Jeremiah O'Donovan (Rossa)

T. D. Sullivan
Speeches from the Dock

In one of the preceding pages we have mentioned the fact that at the Cork Summer Assizes of 1859, a conviction was recorded against Jeremiah O’Donovan (Rossa) for his complicity in the Phoenix conspiracy, and he was then released on the understanding that if he should be found engaging in similar practices, the crown would bring him up for judgment. It is characteristic of the man, that with this conviction hanging like a mill-stone about his neck, he did not hesitate to take an active and an open part with the promoters of the Fenian movement. He travelled through various parts of Ireland in furtherance of the objects of the Society; he visited America on the same mission, and when the Irish People was started he took the position of business manager in that foredoomed establishment.

He was brought into the dock immediately after John O’Leary had been taken from it; but on representing that certain documents which he had not then at hand were necessary for his defence, he obtained a postponement of his trial for a few days. When he was again brought up for trial he intimated to the court that he meant to conduct his own defence. And he entered upon it immediately. He cross-examined the informers in fierce fashion, he badgered the detectives, he questioned the police, he debated with the crown lawyers, he argued with the judges, he fought with the crown side all round. But it was when the last of the witnesses had gone off the table that he set to the work in good earnest. He took up the various publications that had been put in evidence against him, and claimed his legal right to read them all through. One of them was the file of the Irish People for the whole term of its existence! Horror sat upon the faces of judges, jurymen, sheriffs, lawyers, turnkeys, and all, when the prisoner gravely informed them that as a compromise he would not insist upon reading the advertisements! The bench were unable to deny that the prisoner was entitled to read, if not the entire, at a rate a great portion of the volume, and O’Donovan then applied himself to the task, selecting his reading more especially from those articles in which the political career of Mr. Justice Keogh was made the subject of animadversion. Right on he read, his lordship striving to look as composed and indifferent as possible, while every word of the bitter satire and fierce invective written against him by Luby and O’Leary was being launched at his heart. When articles of that class were exhausted, the prisoner turned to the most treasonable and seditious documents he could find, and commenced the reading of them, but the judges interposed; he claimed to be allowed to read a certain article—Judge Keogh objected—he proposed to read another—that was objected to also—he commenced to read another—he was stopped—he tried another—again Judge Keogh was down on him—then another—and he fared no better. So the fight went on throughout the live-long day, till the usual hour of adjournment had come and gone, and the prisoner himself was feeling parched, and weary, and exhausted.

Observing that the lights were being now renewed, and that their lordships appeared satisfied to sit out the night, he anxiously inquired if the proceedings were not to be adjourned till morning. “Proceed, sir,” was the stern reply of the judge, who knew that the physical powers of the prisoner could not hold out much longer. “A regular Norbury,” gasped O’Donovan. “It’s like a ’98 trial.” “You had better proceed, sir, with propriety,” exclaimed the judge. “When do you propose stopping, my lord?” again inquired the prisoner. “Proceed, sir,” was the reiterated reply. O’Donovan could stand it no longer. He had been reading and speaking for eight hours and a half. With one final protest against the arrangement by which Judge Keogh was sent to try the cases of men who had written and published such articles against him, he sat down, exclaiming that “English law might now take its course.”

Next day the jury handed down their verdict of guilty. The Attorney-General then addressed the court, and referred to the previous conviction against the prisoner. O’Donovan was asked what he had to say in reference to the part of that case? and his reply was that “the government might add as much as they pleased to the term of his sentence on that account, if it was any satisfaction to them.” And when the like question was put to him regarding the present charge, he said:—

“With the fact that the government seized papers connected with my defence and examined them—with the fact that they packed the jury—with the fact that the government stated they would convict—with the fact that they sent Judge Keogh, a second Norbury, to try me—with these facts before me, it would be useless to say anything.”

Judge Keogh proceeded to pass sentence. “The prisoner,” he said, “had entertained those criminal designs since the year 1859;” whereupon O’Donovan broke in with the remark that he was “an Irishman since he was born.” The judge said “he would not waste words by trying to bring him to a sense of his guilt;” O’Donovan’s reply was—“It would be useless for you to try it.” He was sentenced to penal servitude for life. “All right, my lord,” exclaimed the unconquerable rebel, and with a smile to the sympathizing group around him, he walked with a light step from the dock.

The court was then adjourned to the 5th of January, 1866; and next day the judges set off for Cork city, to dispose of the Fenian prisoners there awaiting trial.