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The ‘Southern Star’, the ‘Skibbereen Eagle’ and the coverage of the death and funeral of O’Donovan Rossa

August 3, 2015

This weekend saw the first state commemoration of the 2016 Centenary Commemorations – the commemoration of the centenary of the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, on 1 August 1915. The funeral – and perhaps more importantly the panegyric delivered at his graveside by Patrick Pearse, which is seen as kickstarting the new iteration of the IRB, and paving the way for Easter Rising – was the largest seen in Dublin since that of Parnell in 1891. Yet what of the coverage of the death and funeral of this persona, this connection with founders of the IRB, and in particular in his home region of West Cork? What does this tell us of how O’Donovan Rossa was viewed – albeit posthumously – amongst his people? And what does it tell us about the newspapers in his home region during a period dominated by the First World War, and the divisions within Irish nationalism?

O’Donovan Rossa would have been more than familiar, before he left Skibbereen for Dublin in the early 1860s, with the Eagle (and in fact published some of his writings in the paper). Over the next thirty years, the Eagle was perched close to the top of the tree in Cork County: in 1892 Dublin Castle estimated that the paper was selling close to 2,500 copies per week. This monopoly was challenged with the foundation of the Southern Star in 1889 and its formal launch as a weekly paper three years later. Fred Potter, the eccentric owner and editor of the Eagle, did not react well to the appearance of a rival. Over the next fifteen years the two papers conducted an infrequent war in the column inches, and also in the boardrooms of local government bodies for lucrative printing and publishing contracts.

FPE Potter

F.P.E. Potter, founder of the ‘Skibbereen Eagle’ (Source: ‘Southern Star Centenary Supplement’ (Skibbereen, 1989))

By 1915 the Star had established itself as the dominant weekly paper in West Cork; the Eagle continued to preach Potter’s curious mix of Catholicism, unionism (or more correctly anti-nationalism), and conservatism. However both papers displayed no small measure of parochialism, especially when it came to West Cork people that made names for themselves in national or international circles. Both papers would, for example, celebrate the return of emigrants or sons of emigrants to their native soil. Such was the case in the times when O’Donovan Rossa visited West Cork. In 1894, 1904 and again in 1906 his visits were the subject of much coverage: almost one-quarter of both papers were devoted to reports and leading articles on the subject of his visit, the planning thereof, and the reception accorded.

Death of O’Donovan Rossa

Being weekly papers, the immediacy of O’Donovan Rossa’s death on 28 June 1915 was not commented upon until the ensuing weeks’ issue. The Eagle on 3 July devoted a quarter of its editorial page to an obituary. This called Rossa “a very remarkable man of a time which is now historic.” He had been “got hold of by James Stephens when he proceeded to organise his vast and extraordinary conspiracy.” The obituary painted him as a man “not only given to Gaelic studies … but … a love for historic-genealogical research”. His period in the Irish People was skimmed over, but his famous conduct at his trial following the raid on the offices of the paper in 1863 was recounted at length. No mention whatever was made of his central role in keeping militant Fenianism afloat after 1867 (and more importantly following the New Departure), nor of the dynamite campaigns that terrorised the UK in the 1880s and 1890s. Instead, O’Donovan Rossa was portrayed as a writer and journalist, who had been a member of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (proposed by the great John O’Donovan) and had been elected as MP for Tipperary in 1869.

The Star devoted three-quarters of the front page of its 3 July issue to coverage of Rossa’s death. Included in the report were lengthy extracts from his book Rossa’s Recollections, and a number of lines of verse which he had composed while in prison, such as the ones reproduced below:

“My prison chamber now is iron lined,

An iron closet and an iron blind,

But bars, and bolts, and chains can never bind

To tyrants’ will the freedom-loving mind.

Beneath the tyrant’s heel we may be trod,

We may be scourged beneath the tyrant’s rod;

But tyranny can never ride roughshod

Over the immortal spirit-work of God.”

