William Rooney and Sinn Fein
William Rooney, confidant of Arthur Griffith in the 1890s. (National Library of Ireland and George Morrison)
The name William Rooney has long been familiar to historians of Ireland, primarily because of his closeness to Arthur Griffith in the 1890s, yet he remains an elusive figure. Reports of public meetings at this time often end with the enigmatic phrase ‘. . . and William Rooney spoke in Irish’. Given the centrality of language revivalism to Rooney’s politics, this provides ironic commentary on the capacities of Irish journalists, his audience and, sometimes, his historians. Moreover, what we do know of his life has the air of tragedy about it. He lost a sister in November 1895 and died of tuberculosis in May 1901 at the age of 28.
Griffith famously said that Rooney was the finest Irishman he had known or could hope to know, and he quickly became a totemic figure for young Irish separatists, an ideal against which longer-lived activists were sometimes found wanting. For instance, one of the first articles in Irish Freedom, an Irish Republican Brotherhood newspaper that began publication in 1910, memorialised the early days of Griffith’s United Irishman, celebrating in particular Rooney’s purist politics. This reflected
the growing impatience in republican circles with Griffith and his Sinn Féin newspaper: he was not living up to Rooney’s reputation as an unalloyed separatist. P. S. O’Hegarty, one of Griffith’s sternest critics during this period, later wrote of how damaging Rooney’s death had been. By leaving Griffith isolated intellectually and surrounded by lesser men, it helped nurture the dictatorial attitude and wayward views that republicans found troubling.
Rooney was born on 20th October 1873 in 39 Mabbot Street, a tenement building in Dublin’s ‘Monto’. He was the eldest of seven, having five brothers and two sisters. His father, Patrick, was a coachbuilder. Rooney was educated by the Christian Brothers at Strand Street and Richmond Street and, aged 12, became a solicitor’s clerk. Like many of his class who became involved in cultural or nationalist politics, he continued his education at night school, passing the junior cert. in 1887.
What is known of Rooney’s life derives mainly from the biographical sketch written by F. H. Bradley shortly after his death. Although rather hagiographical, it lays out the key dates and activities in his life, detailing his various pseudonyms. A selection of Rooney’s poetry (of which the Bradley essay forms the introduction) and a scarce volume of English-language essays, Prose writings, introduced by the Celticist Seumas MacManus, were published by Gill in 1902 and 1909 respectively. No Rooney papers appear to have survived.
Daniel O’Connell addressing the crowd in J. Haverty’s The Monster Meeting in the Irish Highlands, Clifden (1843).
Bradley knew Rooney through the Celtic Literary Society, an organisation established in Dublin in 1893 and descended from the Leinster Literary Society, established in the late 1880s. Both were small and marginal. Their membership was young and lacked the political connections, especially with the Irish Parliamentary Party, characteristic of organisations with similar concerns, such as the Fenian Young Ireland Societies of the 1880s or the Gaelic League. Rooney, his brother John and Griffith were prominent members of both, and it was through the lectures he gave at the Celtic, simultaneously published in early issues of Griffith’s United Irishman, that Rooney became more widely known. The Prose writings reproduce those lectures.
Fenian repudiation of ‘politics’
Rooney’s most substantial work, then, dates from the 1899–1901 period, a time of renewed fervency in advanced nationalist activity. But to make sense of his development it is necessary to look at his earlier nationalist activities. Revivalist organisations in the 1880s tended to identify themselves as politically non-aligned, but it would be a mistake to equate this with the apolitical principles of the Gaelic League. Much of this subculture reflected the uncertainty that lay at the heart of grassroots political activity regarding what Home Rule actually meant and whether it could satisfy nationalist ideals. Being non-aligned could also signify the Fenian repudiation of ‘politics’, which the separatists associated with the compromises and politicking of the Irish Parliamentary Party and the abandonment of the national ideal this seemed to represent.
