimís naċ mbíonn aon ḃás ann naċ mbíonn aiséirġe ina ḋiaiḋ, agus gurab as an uaiġ so agus as na huaġannaiḃ atá inar dtimċeall éireoċas saoirse Ġeaḋeal.
It has seemed right, before we turn away from this place in which we have laid the mortal remains of O’Donovan Rossa, that one among us should, in the name of all, speak the praise of that valiant man, and endeavour to formulate the thought and the hope that are in us as we stand around his grave. And if there is anything that makes it fitting that I, rather than some other, I rather than one of the grey-haired men who were young with him and shared in his labour and in his suffering, should speak here, it is perhaps that I may be taken as speaking on behalf of a new generation that has been re-baptised in the Fenian faith, and that has accepted the responsibility of carrying out the Fenian programme. I propose to you then that, here by the grave of this unrepentant Fenian, we renew our baptismal vows; that, here by the grave of this unconquered and unconquerable man, we ask of God, each one for himself, such unshakable purpose, such high and gallant courage, such unbreakable strength of soul as belonged to O’Donovan Rossa.
Deliberately here we avow ourselves, as he avowed himself in the dock, Irishmen of one allegiance only. We of the Irish Volunteers, and you others who are associated with us in today’s task and duty, are bound together and must stand together henceforth in brotherly union for the achievement of the freedom of Ireland. And we know only one definition of freedom: it is Tone’s definition, it is Mitchel’s definition, it is Rossa’s definition. 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.
We stand at Rossa’s grave not in sadness but rather in exaltation of spirit that it has been given to us to come thus into so close a communion with that brave and splendid Gael. Splendid and holy causes are served by men who are themselves splendid and holy. O’Donovan Rossa was splendid in the proud manhood of him, splendid in the heroic grace of him, splendid in the Gaelic strength and clarity and truth of him. And all that splendour and pride and strength was compatible with a humility and a simplicity of devotion to Ireland, to all that was olden and beautiful and Gaelic in Ireland, the holiness and simplicity of patriotism of a Michael O’Clery or of an Eoghan O’Growney. The clear true eyes of this man almost alone in his day visioned Ireland as we of today would surely have her: not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well.
In a closer spiritual communion with him now than ever before or perhaps ever again, in a spiritual communion with those of his day, living and dead, who suffered with him in English prisons, in communion of spirit too with our own dear comrades who suffer in English prisons today, and speaking on their behalf as well as our own, we pledge to Ireland our love, and we pledge to English rule in Ireland our hate. This is a place of peace, sacred to the dead, where men should speak with all charity and with all restraint; but I hold it a Christian thing, as O’Donovan Rossa held it, to hate evil, to hate untruth, to hate oppression, and, hating them, to strive to overthrow them. Our foes are strong and wise and wary; but, strong and wise and wary as they are, they cannot undo the miracles of God who ripens in the hearts of young men the seeds sown by the young men of a former generation. And the seeds sown by the young men of ‘65 and ‘67 are coming to their miraculous ripening today. Rulers and Defenders of Realms had need to be wary if they would guard against such processes. Life springs from death; and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations. The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.