Possibly Over-Stimulated

Gloria Steinem is an international icon. This week, we welcomed her to Bantry Literary Festival. Four hundred women, and a few men, rose spontaneously to our feet and clapped and cheered her entrance. First time I’ve seen a standing ovation before someone actually stepped on stage.

Gloria and

What followed was breathtaking – Gloria spoke, a little and beautifully, but mostly she listened as audience members asked questions and shared their own experiences as women in this country. People had come from far and wide to hear her and just to be there: people I admire and respect – Tara Flynn (see also You’re Grand) and Louise O’Neill. Lelia Doolan, for goodness sake, a Irish feminist icon in her own right. The conversations weren’t easy (misogyny, abortion, pornography, violence) and there certainly were dissenting and opposing viewpoints presented. But the atmosphere was respectful (if electric) and Gloria calmly dealt with each question in ways that were thoughtful and non-divisive. Two hours later, I think we all felt we had been present at a little bit of history.

Gloria

We attended other Literary Festival events and Robert is writing about one of them – the delightful evening with Seán Ó Sé. That evening formed a wonderful contrast to the talk by Alice Carey, a self-professed New York/Irishwoman, vivacious and stylish, but also moving in her descriptions of a childhood caught between two worlds.

Alice Carey

Alice Carey

And just as that Festival is ending, the Skibbereen Arts Festival is bursting upon the scene with a slew of gallery openings and a 60’s street party! Sometimes it’s hard to know where the dividing line is between business and the arts in Skibbereen. All the business people seem to support the arts and all the arts events seem to work well with the businesses. Shopfronts become display cases. Empty buildings are re-purposed as galleries and theatres. Employees and owners dress up and decorate. Everyone has fun.

Skibbereen shop windows. Hands up who remembers women wearing curlers all day in the 60s!

This Friday was a good example as Skibbereen went all out for a 1960s-themed street party of food and music, to celebrate the opening of the Skibbereen Arts Festival. I wrote about this festival a couple of years ago. As arts festivals go in Ireland, this one is only in its infancy, but it hit its stride right from the starting gate, with an eclectic mixture of art, theatre, music, spoken word, film, and events for children.

Robert used to have a van like that

This year we have tickets for all kinds of disparate events and may have to take a holiday when it’s all over! On Friday we attended three art show openings and then joined the throngs on Bridge Street to get into the 60s swing.

Angela Flowers Exhibition

 

The old Bottling Plant makes an excellent gallery space, in this case for the Angela Flowers Collection

The first opening was extraordinary. Angela Flowers is one of Britain’s foremost gallery owners (she has two in London and one in New York), dealing with contemporary art. She has a house in West Cork and the pieces on display are from her own private collection. (Read more about Angela here and about her galleries here.) This is challenging stuff – no pretty paintings here, but compelling and engrossing. The exhibition was opened by Lord David Puttnam, the film producer and now digital champion and educator, who never misses an opportunity to support Skibbereen, where he lives full time.

Uillinn came next: the whole space was devoted to the work of John Kelly, a painter and sculpture with a studio in West Cork and an international reputation.

Yet a third art exhibition opened in an unused space down by the river – a huge L-shaped room perfect for such a purpose. This one was called Mór (‘Large’) and brought together the work of several artists who work in large scale. Huge canvasses and large sculptural pieces created an imposing and magisterial atmosphere.

Karen Hendy’s triptych (top) and Don Cronin’s piece titled ‘Windfall’

Then it was off to the opening of The Souvenir Shop by Rita Duffy. Robert and I have signed up for two ‘invigilation’ sessions at this quirky and unusual art installation, so I will write about it more at a future date, or post photos on our Facebook page.

Souvenir Shop

The Souvenir Shop

Before we staggered home, we joined the throngs of Skibbereen folk on Bridge Street for the 1960s party. The hippies were out in force!

Finally, tonight, we attended a premier showing of the Film Rebel Rossa. Last year we met the two great-grandsons of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in Skibbereen, here to attend various functions commemorating Rossa and to document them for a film they were making. Since I did extensive research on Rossa in preparation for a series of three posts (March Back in Time, O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist? and Rossa: The Skibbereen Years), I was particularly interested in how the film turned out. They did a great job! Rebel Rossa turned out to be about Rossa, but also about family and about how governments celebrate such things versus how republican groups or local committees do it. Fascinating stuff and they are hopeful about getting a distribution deal.