Rooney’s early political experiences were conditioned by these uncertainties. As a teenager he witnessed speakers celebrate John Mitchel and Thomas Davis, a pairing that combined cultural nationalism with uncompromising separatism; argue over the role of ‘priests in politics’, a source of contention within advanced nationalist politics since at least the 1850s; sympathise with agrarian activists like the popular Home Rule MP William O’Brien; and advocate ‘state socialism’: Rooney later argued that nationalists could not rely on socialist internationalism. During the Parnell split the Leinster Literary Society became strongly Parnellite, sending Parnell telegrams of support and writing a rather bumptious election address to the ‘Men of North Kilkenny’. Lectures at this time repeatedly stressed how history taught the Irish not to rely on English assurances and that the only viable constitutional nationalist stance was independent opposition. Griffith was particularly adept at showing how all episodes from Irish history illustrated this lesson. So, although establishing a hierarchy of virtue that confidently placed separatism above Home Rule, their attitude towards constitutionalism was pragmatic rather than hostile. Though the Celtic took up the same position, identifying its politics as ‘independent opposition’, in 1894 they changed this to ‘independent action’, registering their distance from the Redmondite–Fenian nexus that animated Parnellite politics in the 1890s.
Collective uncertainties give way to collective certainties
In the late 1890s the Celtic Literary Society remained divided on whether complete separation was necessary to make Ireland a nation, but this change in stated aims marked a broader process of clarification, which saw, by the end of the 1890s, this minority’s political uncertainties become much more decided. Central to this process was the formation of the Gaelic League in 1893 and, in particular, Douglas Hyde’s inaugural lecture, published as ‘The necessity of de-Anglicising Ireland’. Much of Rooney’s thought derived from Hyde’s brilliant intervention, and nothing Rooney wrote matched Hyde’s coruscating wit or intellectual acuity—nor, perhaps, should it be expected to. For nascent separatists, Hyde inadvertently brought their cultural nationalism into focus, clarifying the basis on which Home Rule politics could be rejected. Rooney came to believe that a Gaelic League agenda without an explicit separatist dimension would prove to be yet another ‘West British’ illusion. In a cleverly rhetorical passage in his late essay on the National Ideal, he grouped language revivalism with a whole series of sectional political interests that ducked the fundamental issue, which was Ireland’s constitutional status:
‘There is the ideal of the land reformer which masquerades as a National Ideal, “Ireland for the Irish—the Land for the People”, blazoned on all its banners and declaimed from all platforms. There is the Home Rulers’ ideal—a parochial body meeting within the shadow of Grattan’s statue, under the fold of the Union Jack, and passing a series of harmless bills for the better government of Ireland—a body of green-livered henchmen of the British connection, with the spoils of office for their faithful stewardship. There is the ideal of the Irish Agricultural Reformer, whose soul yearneth for a millennium of practical poets and poetical dairy boys. And there are again the academic language enthusiasts who look to the resurgence of Gaelic to dissipate all our megrims. Now each one of them possesses elements of a National Ideal—but none of them can reasonably be allowed to be the Ideal. We can best realise the extent and limits of a National Ideal by endeavouring to appreciate what the citizen of any free nation would understand from the term.’
He went on to argue that the Germans—of whom there are ‘no greater nationalists’—the French, Belgians and Greeks would never ‘allow a foreign state to claim their allegiance, and exact their services’. This feudal trope was an established feature of Irish nationalist discourse. Critics of the Union, for example, sometimes referred to Ireland’s over-taxation as ‘tribute’. In making such feudal allusions Rooney provided a commentary on the reality of a Home Rule Ireland, which, of course, would retain the Union and the supremacy of Westminster.
Above: C. S. Parnell addressing a hostile crowd at the North Kilkenny by-election. Rooney’s Leinster Literary Society became strongly Parnellite and wrote a rather bumptious election address to the ‘Men of North Kilkenny’. (Illustrated London News, July 1891)
More broadly, Rooney’s argument reflected advanced nationalist anger with the Irish Parliamentary Party’s apparent success in convincing the Irish population that Home Rule was equivalent to independence, that constitutionalism was Fenianism by other means. Such anxieties continued into the 1900s, when advanced nationalists agonised over the stated aims of Sinn Féin. In private correspondence with P. S. O’Hegarty, Terence MacSwiney was adamant that because the Irish Parliamentary Party had so successfully appropriated the language of ‘independence’, Sinn Féin must declare for ‘complete separation’. O’Hegarty agreed, but they were not to get their way.
