Although Sinn Féin did not come into being as an organisation until four years after his death, and although in its earlier years countenanced things of which he would not approve, William Rooney may justly be claimed as its real founder. He is not often spoke of or quoted today; but his teaching, his example, his sacrifices had more to do than most people seem to know, with the building-up of the great, self-reliant movement out of which grew the Irish Volunteers, the Insurrection of 1916 and the years of high endeavour which followed it.
William Rooney died in 1902 at the age of twenty-seven. He began to write and teach and organise when he was seventeen. Into those ten years he crowded an almost incredible amount of work for Ireland. He learned Irish, he taught it, he spoke it in public and in private, taught Irish history which he knew more thoroughly and intimately than any man of his time or ours, for he learned the true lessons of all our failures and triumphs. He lectured, week after week, helped to edit a weekly paper and wrote most of it, he taught Irish songs, made young people enthusiastic about Irish games and dances and music, and through it all and above it all he held the clear, unflinching lamp of Tone’s teaching, that Ireland will never be free, contented, prosperous or happy so long as one link remains of the chains which bind her to the British Empire.
He began his work when the separatist idea was almost completely obscured by the make-believe, the intrigue, the slavishness resultant upon contact with British parliamentarianism. He carried it on with feverish energy through and after the heart-breaking period of the Parnell Split. There was nothing to encourage him except the conviction that he was doing right, and the knowledge that at other periods of Ireland’s history there had bene apathy and slavishness and despair, when the courage and faith of individual torch-bearers has saved the old cause from destruction, had keot a few unfaltering hearts on the lonely upward path, to the each bearna baoghail of it until the awakening of the hosts of Ireland’s soldiers would crowd it again and make it ring with the music of marching feet.
In that hope he held on, studying, teaching, fighting, his eyes ever turned towards the dawn he did not live to see. I think it is that gap, small though it was, between his death and the revival of National thought and spirit which came some years later, that is responsible for the fact that William Rooney has been neglected and almost forgotten in a land for which he gave his life as surely as did the men who fell in the fray or went before the firing squads or to the gallows in our own day.
He worked a ten-hour day in a city office. Very often he went straight from it to the Cetlic Literary Society’s rooms in Abbey Street where he lectured or taught Irish and history and songs – he had an almost boundless knowledge of Irish songs and ballads – or edited An Seanchaidhe, the MS. Journal of the Society. Along with editing it he frequently had to write most of the contents when those who had undertaken to contribute to it forgot their lightly-given promises.
Very often after an evening’s work of this kind he had to tackle the writing of an article or a lecture, and it was no unusual thing for the dawn to find this lonely pioneer at work to which no one else seemed to give a thought. Then on Saturday he would travel to the West, speak at meetings on Sunday, return by the Night Mail reaching Dublin in the small hours of the morning, to start again the daily grind that was destined to wear out his life.
When the United Irishman came into being in 1899 one of William Rooney’s dearest dreams was realised. He had now a voice to call out to the widely scattered men and women throughout the country who still held the National faith in their hearts, but had no means of communicating with one another or even of finding out whether there were any people at all who shared their hopes and ideas.
Through the columns of the United Irishman, Rooney was able to speak to them all, and right constantly and clearly he did it. He was the life and soul of the paper, though Arthur Griffith was associated with him in the promotion of it, and is sometimes erroneously referred to as its founder. The front page was given up to All-Ireland notes, and these were written by Rooney every week until the weary hand could hold the pen no more and the hope-filled, eager heart was at peace forever.
In addition to those notes he wrote articles and poems over a dozen different pen-names (Fear na Muinntire was the best known) sometimes having as many as four contributions in a single issue. In these articles he boldly proclaimed his faith for all the world to hear, and he was always sure of his ground.
He was a Separatist, a Republican, a follower of Wolfe Tone; but he had little use for a politically independent, Anglicised Ireland. He wanted everything that belonged to us of old – our native culture, our native traditions, our native music, our native games, industries, customs, laws and songs, everything that was part of the Irish Nation – and with them he wanted a complete and absolute separation from England.
His teaching is as true today as it was then. If the young people of Ireland turn to it they will find therein the light that will lead them to the goal of all our dreams.