March Back in Time

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa at the head of the Demonstration. Photo © Ian Flavin, used with permission.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa at the head of the Demonstration. Photo © Ian Flavin, used with permission

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.

Polish Contingent in national costume

Polish contingent in national costume

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.

Phoenix out front

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.

Firebrand Speech

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.

AudienceIt 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.

Rossa and torch bearers

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.

Pitchfork torch

In the Wilds of West Cork

West Cork night life

West Cork night life

What on earth will you find to do in the wilds of West Cork? One friend asked me this when I announced my plans to move here. Others may have been too polite to express the thought, but the question hovered. They needn’t have worried, of course. I don’t think I have ever lived anywhere else where there was so much going on and so much to do. If that was true in the winter, it’s more so now. It’s spring and summer’s around the corner, so West Cork Festival Season has gone into high gear. I wrote about the Ballydehob Trad Festival six weeks ago. Since then, there have been two more – a jazz festival in Ballydehob and the Fiddle Fair in Baltimore. 

Live jazz in the Irish Whip Bar

Live jazz in the Irish Whip Bar

The Jazz Festival featured a street market, and jazz sessions in most of the pubs all afternoon and well into the night. The village hall was decked out as a night club one night, with dancing into the wee hours. There were musicians and jazz aficionados from all over Ireland, and the pubs were bursting at the seams and spilling over onto the sidewalks.

Soul Driven and the riveting dancer Ksenia Parkhaskaya

Soul Driven and the riveting dancer Ksenia Parkhaskaya

This is the second time we have been here for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, which has ben going now for over 20 years, under the brilliant direction of Declan McCarthy. World class acts come to play in this tiny village. The audience is diverse too – we met people who had come from Britain, Germany and the USA just for this weekend. We had season tickets, which meant we weren’t asleep before 2 in the morning for four nights in a row – probably earlier than most of the attendees!

Eddi Reader

Eddi Reader

A highlight was Eddi Reader, a Scottish singer/songwriter with a larger than life stage presence, a great line in stories, and a soaring voice. Robert loved seeing Aly Bain, one of his musical heroes, in concert and we both appreciated the wide range of music on offer, from Appalachian old time fiddling to Swedish polskas, Scottish and Irish tunes, and an entertaining group call the New Rope String Band who kept us laughing with their slapstick humour. For the readers who have been requesting videos, I recorded one lively number and uploaded it to YouTube – take a look. It’s a tiny taste of what we experienced.

John Sheahan with young fans

John Sheahan with young fans

One unforgettable afternoon was devoted to a concert by John Sheahan, the sole surviving member of the legendary Dubliners. Accompanied by Eamon Keane on the keyboard, he told stories, read us his poetry, and played his own compositions. He is truly an Irish icon, and it felt like a real privilege to hear him in such an intimate venue. He played a wide variety of music and I recorded this one: St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Of course all these late nights and bouncing around on seats takes a toll on the body, leading to the need for a rejuvenating day at a spa. Fortunately, there is a marvellous one in West Cork, on Inchydoney Island, where my friend Amanda and I repaired for a girly day of pampering. You can read her account of our hedonism here. 

The strand at Inchydoney Island

The strand at Inchydoney Island

And in case you might feel that the entertainment described above is not highbrow enough, last night we attended a performance of a Haydn mass and Mozart’s Requiem by the West Cork Choral Singers. Accompanied by an excellent small orchestra (we recognised some of the players from our regular Firday night trad sessions: fiddlers turned violinists) and four outstanding soloists, the choir rose to the challenge of an ambitious program magnificently, garnering a well-deserved standing ovation by the appreciative audience.

West Cork Choral Singers present Mozart's Requiem in Skibbereen

West Cork Choral Singers present Mozart’s Requiem in Skibbereen

We won’t have much time to recover from all those late night – next weekend is the Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull as well as a Skibbereen Historical Society trip to Cape Clear, and the one after that is the Ballydehob Country Music Festival (where I may have a small role to play). More on those events in an upcoming post. If I survive it all…It’s a tough life, out here in the wilds!