Rossa: The Skibbereen Years

Rossa aged 32

This is the third post in a series about Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. In the first, March Back in Time, I introduced the man and described the thrilling re-enactment of the famous 1863 demonstration in Skibbereen. In the second, O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist? I looked at his activities in America and the British bombing campaign he coordinated, as well as the influence of the Fenians in general on American and Canadian history. For more on the question of whether he can be considered a terrorist or a freedom-fighter, or both, I refer readers to the excellent research of Shane Kenna, author of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Unrepentant Fenian. In particular, Kenna’s  thoroughly researched article available on The Irish Story website, ‘One skilled scientist is worth an army’ – The Fenian Dynamite Campaign 1881-85 is a useful summary of the arguments.

The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is an incredible resource for local history and specialises in the Great Famine. Their Walking Trail and its associated app and book have been immensely helpful in preparing this post (and many others).

My aim on this post is to outline the events in Rossa’s young life that led to his radicalisation and, since much of that time was spent in Skibbereen, to see what traces remain in this West Cork town that can help us to understand the man.

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We have to start with the Great Famine of 1845 to 1850, although that’s a hard place to begin. It’s hard because it’s almost impossible to read about it without welling up with emotion and rage. The details are harrowing in the extreme and Skibbereen was the epicentre of the disaster. When Rossa arrived here, aged 16, to live with an aunt, he had witnessed his father die of famine fever after being forced to labour on one of the infamous Board of Works schemes. As was happening all around him, his widowed mother and his siblings were evicted from their home for non-payment of rent, and made the wrenching decision to emigrate. He had had a normal happy childhood and now everything was torn from him under the most appalling conditions.

Cillín near Durrus

Famine graveyards full of mass burials and unmarked graves are scattered throughout West Cork, like this one near Durrus

In Skibbereen, in Black ’47, the 16 year old saw the worst of the Famine – the carts piled with bodies taking them every day to mass graves, the soup kitchens, the sickness and despair.

Famine soup Kitchen

This building in Skibbereen was used as a soup kitchen during the famine. Thousands of people were fed a watery soup that had little nutritional value but had the advantage of being cheap to make

Meanwhile he saw that tons of food was being exported from the surrounding countryside. He helped an old friend to bury his mother, Jillen Andy. Later, in prison, he would hold that memory and write a moving poem about the experience. It’s a long poem and it begins this way:

 ‘Come to the graveyard if you’re not afraid,
I’m going to dig my mother’s grave. She’s dead,
And I want someone that will bring the spade
For Andy’s out of home, and Charlie’s sick in bed.’

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Rossa became a shopkeeper in Skibbereen while at the same time founding and organising the Phoenix National and Literary Society which, although supposedly a educational group, had the aim of liberating Ireland by force of arms. It eventually merged with the Irish Republican Brotherhood after Rossa formed an alliance with James Stephens. ‘Fenians’ was the general term applied to the IRB and other such nationalist organizations.

Phoenix Soc meeting place

Philip O’Regan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre leads us on a walking tour. One of the places he points out is the meeting rooms above what is now a hairdressers, where Rossa and his fellow members of the Phoenix Society used to gather

Business and politics didn’t mix well and life was a constant economic struggle. His store is still there, now a jewellers run by the genial Mr O’Leary.

Rossa shop

Rossa married a local woman, Honora Eager, and they had four sons, before her untimely death. I can find no image of Honora, known as Nanno, and can only imagine the devastation to the little family caused by her demise.

Ellen BuckleyThe following year he met another local woman, Ellen Buckley, who was only 18 at the time and who married him despite the fierce opposition of her parents. She was beautiful and well-educated – and strong willed, obviously. She took on the task of being a mother to his four sons and she bore another son, known as Flor Rossa. But then she also died, leaving Rossa devastated once more. He was in America when it happened and she was buried in Castlehaven graveyard. Her grave is marked with a large headstone – which bears no reference to Rossa, only to her parents. Flor was eventually buried there too, having died as a young man.

