West Cork is blessed to have many iconic freedom fighting heroes. Michael Collins is the obvious example, along with the men of the flying column. One man not so widely acknowledged is Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. People are aware of the name and have an idea that he is important yet don’t realise why. In his time, he was a leading figure in the fight for freedom. Through his actions, he became a source of encouragement for later generations especially Padraig Pearse and others involved in the Easter Rising.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was born in the village of Reenascreena in 1831. His father passed away in 1847 due to malnutrition caused by the Famine and as a result Jeremiah was sent to live with cousins in Skibbereen. His cousins there had a shop and eventually he himself ran a shop. At the age of just 25 he set up the Phoenix National and Literary Society, the aim of which was ‘the liberation of Ireland by force of arms’. This organisation later merged with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), founded two years later in Dublin.
O’Donovan Rossa soon became a scourge to the British authorities. He was constantly plotting and attempting to overthrow British rule in Ireland. O’Donovan Rossa was regarded as one of the more extreme Fenians. He was a defiant man, and a strong believer in a Gaelic Ireland. In 1865, he was charged with plotting a Fenian rising that year. He was put on trial for high treason and sentenced to penal servitude for life due to his previous convictions. He served his time in Pentonville, Portland and Chatham prisons in England. His time in prison was not easy and he continually looked to cause difficulty for the prison authorities. In 1869, he won a by-election in Tipperary but afterwards the vote was deemed void as O’Donovan Rossa was a convicted felon. His experiences in prison formed the basis of a book he released later in life called – ‘Irish Rebels in English Prisons: A Record of Prison Life’.
In 1870 he was released from prison as part of a Fenian amnesty after a campaign highlighted their appalling conditions. These released Fenians were not allowed to return to Ireland though and instead left for the USA. They were ‘The Cuba Five’ in honour of the boat they set sail in. Among them was John Devoy who would go on to become the leading Fenian in the United States through the Clan na Gael organisation. The move to New York did not dampen O’Donovan Rossa’s spirit. He set up a newspaper called the ‘The United Irishman’ advocating a bombing campaign in Britain. Throughout the 1880s, the Fenians set about following these instructions and waged a campaign called the ‘dynamite campaign’ in major British cities, most prominently London but also Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. This was the first ever time a bombing campaign by Irish republicans targeted Britain directly. He became infamous in Britain but attempts to have him extradited back to Britain failed.
In 1885, in an attempted assassination, he was shot by an English woman Yseult Dudley. His injuries were not life threatening but the incident raised alarm; many of O’Donovan Rossa’s supporters claimed that she was working on behalf of the British government who in turn claimed she was mentally unstable
His personal life had its fair share of tragedy, as mentioned, his father died when Jeremiah was just a teenager and unfortunately for him, his first two wife’s Anna Eager and Ellen Buckley both passed away. Anna had four children and Ellen Buckley had one. His third wife was Mary Jane Irwin from Clonakilty, she came from a prominent Republican background. Together they had thirteen children. In New York, O’Donovan Rossa ran the Chatham Hotel in what was the notorious ‘Five Points’ area of New York.
In 1894 and 1904 he was allowed to visit Ireland and on the second occasion he received the freedom of Cork City. By now he was an old man and after his return to New York his health started to decline and he eventually was confined to a hospital bed in St. Vincent’s hospital on Staten Island. He died on June 29, 1915. His body was returned to Ireland to be buried at Glasnevin cemetery.
Perhaps his greatest legacy is how he inspired the younger generations of Republicans. His death in 1915 awoke strong nationalistic feelings that were summed up in Pearse’s famous graveside oration at Glasnevin – ‘The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. 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.’ This fiery speech less than a year before the Easter Rising awoke strong feelings in nationalists and was an important step on the road to rebellion.
Today he is remembered through the numerous GAA clubs named in his honour, locally in Skibbereen and in Northern Ireland where his name lends itself to a number of clubs who were drawn no doubt to the Republican spirit of O’Donovan Rossa. Yet, in the general Irish consciousness, he is a man overlooked. If alive today, his staunch Republicanism would probably be frowned upon by many, but to the heroes of 1916, he was regarded as an icon in the struggle for freedom and an inspiration to them.