August 1, 1915 – Funeral Oration by Patrick Pearse – “Ireland Unfree Shall Never Be At Peace”

The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Irish culture is hundreds of years old. In the fifth century, Saint Patrick came to Ireland and brought Catholicism and English rule to the Celts who had been in Ireland since ancient times. By the time Henry VIII took the English throne, nearly 100% of Ireland was Catholic.

(British rule in Ireland began with the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169. The English Crown did not assert full control of Ireland until 1541, when the Irish Parliament bestowed the title of King of Ireland on Henry VIII after an uprising by the Earl of Kildare threatened regal hegemony.)

Henry VIII was the first English monarch to also be King of Ireland

Henry VIII had a problem with Catholicism, however. His [first] marriage failed to produce a male heir to the throne, and moreover, he had become infatuated with another woman. He wanted a divorce but the Pope would not agree to it. Thus Henry VIII split from Catholicism, founded the Church of England, and demanded that all of the United Kingdom, including Ireland, convert to Protestantism.

The Irish were loathe to abandon their faith, and as a result of their stubborn adherence to “popery,” various acts were passed in the 16th and 17th centuries by Parliament that prescribed fines and imprisonment for participation in Catholic worship, and severe penalties – including death – for Catholic priests who practiced their ministry in Britain or Ireland. Other laws barred Catholics from voting, holding public office, owning land, bringing religious items from Rome into Britain, publishing or selling Catholic primers, or teaching. Protestant settlers from Scotland were sent to occupy Ireland, and Irish farmers were forced to become tenants to the new settlers. The Irish did not have access to education, and made almost no money. They lived off of the land they farmed, and all profits went to the Protestant settlers.

The Irish Penal Code was characterized by the philosopher Edmund Burke as “a machine as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.”

Yet the English never did succeed in snuffing out hope, or in quenching the Irish thirst for self-determination, as evinced eloquently in the speech by Patrick Pearse, quoted below.

In the 1880s, there was a renaissance of Irish culture, which caused a wave of Irish Nationalism among Catholics. Parties such as Sinn Féin (in English: “Ourselves” or “We Ourselves”) were founded to advocate for the freedom of Ireland.

Violence between the Republicans and the Loyalists escalated, with Irish writers like William Butler Yeats fueling feelings of outrage with his eloquent poetry.

Patrick Pearse

On this day in history, Patrick Pearse, the Irish language activist, delivered an oration at the funeral of prominent Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. (Fenian was an umbrella term for the Fenian Brotherhood and Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), fraternal organizations dedicated to the establishment of an independent Irish Republic in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Glasnevin Cemetery, opened in 1832 for Irish Catholics, contains the graves of many of Ireland’s most prominent national figures.)

Rossa was a political prisoner who had been released as part of the Fenian Amnesty of 1870, with the proviso that he leave the country permanently. He took up residence in New York City where he joined the New York Fenian Brotherhood.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

In New York, Rossa established his own newspaper dedicated to the cause of Irish national liberation from British rule, “The United Irishman.” In his paper he advocated terrorism to overthrow the British occupation. He also organized bombings in English cities from abroad. The British government demanded his extradition from America, but without success.

On February 2, 1885, Rossa was shot outside his office near Broadway by an Englishwoman, but he did not die. He was seriously ill in his later years, and was eventually confined to a hospital bed in St. Vincent’s Hospital, Staten Island, where he died at the age of 83.

His body was returned to Ireland for burial and a hero’s welcome.

According to Century Ireland, a Boston University online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago:

The funeral of the late Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, was the occasion of one of the most striking nationalist demonstrations ever witnessed in Dublin.

Special trains brought thousands of people from all parts of Ireland, while people also travelled from England and from the United States. Amongst the throng were numerous members of the clergy and public representatives.”

Crowds gather at the graveside of veteran Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin cemetery
Photo: National Library of Ireland, KE 234

The graveside oration, given by Patrick Pearse (also known as Pádraig or Pádraic Pearse), remains one of the most famous speeches of the Irish independence movement stirring his audience to a call to arms.

Mr. Pearse claimed: “The seeds sown by the young men of ‘65 and ‘67 are coming to their miraculous ripening today.”

He memorably concluded:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but 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.”

You can read the full text of his speech here.

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