But the great-grandson of the man the State had gathered to remember at Glasnevin Cemetery on Saturday thought the commemoration of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral was imbued with something else too — a sense of renewal.
“It’s as if the phoenix has risen again,” great-grandson Rossa Williams Cole told the Irish Examiner at the first official event to commemorate 1916.
“We are happy to see that his story is being heard again,” he said. And that story — from the founding in 1856 of the Phoenix National and Literary Society to “liberate Ireland by force of arms” to O’Donovan Rossa’s death in Staten Island, New York, on the hottest day of 1915 — was told in many ways over the bank holiday weekend.
Rossa Williams and his brother Williams Rossa travelled from New York to take part in the 100th-anniversary commemoration of the biggest funeral Ireland has ever seen.
In all this, the brothers added, it’s important to remember too Mary Jane Irwin, O’Donovan Rossa’s third wife. The couple had 13 daughters. The youngest, Margaret (Daisy), is the Coles’ grandmother.
O Donovan Rossa reenactement yesterday.. pic.twitter.com/1Dq5baYjzp— Linda T Waters (@lindawaters_t) August 2, 2015
A letter from Mary Jane, written on Gresham Hotel-headed paper just days before the funeral, shows that her husband’s spirit was unbending to the last.
Printed in a commemorative booklet distributed at the weekend, the letter reads: “I can testify that during his last long illness he was the same unconquerable Irishman breathing the same unalterable desire for the absolute freedom of his country.”
On August 1, 1915, tens of thousands of Dubliners — including all the signatories of the Proclamation of Independence — paid their respects at a funeral that would prove pivotal in the lead-up to the Easter Rising in 1916.
Revolutionary leader Thomas Clarke had seen the potential to stage-manage O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral to mobilise people behind nationalism— and he did so with military precision.
Exactly 100 years on, people came for very different reasons and, of course, in fewer numbers. And yet, thousands queued in the early-morning sunshine to see President Michael D Higgins lay a wreath at a ceremony attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Heritage Minister Heather Humphreys, and Dublin’s Lord Mayor Críona Ní Dhálaigh.
Some 6,500 members of the public assembled inside and outside the cemetery. One of them, retired history teacher Mary Weir of Dublin, said she had come to see the pageantry of the occasion and to remember that this was where it had all started.
It has been an interesting year for commemoration. Her father fought with the Connaught Rangers in the First World War Gallipoli campaign, the 100th anniversary of which is also this year. He contracted malaria in Salonika and was evacuated to Malta.
He never spoke about it and, like many others, she says she felt a sense of shame as a child. So many Irishmen were revered when they left to fight in the First World War, yet felt reviled when they came home, as the political landscape had changed so much.
The complexity of that time and the messy history that has followed have made commemoration an often tricky business. But Angela Aherne and Monica Hopkins, also retired teachers, say they came along because they liked the emphasis on remembrance rather than triumphalism.
“This is inclusive and tolerant of all,” they said.
The man being remembered, however, was often far from tolerant.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, born in Rosscarbery, Co Cork, in 1831, was radicalised by the Famine and became one of the first to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He went on trial for high treason in 1865 and, after spending six years in jail, was released on condition that he left Ireland.
He went to the States, where he was welcomed as a rebel hero and earned the nickname the “apostle of dynamite” for his views on political violence.
But did that change? John Green, chairman of Glasnevin Trust, spoke of O’Donovan Rossa as the “unrepentant Fenian”, but said he later gave a (disputed) interview to the Daily Telegraph in which he said he had lost all hatred for the British government and he lamented his part in the doctrine of assassination.
Mr Green noted the first person to be buried in Glasnevin, 183 years ago, was Michael Carey, the 11-year-old son of a scrap merchant from Dublin’s Francis St. He said all funerals were important to someone, but a number in Glasnevin had been important for the nation too.
The goose-bump moment came when actor Jim Roche gave a chilling rendition of Pádraig Pearse’s famous graveside oration: “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.” It was 11.34am. The guard of honour had been standing stock-still since 10.46am.
The assembled media, positioned between the graves of Maud Gonne and Jim Larkin in this vast city of the dead, were just metres away. Near enough to spot a Red Admiral butterfly land on the sleeve of a lieutenant. It stayed there for the volley of shots, the last post and national anthem. This wasn’t about rank, but being part of something conciliatory, respectful, and dignified.