Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa

Irish Rebel and Advocate of Dynamite Campaign

Photograph of Irish rebel O'Donovan Rossa
Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa was a committed advocate for Irish freedom in the 19th century who became a legendary figure following his death in 1915. His body was returned to Ireland from New York, where he had died in exile, and his enormous public funeral inspired rebels who would rise up against Britain in 1916.

After losing much of his family in the Great Famine, Rossa became devoted to the cause of liberating Ireland from British rule. For his involvement in the Fenian movement he spent time in British prisons, at times under very harsh conditions.

After being paroled but exiled to America, he remained very active in Irish affairs. He published an anti-British newspaper in New York City, and also openly advocated for a guerrilla campaign of bombings in Britain using a powerful new explosive, dynamite.

Though he was raising money for terrorist attacks, Rossa operated openly in New York and became a prominent and even beloved member of the Irish-American community. In 1885 he was shot on the street by a woman with British sympathies, but he was only slightly wounded.

As an old man, he was widely admired by Irish patriots as a living symbol of stubborn resistance to British rule. His obituary in the New York Times, on June 30, 1915, contained a quote demonstrating his typical defiance: "'England has proclaimed war against me,' he once said, 'and, so help me God, I will wage war against her until she is stricken to her knees or till I am stricken to my grave.'"

Irish nationalists decided that his body should be returned to his homeland. His Dublin funeral was an enormous event and became especially famous for a graveside oration by Patrick Pearse, who would become one of the leaders of Ireland's 1916 Easter Rising.

Early Life

According to his New York Times obituary, he was born Jeremiah O'Donovan in Ross-Carberry, near the town of Skibbereen, in County Cork, Ireland, on September 4, 1831. By some accounts, he had a dozen siblings, all of whom emigrated to America during the Great Famine of the 1840s. He adopted the nickname "Rossa" to invoke his birthplace and began calling himself Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa.

Rossa worked as a shopkeeper in Skibbereen and organized a group dedicated to the overthrow of British rule. His local organization joined up with the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In 1858 he was jailed in Cork by the British for sedition, along with about 20 associates. He was released for good behavior. He moved to Dublin and in the early 1860s became very active in the Fenian Movement, an Irish rebel organization. He worked as the business manager of a newspaper, The Dublin Irish People, which advocated against British rule.

For his rebellious activities, he was arrested by the British and sentenced to penal servitude for life.

Prison Ordeal

In the late 1860s, Rossa was transferred through a series of British prisons. At times he was treated very harshly. During one period of several weeks, his hands were kept cuffed behind his back, and he had to eat like an animal on the floor.

Stories of the abuse he suffered in British prisons circulated, and he became a hero back in Ireland. In 1869 voters in County Tipperary elected him to office in Britain's Parliament, though he was in prison and could not take his seat.

In 1870 Queen Victoria pardoned Rossa, along with other Irish prisoners, on the condition they be exiled out of Britain. They sailed to America on an ocean liner and were greeted in New York by the Irish-American community.

American Career

Settling in New York City, Rossa became a very active voice for Irish nationalism. He published a newspaper and openly raised money for bombing campaigns in Britain.

In light of today's laws against terrorism, what Rossa did seems astonishing. But there were no laws at the time to curtail his activities, and he had a fairly large following among Americans of Irish descent.

In 1885 Rossa was contacted by a woman who wanted to meet him on the street in lower Manhattan. When he arrived at the meeting the woman pulled out a gun and shot him. He survived, and the trial of his attacker became a spectacle in the newspapers.

Rossa lived into old age and became something of a link to an earlier time. 

The New York Times summed up his life when he died: "The career of O'Donovan Rossa, both in Ireland and America, was eventful and spectacular. He was the first person who publicly preached the doctrine of dynamite and assassination in Ireland's fight for home rule. On several occasions he started dynamite funds, 'dynamite newspapers,' and dynamite projects. He was condemned by many for his fiery utterances and writings."

When he died in a Staten Island hospital on June 29, 1915, at the age of 83, the nationalist community in Ireland decided to return his body to be buried in Dublin.

On August 1, 1915, after a funeral procession through Dublin, Rossa was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery. At his graveside, Patrick Pearse gave a fiery oration which would inspire the uprising in Dublin the following spring. Pearse's speech lauded Rossa's lifelong patriotism, and concluded with words that would become famous: "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.”