The veteran Fenian agitator died at the age of 85 in New York on June 29, 1915. His funeral, more than a month later, was built up by his comrades into a national event and was attended by a multitude as evidenced by the photographs and newsreel.
The speech at the graveside after the funeral is credited with lighting the fuse for the 1916 revolution.
One hundred years ago this Saturday, Pearse began his speech by explicitly claiming to represent the new generation of Irish Volunteers which had taken the torch from O’Donovan Rossa’s generation (or “accepted the responsibility of carrying out the Fenian programme” as he prosaically put it), continued by pledging to end British rule, and ended with one of the the most-quoted lines in Irish oratory, “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace”.
The 765-word speech — and of course the funeral itself — is widely regarded as being a key moment which galvanised preparations for the Easter Rising.
The O’Donovan Rossa commemorations this summer have included exhibitions, re-enactments, and conferences, principally in his native place — Reenascreena, Rosscarbery, Clonakilty and Skibbereen in West Cork — as well as in Dublin and New York.
They culminate on Saturday with the official State ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin to coincide with the actual centenary of the funeral. The 1,500 free public tickets have been snapped up already, but 5,000 people can watch from outside on two large screens relaying the events inside.
Later on Saturday afternoon, a full recreation will take place of the funeral procession of O’Donovan Rossa’s remains from Dublin’s City Hall to Glasnevin but passes for inside the cemetery have all been allocated. Organised by Sinn Féin, a horse-drawn hearse will begin carrying the casket through the city centre led by a marching band at 2pm, with an open invitation for the public to wear period dress and watch the parade pass along the route at the exact time it did 100 years ago.
In the mid-19th century, O’Donovan had founded the Phoenix Society, the revolutionary movement dedicated to winning independence by arms, and which was later to merge with the IRB. Imprisoned and eventually exiled, he lived out most of the rest of his life in New York, but remained an inspirational figure to a new generations of rebels.
On one of his rare visits home, in 1904, he was granted the Freedom of the City of Cork. The Fenian has the distinction of being honoured on Irish stamps more than once — in 1981, the P&T, predecessor to An Post, issued a stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of his birth.
* The picture in the new stamp is in the Keogh Collection at the National Library. You can buy the stamp at main post offices, and a limited edition first day cover envelope is also available. www.irishstamps.ie.