"... and William Rooney spoke in Irish."

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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 at the age of 28 in May 1901. 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.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHistory Ireland
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2007


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