Lying in a state of uncertainty

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Posted on: 8th June, 2015

Category: Highlights

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

Over the next several months, West Cork will be abuzz as a wide variety of events commemorating the life and death of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa are carried out, in what is the centenary year of the storied Fenian leader’s death. While the culmination of the commemorative programme will be a dramatic reenactment of the deceased’s funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery on August 1, one of the more curious events will take place right in the village of Reenascreena, outside Rosscarbery. On Friday, July 3, the restored steel casket that was used to transport the exiled leader’s remains from New York to Ireland will be displayed in his ancestral village, as part of a day that will also feature a rededication of the area’s O’Donovan Rossa monument, and the launch of two new books by historian Shane Kenna, ‘An Illustrated History of the Fenians’ and a new biography of Rossa.

Pádraig Pearse’s lucid graveside oration remains one of the most historically potent and dramatic elements not only of Rossa’s funeral services, but all of modern Irish history, for both its fiery patriotic rhetoric and the events that it foreshadowed. However, the lying in state of the deceased leader, which was captured at the time by newsreel producer British Pathé and shown in cinemas throughout Ireland shortly afterward, has also gained added traction in an increasingly digital age in which it is now readily available to a global audience on both Internet archives and public forums like youtube. The nearly three minute clip opens with the deceased’s wife and daughter in the black dress of mourning, sitting with elder Fenian and funeral committee chair, Thomas Clarke. The film then quickly pans to the solemn scenes of thronging crowds passing single file by the coffin of the deceased, thoughtfully gazing down one last time upon his familiar features.

In the many studies dealing with Pearse’s aforementioned eulogy of Rossa, much has been made of his retreat to his Rosmuc summer cottage in the weeks leading up to the funeral, during which time the revolutionary schoolmaster solemnly drafted his thoughts on both the deceased Fenian leader and the political future of Ireland. Like the tale of Pearse’s oration, the lasting scene of Rossa’s lying in state is also not without its own dramatic backstory.

hisKeough Brothers Ltd.Upon arrival in Dublin in July of 1915, Rossa’s remains were delivered according to plan to Corrigan’s undertaker shop, so that they could be removed from their travel box, and the coffin and outer casket might be freshened and polished after the transatlantic journey. However, when the undertaker lifted the mahogany lid of the coffin and looked down upon the deceased Fenian, he was alarmed to note a discolouration of his clothing. According to New York state law, an inner glass lid had been hermetically sealed before travel, making it impossible for the condition to be alleviated. After assessing the situation, the undertaker informed Rossa’s wife Mary Jane (originally from Clonakilty) and daughter Eileen that the problem might be the result of mould and, if so, the lying in state could not go ahead as planned. In a letter published in the ‘Gaelic American’ some months later, Mary Jane described the frantic scene, noting “Several women had come into the shop and when they understood the situation they hurried to the Cathedral and lighting candles at every shrine within it, knelt and prayed that God may perform a miracle and the mould disappear.” She further relayed that the tense atmosphere of uncertainty remained right up until the beginning of the lying in state at Dublin city hall, at which the Pathé cameras were rolling. She recalled, “The Irish Volunteers stood on guard, the barriers were removed and the pressing crowds were permitted to pass in single file to view the body, from which Eileen and I, trembling with anxiety removed the mahogany lid. One swift look. Thank God! The features were white and placid, the mould had not progressed. No, thank God, it was only perceptible on the clothing, and nobody in the surging hundreds who passed there thought anything amiss.”

While the funeral services were a resounding success, with some estimates reporting up to 70,000 in attendance, the incident could have derailed what proved to be a remarkable tribute to the man who had been deemed an ‘unconquerable Irishman’. In the end, Mary Jane remarked that scientists had chalked the bizarre incident up to a reaction between the embalming fluid and the copper lining of the coffin, citing the example of a brown laurel wreath that had similarly been turned an iridescent green during the voyage.

Now 100 years on from the stressful incident, the casket is back in the public eye, as it will be on display in its restored form. However, while it had once been a central piece to perhaps the largest transatlantic political funeral in Irish history, the casket had remained stored in a private shed on a Cork farm for over 55 years until it was returned to the homestead of Rossa’s relations in the 1960s. Speaking to the Irish Times, retired Garda Michael O’Sullivan relayed the details of his role in helping return the casket to Rossa’s surviving relatives. “I was stationed in Cobh in the 1960s and through the course of my duty I met a local farmer who told me he had the casket of O’Donovan Rossa. When he realised I was from the parish of Rosscarbery, he asked if there were relations of O’Donovan Rossa’s down there and I said yes, they are living in Reenascreena where I come from,” Mr O’Sullivan said. He added, “I thought the proper place to have the casket was in his ancestral home, Reenascreena, where his parents were from and he said, ‘you can have it.’ I contacted the O’Driscoll’s in the village, their father was a first cousin of O’Donovan Rossa and it remained there at the O’Driscoll homestead for the past 55 years.” Those who wish to view the casket may do so at the museum located next to the O’Donovan Rossa monument, courtesy of the O’Driscoll family

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