Rooney’s political convictions, his insistence on complete separation, his cultural nationalism and his strong Gaelic revivalism can only be understood as interrelated phenomena. As he explained to the Celtic Literary Society in January 1899, the Parnell split was the moment of revelation:
‘Some little semblance of interest in the tongue of the Gael marked every generation before ours; but we, with our backs turned to everything native, our eyes perpetually on the parliament of the foreigner, dazed by joyous anticipation of a “Union of Hearts”, forgot everything but the shibboleth of the hour, and were gradually degenerating into mere automata, until a crash came, and in the rending of the veil we saw for the first time what was before us and paused.’
This use of the veil metaphor (adopted from Mallarmé), which Yeats was later to make his own, suggests that Rooney was influenced by wider aesthetic currents associated with the fin de siècle, while his complaints also prefigured Pearse’s famous condemnation of ‘the last generation’. As this passage demonstrates, advanced nationalists had long made sense of their politics through the historical paradigm of Parnell’s fall leading to a turn away from parliamentary politics, which Yeats famously delineated in his 1923 Nobel lecture. Above all, Rooney believed that Home Rule had blinded the Irish to the fact that their historic nationality had always been separatist. He elided Tone’s aspiration to replace the name of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter with the common name of ‘Irishman’ with the then reality, while he supposed the crowds at O’Connell’s monster meetings to be for separation rather than Repeal. Equally, he criticised early folklorists for censoring their collections, denuding Irish song of its separatist content. Recent politics, then, were an aberration rather than the historic norm. Like Pearse, he believed that the novelty of the United Irishmen of the 1790s lay in their clear articulation of the commitment to national independence evident throughout Irish history. So, although O’Connell, ‘a man devoid of all national ambition’, was to be ‘eternally blamed . . . for confound[ing] religious freedom with national liberty . . . it was reserved for our time to bring the ideal lower than it had fallen at any time in our history’. What had been lost, and this was central to Rooney’s cultural politics, was ‘a people eager to occupy a definite and distinct place in the world’s life’, a claim as studiously vague as the Home Rule demand for ‘the freedom to make our own laws’. Rooney’s ideas were strongly informed by his reading of Davis and Hyde, but they also reflected powerful currents in late nineteenth-century European nationalism.
‘Irish, Catholic, and Celt’
Despite O’Connell’s great crimes, Rooney acknowledged something of his achievement, which formed part of his wider argument about the condition of Irish Catholics. It is by negotiating this problem that his cultural essentialism becomes most marked. Had Grattan’s parliament survived, Rooney believed that the ‘Irish Catholic Celt’ would have become reconciled to the British connection, finding a place in what he luridly refers to as ‘the most malignant tyranny that the mind of man has conceived’. But the problem that Rooney thought characterised his imagined Grattanite Ireland (as well as the Ireland he lived in) was that getting ahead demanded that Irish Catholics abandon or compromise their nationalist—that is, separatist—convictions. Catholic emancipation was not so much a carapace for the anti-Catholic reality of the state as part of the process by which Catholics—and middle-class Catholics in particular—were tempted into abandoning their separatist convictions. Rooney does not seem to have grasped that small numbers of Irish Protestants might be similarly compromised for the same reasons. Consequently, an authentic Irish nationalism was necessarily coterminous with a specifically Catholic liberation. And although he did not share the intensity of D. P. Moran’s conviction that Catholicism was fundamentally integral to Irishness, Rooney’s association of Irish, Catholic and Celt was significant.
In an appealing argument, one recent commentator has described Rooney’s politics as a form of civic republicanism rooted in a pluralist vision of Irishness. This suggests that Irish republicanism is a more subtle and enlightened political tradition than recent historiography or history might suggest. There is much to be said for this view, but how far it can be applied in Rooney’s case is problematic. His essays do not show familiarity with classic republican ideas, nor does he discuss his politics in terms of the rights of the citizen.
