Skibbereen remembers Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | July 27, 2015 0


On last Friday night the good folk of Sweet Skibbereen dusted off their bonnets, polished their buckles, and got the horse and trap ready for a trip into the past as the West Cork town stepped back in time to remember one of its favourite sons.

It paid homage to its past by transforming into a 19th century town, complete with a torchlit vintage costume parade as the town centre was closed to all traffic except ponies and traps and the staff of local businesses dressed in period costume to help recreate 19th century Skibbereen. The parade celebrated the life of Irish patriot Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, a native of the town, and also served  as the opening event of the  Skibbereen Arts Festival. O’Donovan Rossa held a torchlit parade in solidarity with Poland’s uprising against Russian occupying forces in the bloodily-quashed January Rebellion of 1863. A case indeed of “hurling the little streets against the great” from the 2,000- strong town whose newspaper, the Skibbereen Eagle, once carried a headline: “Czar Nicholas: the Skibbereen Eagle has its eye on you.” A representative of the Polish embassy and members of Ireland’s thriving Polish Community attended the event in recognition of Ireland and Poland’s old connections. Members of the local Polish community took part in national dress, singing Polish patriotic ballads and flying banners and standards associated with Poland’s national cause of that era

Born in Reenascreena in nearby Rosscarbery, O’Donovan Rossa became a shopkeeper in Skibbereen where he established the Phoenix National and Literary Society, whose aim was the “liberation of Ireland by force of arms”, which would later merge with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, better known as the Fenians. He was the son of a tenant farmer, Denis O’Donovan and his wife Nellie O’Driscoll. While a young boy, the failure of the main food crop of the Irish population which was the potato, in successive years between 1845 and 1847 lead to a devastating famine which hit the West Cork area in which he lived, particularly hard. The Great Famine as it became known, caused one million Irish people to lose their lives in these years and another million to emigrate. O’Donovan Rossa’s own father died in 1847 of an illness related to severe malnutrition and the teenager moved to Skibbereen to work in his cousin’s shop in the town. JeremiahODonovanRossaCelebrations

The 1848 Young Irelander rebellion and the growing independence/anti-imperialist movements in Europe around this time inspired the young O’Donovan Rossa and in 1856 he formed the “Phoenix National Literary Society” in Skibbereen town. This was essentially a secret society whose aim was Irish independence from Britain. He married the first of his three wives, Nano Eager, a Killarney woman, in 1853. By 1858 he had been sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) known colloquially as the “Fenians”, a reference to “Na Fianna” a band of warriors who defended Ireland from invaders in Irish mythology. Following the death of his first wife in 1860 he subsequently married Ellen Buckley from Castlehaven who died in childbirth in 1863.

He was imprisoned in 1865 as a result of his activities as manager of the nationalist newspaper “The Irish People” and served his prison sentence in a variety of prisons in England. His peers planned the rebellion of 1867 which failed after a few brief skirmishes and armed battles in some isolated parts of Ireland, most notably Tallaght outside Dublin. The ringleaders of the rebellion were rounded up by the authorities and also eventually imprisoned in England following trial. odonovn-rossa1

SkibbRossaThe Fenian prisoners were granted early release from jail in 1871 following a public enquiry into the conditions in which they, including O’Donovan Rossa were held. All the released prisoners were forced to emigrate and O’Donovan Rossa moved to New York City with his now third wife, Mary Irwin from Clonakilty in West Cork, whom he had married in 1864. They were to have thirteen children together. He ran the Chatham Hotel, in Chatham Square in Manhattan in subsequent years in the notorious “Five Points” district which now is in the heart of modern day Chinatown. This was made famous in recent years by being the setting for the Martin Scorcese film, “The Gangs of New York” (2002).


While in New York, O’Donovan Rossa continued his fight against British rule in Ireland and very sucessfully raised money to fund a so called “Skirmishing Fund” – essentially a late nineteenth century terror and bombing campaign. His fame grew further as he ran for office in New York city immediately upon his arrival, against the infamous “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall fame. Although ultimately unsuccessful, his public utterances and writings as well as his continued support for the physical force tradition of Irish nationalism kept him in the public eye on both sides of the Atlantic. He was finally released from banishment by the British government in 1891 and travelled to Ireland in 1894 and again in 1904.


Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s body lying in state, City Hall, Dublin.


To mark the centenary of O’Donovan Rossa’s death in Staten Island in New York in 1915, the local Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa Centenary Commemoration Committee in Skibbereen has organised a programme of events to be held in the town throughout July.

Among the other events marking the centenary is the unveiling at the West Cork Arts Centre on July 24th featuring a new print by artist Robert Ballagh of Pádraig Pearse’s famous oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin in August 1915. The fervour generated by the patriot’s funeral in 1915 generated an upsurge of rebellious spirit just months before the 1916 Uprising.  RossasayingLayout 1

” We stand at Rossa’s grave not in sadness but rather in exaltation of spirit that it has been given to us to come thus into so close a communion with that brave and splendid Gael. Splendid and holy causes are served by men who are themselves splendid and holy. O’Donovan Rossa was splendid in the proud manhood of him, splendid in the heroic grace of him, splendid in the Gaelic strength and clarity and truth of him.

The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

 Pádraig Pearse – Oration at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Glasnevin Cemetery, 1st August, 1915.

The parade was joyful, poignant and rousing in equal parts. Most moving to see was the affectionate welcome from Skibbereen townsfolk for a 40-strong contingent from Cork’s Polish association who joined the celebrations, honouring the small West Cork town’s historic gesture of support for the cause of Polish Nationalism. SkibbPolski SkibbRossaWindow Skibbsignskibbmarch

So on Friday night Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s mercurial rebel spirit stalked the streets of his hometown once again, convincingly portrayed by local man Declan McCarthy. The parade finished in the square on Main St. A hush fell over the assembled crowd as McCarthy took to a makeshift stage made of hay bales. The atmosphere was charged when McCarthy, pacing the stage against a backdrop of flaming turf sods on pitchforks, delivered a rousing speech from Roger McHugh’s play about the Irish patriot.

“Tyranny is the same the world over,” proclaimed McCarthy, “whether it call itself Tzar or by any other title. And freedom is the same the world over, whether it shows itself in the marching men of Poland, or the marching men of any other small nation.” As McCarthy delivered his rabble-rousing finale, the crowd erupted in a spine-tingling roar. For a moment, it felt as if O’Donovan Rossa was back in Skibbereen.

The Skibbereen Eagle

Latest posts by The Skibbereen Eagle (see all)

Comments are closed.