An interesting contrast was provided on the following page, where a lengthy report was published on a lecture by Fr Thomas to Bandon Catholic Young Men’s Society on the subject of “Gallant Belgium and her Death Struggle.” And whilst an editorial sang Rossa’s praises, they fell for the elaborate hoax perpetrated by the Daily Telegraph correspondent in New York in attributing pro-British quotes to Rossa on his deathbed, seasoned with some unpalatable comments regarding “Sinn Feiners and would-be pro-Germans at the present time.” Rossa’s death was, indeed, almost overshadowed in terms of editorial comment by the visit of Sergeant Michael O’Leary V.C. of Inchigeela to his home – he being “the bravest soldier in the British Army”. A case of contempt or of time passing? Or of a hero of a bygone age superseded by a hero of a new age – a new “local boy done well”?

The following weeks’ issue was filled with tributes to Rossa from various local government bodies in West Cork. Skibbereen Urban District Council adjourned its meeting following lengthy tributes from local notables such as James M Burke and Timothy Sheehy. On page two a lengthy appreciation from the pen of Geoffrey Wycherley was published, which concluded thus:

“His was a life of thrilling incident and devotion to the cause of Irish liberty, and he goes calmly down to his grave, far removed from the sound of guns in this terrible European conflict – guns which he often fondly hoped to see mounted on the hills of Ireland, to free the land of his love from foreign yoke. Irishmen will be pleased that Rossa is to be buried in Glasnevin, sided by side with other of his illustrious countrymen.”

Yet this was diluted somewhat with allusions to Rossa’s life and death at a recruiting meeting in Skibbereen – which was reported on page six. This again was down to the fake report in the Daily Telegraph, and also another clear example that people will propagate different meanings from the same speech.

Rossa’s close connections with Rosscarbery were further elucidated in a letter published on the front page of the Star issue of 17 July. The writer, under the nom de plume ‘Sax Romer’, traced the connections between Rossa and Rosscarbery and also some of the people associated with him during his early adulthood in West Cork. The writer concluded hopefully:

“So it may be inferred that in dying in America, Rossa died among his own … and if the old Irish graveyard will receive his bones in his beloved Ross, it might be taken that his happy spirit will ‘lean forth with joy from the gold bars of Heaven.’”

This was shattered by a leading article on page six:

SS 17 July 1915 ODR Funeral Plans

Which led to the following letter in the issue of 31 July from ‘Rossexsis’:

“Sir – I have been for a long time under the impression that this great and well-beloved patriot wished his remains to be interred with his ancestors in the Abbey Graveyard, Rosscarbery, where they would not be far from those of poor Felix and Charlie Andy – the former interred by Ross himself, the latter by the late Timothy O’Mahony of Ross – RIP … The graveyard at Ross is one of the most picturesquely situated cemeteries in the Kingdom, surrounded by soft sylvan scenery, overlooking Ross Bay, within sight and sound of the Sunny Southern Seas – a meet resting place for the illustrious dead. It seems such a pity then if it has been decided that he should rest elsewhere.”

The Eagle drew attention, during the month of July, to the existence of an O’Donovan Rossa Burial Committee which existed in Cork city and county for some years, but had since become “too immersed in upholding the Defence of the Realm Act to do aught that might be misconstrued.” Members of the AOH (Board of Erin), in spite of their origins, would, in the words of the papers’ city correspondent, hardly take part “in what will constitute such an embarrassment to the Government”. Judge Daniel Cohalan, who was a regular visitor to West Cork (he owned a holiday house in Glandore village) was prevailed upon to intervene and “secure for West Cork the body of the most indomitable West Cork man of the age.” The spectre that the funeral would be misinterpreted as an anti-recruiting march, given the approaching anniversary of the Bachelor’s Walk massacre, was also raised by the paper.

