100 years ago this month all Ireland was galvanised by the news that Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s body was to be brought from New York to be buried in Ireland. As an acknowledged leader of the Fenian movement, he was as infamous in America and Canada as he was revered in Ireland, and his funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Dublin.
Rossa, born in 1831, grew up near Rosscarbery and experienced the dreadful time of the Great Famine, watching his father’s death and his family’s eviction. Left alone in Skibbereen while his mother and siblings emigrated, he made a life for himself as a shopkeeper, all the time growing in his hatred of tyranny and nurturing revolutionary thoughts. He founded the Phoenix Society in Skibbereen which, although called a literary society, advocated ‘force of arms’ as a means of liberation from British rule.
It was during this period, in 1863, that he organised a demonstration in Skibbereen in support of Poland. There were many analogies between Ireland and Poland at that time: Poland was ruled by Tsarist Russia, which had imposed the Russian language on the Poles, closed universities and Catholic churches and dealt ruthlessly with resistance. The march was a barely-concealed act of sedition, of course, watched closely by the police.
This week, as part of the launch of the annual Arts Festival, Skibbereen re-enacted that demonstration – and it was thrilling! Declan McCarthy (of Baltimore Fiddle Fair fame) took the role of Rossa, ably abetted by members of the Kilmeen Drama Group and the Skibbereen Theatre Society
Everyone who could manage it was dressed in period costume, shop windows put on special displays, and the streets were closed to all but pedestrian and horse-drawn traffic.
The demonstrators paraded through town when night fell, lit by flaming turf torches and led by Rossa and an enormous Phoenix Society emblem. A contingent of Poles had come from Cork and marched in costume. Banners were hoisted and a pipe band played The Minstrel Boy.
Finally, lit by the flaming torches, Rossa ascended the platform and delivered a fiery speech about tyranny and illegal occupation, punctuated by cheers from the crowd.
The atmosphere was incredible. We were transported back to 1860s Skibbereen, surrounded by threatening policemen, firebrand revolutionaries and Victorian citizens, all getting into the spirit of the times.
It was the high point (although not the culmination yet) of two months of Rossa commemorations in West Cork which has included lectures, a play, a walking tour, exhibitions and the unveiling of new monuments in several places including the impressive Skibbereen installation inaugurated by President Higgins.
More about Rossa in a future post, including his three wives and 18 children, his Fenian career and his connection to events in Canada. To end, a link to one of the classic Fenian songs, Down by the Glenside.