The remote and beautiful Castlehaven graveyard, final resting place of Rossa’s second wife, Ellen Buckley. Note that her gravestone makes no reference to Rossa.

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Members of the Buckley family still farm near Skibbereen and run Annie May’s bar and restaurant, a favourite with locals. Photo courtesy of Skibbereen.ie

Rossa’s third wife was Mary Jane Irwin from Clonakilty. Once again, she was young, well-educated, and married him despite the opposition of her parents.

The young Mary Jane Irwin, and Mary Jane in her mourning dress at Rossa’s funeral. Still beautiful. She supported the family with her poetry readings and recitals while Rossa was in prison

She would go on to have thirteen children with Rossa and they would be married for over 50 years – by all accounts a successful and happy union. Their happiness was short-lived at first. Rossa spent several years under atrocious conditions in English prisons, while Mary Jane wrote poetry and speeches and travelled across America and Ireland raising money for the cause and supporting the family.

Rossa and daughters

Rossa, Mary Jane and their daughters.

Shortly after his third marriage Rossa moved from Skibbereen and only returned once, in 1904. This was the occasion of the unveiling of the Maid of Erin statue: a fascinating monument that commemorated two failed uprisings against British rule, while Britain still ruled!

North St and Maid

The Maid of Erin statue was originally in the middle of the intersection but was disruptive of traffic so was moved closer to the town hall

But the Rossa family connection to Skibbereen remains strong, and this summer we were delighted to meet two of his great-grandsons, Williams Rossa Cole and Ross Williams Cole, in town to record footage on the Rossa commemorations for a documentary they are making on the life of their great-grandfather. You can read more about them in this Examiner article. And take a look at the trailer for the documentary!

Rossa boys in Skibbereen

The final stop on any Rossa trail in Skibbereen has to be the park that is dedicated to him. Robert recorded the grand opening by Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland. It’s a striking monument in stone and steel reflecting the unbending and steadfast commitment of Rossa to his own brand of patriotism, forged in tragedy and hardened in the crucible of prison.

Rossa Memorial

The steel columns have cut-outs of quotes and images silhouetted against the sky. Among these quotes are the poignant final words of Jillen Andy. The poem was composed in prison, not written but memorised because he had no paper. It was a talisman he held close to his heart for when his courage faltered: he conjured up again the image of the wasted body of Jillen, dead of famine sickness as a result of the egregious lack of compassion and mismanagement of resources by the British Parliament and it cemented his resolve once more.

How oft in dreams that burial scene appears,
Through death, eviction, prison, exile, home,
Through all the suns and moons of twenty years,
And oh! How short these years compared with years to come.
Some thing are strongly on the mind impressed
And other faintly imaged there, it seems;
And this is why, when reason sinks to rest.
Phases of life do show and shadow forth in dreams.
And this is why in dreams I see the face
Of Jillen Andy looking in my own,
The poet-hearted man, the pillow case,
The spotted handkerchief that softened the hard stone.
Welcome these memories of scenes of youth
That nursed my hate of tyranny and wrong,
That helmed my manhood in the path of truth,
And help me now to suffer and be strong.

The complete text of Jillen Andy is here.

Welcome these memories

Perhaps we can leave Rossa now to the judgement of history. And perhaps with one last image of him and Mary Jane in happier times. Rest in Peace, you Unrepentant Fenian.

Rossa MJ ans 2 daughters

11 thoughts

  1. Excellent research! Fascinating how much still remains unchanged or at least is visible. And all the wives and children – Mary Jane Irwin sounds a remarkable woman too, and very striking.

    Like

  2. Fascinating and very well put together – and it has certainly inspired me to find out a whole lot more about all this. The traqedy of the Great Famine could never happen now thank goodness, and probably has to be understood in the context of that time in all respects. It is better, perhaps, to use one’s rage at all the injustice and lack of compassion that exists all over the world in our own time. Rossa’s story is surely inspiring so many people to make a make a free and better world by peaceful means.

    Liked by 1 person

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