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Hero or terrorist? This Cork patriot should be remembered whatever the answer

UCC historian Gabriel O’Doherty on the life and legacy of Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, whose funeral centenary is being commemorated today.

Pádraig Pearse delivered his famous graveside oration at O'Donovan Rossa's funeral in Glasnevin cemetary
Pádraig Pearse delivered his famous graveside oration at O'Donovan Rossa's funeral in Glasnevin cemetary
Image: National Library of Ireland

THE STORY OF Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa incorporates many of the dominant motifs of modern Irish history – famine, death, language loss and cultural transition, forced emigration, the land struggle, and physical force republicanism to name but a few.

He was born in 1831 into an Irish-speaking farming family in the Rosscarbery area of west Cork in 1831, a region notorious (indeed proverbial) for the extent of the suffering experienced during the famine.

Those tragic famine years had a decisive influence on his attitude towards a variety of important contemporary issues in Ireland, most notably the questions of land ownership and the government of the country.

Promoting the separatist agenda

The death of O’Donovan Rossa’s father from famine fever in 1847, the deaths of many of his personal and family friends, and the emigration of his mother and siblings to America in the following year, undoubtedly added a bitter personal dimension to these reflections.

His reading of the literature of the Young Ireland movement, most notably that of John Mitchel, also influenced his thinking in a republican, and to a certain extent, Anglophobic direction.

O’Donovan Rossa’s political career began with the creation of the Phoenix National and Literary Society in Skibbereen, which he played a leading role in both establishing and running.

The pioneering role of this society in the promulgation of a separatist agenda is widely attested to, and following the visit of Fenian leader James Stephens to west Cork two years after its creation, it become the principal vehicle through which the newly-formed Irish Republican Brotherhood extended its influence in the west Cork area.

The first of O’Donovan Rossa’s arrests and periods of incarceration followed later the same year.

Absent but loving father

The subsequent years were difficult personal ones for him, as he lost two wives in quick succession: his first, Nora Eager, whom he had married in 1853, passed away in 1860, while the second, Eileán Ní Buachalla, died in 1863 after only two years of marriage.

His union with his third wife, Mary Jane Irwin, in contrast, lasted 50 years, and was evidently a source of great strength and comfort to him during the difficulties he was soon to face in his political life – and, in turn, he is generally described as being a warm and loving father and husband, if, necessarily, a frequently absentee one.

These absences were the result of terms of penal servitude to which he was sentenced as a consequence of his involvement with the burgeoning Fenian movement.

During these prison terms he proved himself a most recalcitrant inmate, who was frequently sentenced to a range of prison punishments, which exacerbated what was already a most punitive regime.

Solitary confinement

The most notorious of these punishments involved a month in solitary confinement, and, on a separate occasion, his hands being handcuffed behind his back for over a month – a policy that led to a public outcry when it was suggested that he had been obliged to eat his food in that position: in effect, like a dog.

His testimony as to conditions imposed on Irish prisoners in British jails at this time had a great impact on the committee that was established to investigate the allegations, whose report, by and large, confirmed their accuracy.

During his time in prison he was nominated for, and won, a by-election in county Tipperary, but was prevented from taking his seat as a result of the subsequent decision by the Westminster parliament to set aside his victory on the basis he was a convicted felon.

He was amnestied, along with a number of other prisoners, in 1870-71, on the condition that he, and they, emigrated for the duration of the remainder of their sentences. He decided to travel to the United States, and on his arrival there, and on account of his international repute, attempts were made to recruit him for American political causes.

In effect, however, he opted to remain within Irish republican circles in America, and spent most of the remainder of his life in support of ideal of an independent Irish Republic.

5997404467_cfbf7b29e8_b O'Donovan Rossa's funeral procession through Dublin in August 1915 Source: National Library of Ireland

Bombing campaign

Two of his most significant activities during these years were his work in establishing the radical newspaper United Irishman, and writing and producing it on a weekly basis for a quarter of a century; and his advocacy (and active support) of a campaign of dynamite attacks upon British cities (to be supported by a “skirmishing fund” generated within Irish American circles).

Both of these initiatives contributed to a break with a long-time collaborator, John Devoy, a break that, ultimately, led to O’Donovan Rossa’s progressive marginalisation within Irish republican circles in the United States.

His fame in Ireland, however, endured, and during his occasional visits to the country he was received with great warmth – such as on the occasion of the award of the freedom of the city of Cork in 1904. In fact around this time he spent some months in Ireland, having been offered a paid position within Cork County Council – but owing to family circumstances he returned to America in 1906.

The last years of his life were marred by growing physical and mental ill-health, prior to his death on Staten Island, New York on 29 June 1915.

Not just a figurehead

O’Donovan Rossa, through his secret and public political and cultural activities, on account of his combative manner while in prison, and by means of his numerous writings, was a major figure in the history of Irish republicanism, and of Cork, of Irish-America, and of Ireland itself.

His funeral, at which Pádraig Pearse delivered one of the great graveside orations, was one of the landmark events leading to the 1916 Easter Rising. He should not, however, be simply reduced to a figurehead, or a symbol – however great his name recognition or his symbolic value may have been during his life.

He was a historical figure of no mean importance, and it is right that his life story should be remembered in this, the centenary year of his passing.

Gabriel Doherty is a history lecturer at University College Cork. He is a member of the academic advisory group to the Irish government on the decade of centenaries, and is one of the secretaries of the O’Donovan Rossa centenary commemoration committee in west Cork.


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