Rooney, William (Ó Maolruanaidh, Liam) (1873–1901), journalist and poet, was born 20 October 1873 in 39 Mabbot Street (a tenement building in ‘the Monto’, Dublin), eldest among five sons and two daughters of Patrick Rooney (d. 1906), a coachbuilder, and Teresa Rooney (neé Buckley). Rooney's father was a Fenian and a member of the Old Guard Benevolent Union (an Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) veterans association). William was educated at Strand Street Christian Brothers' School (CBS) and, briefly, at Richmond Street CBS. Aged twelve he became a junior clerk in a solicitor's office, but continued his education at night and passed the junior certificate exams (1887). He then became a clerk with the Midland Great Western Railway.
One of the earliest members of the Irish Fireside Club, a nationalist reading and discussion group, established in the mid 1880s, where young people took Irish-language lessons and were introduced to the works of Thomas Davis (qv) and John Mitchel (qv), he also joined the Junior Young Ireland Society. Davis, in particular, remained the model for Rooney throughout his life, leading Arthur Griffith (qv) to describe Rooney as ‘the Davis of the national revival’. Rooney valued nationalist aspiration over literary excellence, not only in his reading but in his writing, prompting James Joyce (qv) to write that his poems were the product of ‘a weary and foolish spirit, speaking of redemption and revenge, blaspheming against tyrants, and going forth, full of tears and curses, upon its infernal labours’ (Barry (ed.), 62). It was at the Fireside Club, probably in 1888, that Rooney met Griffith. They joined the Leinster Debating Society, later the Parnellite Leinster Literary Society; Griffith became president of the society and Rooney an active member, contributing to the society's journal, Eblana, before becoming secretary. Rooney's poetry was first published in United Ireland in June 1891. His first journalistic work was a series of articles on notable graves in the Dublin area, written in conjunction with Griffith, which appeared in the Evening Herald (1892).
The Leinster Literary Society dissolved in December 1892 after Griffith's objection to the attendance of an anti-Parnellite element, and Rooney then established the Celtic Literary Society. Its first meeting was held (3 February 1893) at 23 Leinster Avenue, North Strand, Dublin, the Rooney family home from 1891 until after William's death. Rooney was president and the most active member and edited the society's journal, An Seanachaidhe, which was republished in United Ireland. He also contributed articles and poetry to the Shan Van Vocht, Northern Patriot, and Shamrock. Initially women were not allowed to join, leading to the foundation of a sister society, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, of which Rooney's sisters were members. Promotion of the Irish language was an important aim of the society and Rooney gave classes at the society's rooms in Marlborough Street and, later, Abbey Street; Michael Cusack (qv) also gave classes and George Clancy (qv) was among those who attended.
Eoin MacNeill (qv) persuaded Rooney and his coterie to join the Gaelic League on its foundation, despite Rooney's disagreement with the League's non-political stance. As a leading member of the 1798 centenary committee, Rooney spoke in Irish at the large commemoration meeting held in the Phoenix Park, 20 March 1898. Since his job allowed him free travel on the railways, he toured the country zealously promoting Irish. MacNeill believed that the Irish parliamentary party's distrust of the Gaelic League began with a speech Rooney delivered in Mayo condemning the party for its failure to promote the language.
When Alice Milligan (qv) and Anna Johnson (qv) ceased publishing Shan Van Vocht, Mark Ryan (qv) and Art O'Brien (qv) determined that a replacement should be launched. Ryan offered the editorship to Rooney. He turned it down and instead suggested that Griffith should be persuaded to return from South Africa to edit the paper. This was probably his most significant contribution to Irish nationalism. The United Irishman was launched 4 March 1899 with Griffith as editor, and for two years Rooney wrote most of the paper's articles, using as many as twelve pseudonyms. During this period Griffith and Rooney began to develop what would later be known as the Sinn Féin policy and fostered pro-Boer sentiment in Ireland. On 25 November 1900 they founded Cumann na nGaedheal as an umbrella organisation to coordinate the activities of various nationalist bodies, and chose the veteran Fenian John O'Leary (qv) as president.
Rooney was engaged to Marie Killeen when he died suddenly, 6 May 1901. The cause of his death is often described as exhaustion, but the root appears to have been a tubercular condition. Griffith, who was devastated and entered hospital for a week, was unstinting (well past the point of hyperbole) in his praise. Rooney seems to have made an impression on those he met which the facts of his career or his Poems and ballads (1902) and Prose writings (1909) fail to convey. W. B. Yeats (qv) dedicated the first edition of Cathleen ní Houlihan to his memory (1902). Seán T. O'Kelly (qv) and P. D. Mehigan (qv) are among those who have written reverent testaments. Michael Collins (qv) described him in terms normally associated with John the Baptist: ‘Rooney spoke as a prophet. He prepared the way and foresaw the victory’ (Path to freedom, 150). Latterly P. J. Mathews has sought to establish Rooney as a significant champion of an inclusive civic nationalism in opposition to the Gaelic catholic nationalism promoted by figures such as D. P. Moran (qv).
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).