According to James Joyce (pictured here in 1904), Rooney’s poetry was animated by ‘a weary and foolish spirit, speaking of redemption and revenge, blaspheming against tyrants, and going forth, full of tears and curses, upon its inferred labours’. (National Library of Ireland)
He focuses above all on proving the historic existence of a distinct Irish culture that had been polluted by English influences carried, primarily, through the English language. His defence of the Young Ireland tradition only opened up possibilities for an Irish literature in English as propaganda that could plug the gap before all the Irish (re)learnt to speak, read and write Irish. He admonished the ‘hyper-Gaelic element’ not because they were exclusivist but because they were impractical. Rooney argued that the Young Ireland tradition had not produced ‘a distinctly national literature’ because it was not written in Irish; he described the Young Ireland oeuvre as their ‘most national’ simply because it was their most ‘anti-English’. These contradictory statements can be easily resolved by distinguishing his political from his literary or cultural judgements. On this basis, he was not a co-worker of Yeats—who believed in the possibility of an authentic Irish literature written in a Hiberno-English—nor an avowed opponent of D. P. Moran’s Catholic nationalism: we cannot know how Rooney would have responded to Moran’s The philosophy of Irish Ireland.
For Rooney, the true Irish are neither Protestant nor Catholic but Gaelic and, crucially, separatist. Anyone could, of course, learn Irish, but implicit in much Gaelicist thinking was the notion that the ease with which one learnt Irish was an indicator of the authenticity of the claim to Irishness that the effort represented. Echoing Hyde, Rooney observed in 1894: ‘How much easier would it be to teach those Irish speakers of English good Gaelic than to persist in a hopeless crusade to graft on them a tongue antagonistic, even in its most elementary parts, to the idiom and accent of the people’.
Rooney died too young for a long sacrifice to have made a stone of his heart: his writing, though highly polemical and in spite of the Mitchelite cadences, had a lightness of touch that rarely degenerated into harangue; on the whole his interventions were focused and measured, if not serene. His survey essays and lectures suggest that he had read extensively in Irish, and he often injected his judgements, however undeveloped, with a critical or scholarly tone. But, like many thoughtful young men of his class, he was an autodidact and it is impossible to know whether he would have transcended the limitations of his educational opportunities, showing the capacity for intellectual development that many of his contemporaries lacked. James Joyce, though a good few notches above Rooney in the social scale, was familiar with his milieu and was quick to judge. Rooney’s poetry, Joyce wrote, ‘had no spiritual or living energy’ but was animated by ‘a weary and foolish spirit, speaking of redemption and revenge, blaspheming against tyrants, and going forth, full of tears and curses, upon its inferred labours’. For Joyce, Rooney’s ‘patriotism’ reworked the old strictures that left Irish Catholics spiritually and intellectually impoverished. In ‘Easter 1916’, Yeats, another autodidact (and reactionary), lamented the fanaticism bred by the insularity of separatist political culture. Whether Rooney would have been any different, and whether he would have kept Griffith in line, tempering his reactionary, bourgeois tendencies, cannot be known. Rooney’s separatist certainties had grown from his final disillusionment with Home Rule politics; they had gained intellectual coherence under the influence of the Gaelic League. Though Rooney was somewhat ahead of the game, this is a familiar trajectory. Perhaps he would have made an effective political leader, but care must be taken when attaching great significance to someone who achieved the equivalent of a promising PhD under the guidance of a brilliant but distant professor. William Murphy rather dryly suggests that Rooney’s greatest contribution to Irish history might have been to suggest to Mark Ryan that Griffith be invited to edit the United Irishman.
There is something to be said for this iconoclastic view, but Rooney was also among that minority who had begun to shape their politics around the perception that the impact of the Union should be understood in cultural as well as political or material terms. He judged Home Rule’s popularity to be symptomatic of the degenerated, ‘transacting’ Irish culture that the Union had produced. In some respects, his politics sublimated working-class resentment of the benefits the Catholic middle classes had derived from the Union, for cultural nationalism allowed intelligent working-class Irish men and women, frustrated by their limited opportunities, access to the public sphere. As a forum for personal development, societies like the Leinster, the Celtic and the Gaelic League were empowering, allowing such men and women the opportunity for collective engagement with the pervasive questions shaping their time.