A week later the paper’s city correspondent reported that the Wolfe Tone Memorial Committee – which had been tasked with organising Rossa’s funeral in Dublin – were afraid “that the funeral will … be turned into a display by the BOE and the other Castle approved societies, as the ‘Daily Telegraph’ canard about Rossa’s pro-British appeal has annoyed the Dublin extremists greatly.” That week the paper also carried a public letter from Bulmer Hobson regarding the funeral:

CCE 17 July 1915 Hobson letter

In the build-up to the obsequies, the paper’s city correspondent contributed the following thoughts:

“Next Sunday Ireland takes to her bosom O’Donovan Rossa, and while some regret that Cork County is too loyal to claim her rebel son, yet ‘twere meeter in a way that he should rest in the world-renowned plot of ground where lie so many other faithful failures. John O’Leary, Stevens and O’Donovan Rossa will be united in death as they were in purpose and in faithfulness to the ideal of their own small Nationality, and Irish Ireland will foregather at the re-union, as they have not since McManus was laid to rest amidst the prayers of the faithful, if not of the few. So next Sunday will see Rossa buried like a chieftain of old, surrounded by his lamenting warriors, with arms reversed and muffled drums, but cherishing the proud faith of resurgence of soul and country in which he died.”

The following lines of verse, written by Philip O’Neill of Kinsale (whose father James was a prominent man in the town, and had been involved in the Land War in the Kinsale region) were also published:

CCE 31 July 1915 ODR poem

Funeral coverage

O-DONNAVAN-ROSSA-IN-STATE-1024x494

O’Donovan Rossa’s coffin lying-in-state in City Hall Dublin (Source: http://irishvolunteers.org/pages/irish-volunteers-photo-gallery/o-donnavan-rossa-in-state/)

Rem-Past

The burial of O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery, 1 August 1915 (Source: http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/13963)

The issue of the Star of 7 August 1915 had black borders around its columns on the front page – but as a mark of respect for the late Canon Jeremiah Murphy of Macroom, who had died in the previous week. O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral was covered on page 2, and the report included the famous words of Washington Irving, creator of Rip Van Winkle:

“The sorrow for the dead is the only sorrow from which we refuse to be divorced. Every other wound we seek to heal; every other affliction to forget, but this we consider it a duty to keep open – this affliction we cherish and brood over. ‘Else indeed it were difficult to interpret in the fullest sense the completely whole-hearted assimilation of mind of those thousands who regard the name and memory as a heritage to be treasured for all time.”

The report also noted that, apart from the Death March, “none of the bands played slow or more solemn music until the cemetery was reached”. The procession from City Hall to Glasnevin took more than four hours to complete, given the size of the crowds which accompanied the cortege.

With regard to Pearse’s panegyric, the Star’s report did not carry it verbatim, but carried a summary, noting that the crowd applauded after certain passages (e.g. after “not Gaelic merely but free as well”). However, it did dare to print the final paragraph fully, and again noted applause after the final words had been spoken. After the speech came an event which “was unique in the history of the internments in Glasnevin Cemetery”, the firing of volleys over the grave by a Volunteer party under the direction of Captain James O’Sullivan. “It was”, the reported concluded, “a touching tribute to the labours and the sufferings of a valiant soldier of Ireland.”

Funeral coverage was carried on the front page of the Eagle. Little of difference can be noted in comparing the reports in the Star and the Eagle, though the latter did make a point of noting the peaceful nature of proceedings. The latter did also carry a “conservative estimate” of the numbers which attended, which it put at “exceeding six thousand”. It is fitting to end this little tour through the pages of the two papers based in the town where O’Donovan Rossa first encountered Fenianism as an organised entity with the words of the Eagle’s Cork City correspondent, who was present at the funeral:

“Those who honoured him in life accompanied him to his grave. Over the waste of waters, through the dangerous zone of war, they brought him thousands of miles, and there, in the capital of the land he loved as few men loved, and for which he suffered as few men suffered, the day dream of his youth had been in part realised to welcome him. At the head of an Irish Army he paraded its streets defying in death the power he had defied when alive, and doing more harm to his foes by the singular nature of his funeral than by any of the struggle of 84 long years in life.”

From → Politics, Society

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