All, however, was not sociability, and Rooney ultimately shared in the orthodox Fenian commitment to insurrection and the achievement of separation through the force of arms. But like many Fenians of his day, he thought about the long-term, criticising constitutionalism as a meretricious ‘quick fix’ and distancing himself from an earlier generation of advanced nationalists who had paid scant attention to the integrity of Irishness as a cultural phenomenon. For although writing mainly about the arts, endeavouring to establish a canon of Irish literature in Irish that would demonstrate that the Irish were an ancient civilisation of European stature, his overriding concerns were political. Indeed, he could present revivalism in brutally functional and reductive terms: a monoglot Gaelic Ireland would raise a very effective ‘barrier’ against English influences. But the successful outcome of the Home Rule campaign risked blinding the Irish to the need for separation as a means to restore their historic nationality, and ultimately his cultural arguments were subordinated to this; his target became as much the stranglehold that the politics of Home Rule had over the Irish imagination as the influence of British culture on Ireland.
He was committed to the politics of self-help and espoused self-reliance (Wolfe Tone’s failure, he argued, stemmed not from inadequate forces but from reliance on the French), but Rooney’s abiding significance is as an Irish separatist who unambiguously equated authentic Irishness with the use of the Irish language.
In 1904 the Celtic Literary Society, shortly before folding, decided to scale down its work. Irish cultural nationalist developments over the previous decade and the advance of what would become known as Sinn Féinism had rendered the society almost obsolete. As the minute book recorded:
‘Since the Celtic society was started in 1893, the field of Irish thought, then waste and barren, has been tilled by many who were foremost amongst its disciples, and much of the original programme is now being realised by other agencies’.
Rooney’s contribution to this process was crucial. He was one of the most articulate Fenian Gaelicists of his generation, producing a series of essays that, though little read today, were a touchstone for some of the men and women who made the Irish revolution.
Matthew Kelly lectures in history at the University of Southampton.
* M.J. Kelly, The Fenian ideal and Irish nationalism, 1882–1916 (Woodbridge, 2006).
* O. McGee, The IRB: from the Land League to Sinn Féin (Dublin, 2005).
* P.J. Mathews, Revival. The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, the Gaelic League and the Co-operative Movement (Cork, 2003).
* W. Murphy, ‘ROONEY, William (Ó MAOLRUANAIDH, Liam)’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography (forthcoming).
William Rooney (29 September 1873–6 May 1901) was an Irish nationalist, journalist, poet and Gaelic revivalist. Along with Arthur Griffith and Denis Devereux he founded the Celtic Literary Society, and with Griffith founded the first Cumann na nGaedheal.
William Rooney was born in Mabbot Street in Dublin, Ireland and educated by the Christian Brothers in Strand Street and North Richmond Street. As a boy he was a member of The Irish Fireside Club, a literary discussion group, where he became acquainted with Arthur Griffith around 1888. They joined the Leinster Debating Society (which became the Leinster Literary Society), where Griffith became president and Griffith secretary. After the Leinster Literary Society was dissolved in the wake of the Parnell controversies Rooney formed the Celtic Literary Society, of which he became president and editor of the society’s journal, An Seanachuidhe. Along with Michael Cusack he taught Irish at the society’s offices; one of their pupils was George Clancy.
His writings and articles appeared in United Ireland, The Shamrock, Weekly Freeman, The Evening Herald, Shan Van Vocht and Northern Patriot in Belfast.
He was persuaded by Eoin MacNeill to join the Gaelic League after its founding in 1893. As a member of the Gaelic League, which was mainly concerned with promoting the Irish language and literature, he favoured a more political approach to promoting Irish culture. He regarded Irish independence without the revival of the language and culture as meaningless.
He was active on the 1798 Rising commemoration committee. In 1899 he co-founded with Griffith the United Irishman newspaper and wrote many of its articles. Rooney had encouraged Griffith to return from South Africa and edit the paper. In November 1900 along with Griffith he helped establish Cumann na nGaedheal. This was an umbrella organisation to co-ordinate the activities of a number of nationalist groups, with John O’Leary as president; it was merged in 1907 to form Sinn Féin. He spent some time travelling the country promoting the Irish language and condemned the Irish parliamentary party for its failure to promote the language.
He died suddenly of tuberculosis at the age of 27, shortly before he was due to be married, in May 1901. He was described by Griffith as “the Thomas Davis of the new movement”. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
His poems include “The Men of the West”, “Ninety Eight”, and “An tSean Bhean Bhocht”. A book of his poems was posthumously published in 1902, Poems and Ballads of William Rooney. The writer James Joyce gave Rooney’s poems an unfavourable review in the Daily Express.