Rebel Rossa

More, much more in the days to come. How am I going to cope? I came here to retire!

1916 and 485

485

We’re in Dublin this week, at the height of the centenary commemorations for the Easter Rising of 1916. There is much to do and see but I’ve decided to focus on a place where the men and women who died in the struggle for Irish freedom are remembered every day – Glasnevin, our ‘national cemetery.’

Work in progress

This part of the cemetery is still a work in progress. Slowly but surely all areas are being reclaimed and restored

Glasnevin is one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions – a cemetery, imagine! This is all the more remarkable when you realise that only a few years ago it was a tangled mess of weeds and ivy with row upon row of broken and fallen headstones, neglected and unsung. Now, after an extensive restoration project there is a handsome new museum (the world’s first cemetery museum) and avenues of statuary and bowers the like of which you might see in Paris.

Glasnevin Statuary

But of course it’s who is buried here that marks it as a focus for this year of commemoration. The giants of Irish history – poets and politicians, painters and writers, priests and suffragists – can all be found here. And, most impressively, all religions. Daniel O’Connell, whose crypt and round tower dominate the scene, helped to found this graveyard as a burial place for all denominations.

Tower and Cross

Daniel O’Connell’s round tower rises above all other monuments

The history of headstone trends can be read in this graveyard too. Victorian statuary and sylvan avenues dominate the earlier periods but it was all Celtic Crosses and Maids of Erin at the turn of the century. The modern period has brought austere and understated granite slabs. 

Casey Memorial

Restored MonumentThe Celtic Revival was not just about literature – trends in art extended to gravestone designs. The top one above is the gravestone of John Keegan Casey, author of soul stirring national ballads and songs; the lower one commemorates several different patriots

Outlaws and Felons

Last year, the focus was on O’Donovan Rossa (see my posts about Rossa here and here and here). The oration at his graveside in Glasnevin was given by Patrick Pearse: it was re-printed and widely distributed and is usually credited with marking an important starting point to the 1916 Rising, one year later.

Rossa Oration

An actor re-enacts the oration given by Patrick Pearse in 1915 at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa

Many of the participants in that rising found their final resting place here in Glasnevin, although not the leaders who were immediately executed, most of whom were buried in quicklime at Arbour Hill cemetery, in what was once a prison yard. But here are Eamon de Valera, Countess Markievicz, Thomas Ashe, Harry Boland, Cathal Brugha, Austin Stack, Sir Roger Casement, Elizabeth O’Farrell (see below) and many more. They were men and women, Catholic and Protestant: although the new state that grew from independence was predominantly Catholic, many Protestants numbered in the ranks of the revolutionaries. See the always entertaining Come Here To Me blog for a thorough investigation of this. Of all the graves the most famous belongs to Michael Collins, about whom Robert has written. Collins’ grave has the distinction of being the most visited in the cemetery, and always has fresh flowers on it. 

Michael Collins Gra ve

But the most startling and important association that Glasnevin Cemetery has with 1916 is not captured by the roll call of the leaders and foot soldiers of the IRB and Volunteers who fought in the various actions. No – the real story here is in the sheer numbers of people who died during that conflict and who were buried here. That number (so far) is 485 men, women and children.

Museum

The modern Glasnevin Museum houses displays, vast records, and a visitor centre

This number is the result of a massive research effort by Glasnevin Trust.** Here is what their website has to say about their findings:

This major research work has revealed many interesting and previously unknown facts. The majority of the dead were civilians, 54% of the total dead, caught up in the fighting. British Army dead accounted for 26% of those killed while the rebel forces had 16% of the casualties. The remaining percentage is made up of members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Royal Irish Constabulary. The numbers of civilians killed each day steadily increased, peaking on the final day of the rebellion 29 April when 45 died. This was also the most violent day of the rebellion during which 78 people lost their lives. 26 April, the day of the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, was the worst for the British Army losing 30 men during the fighting throughout the city. The rebels also suffered their worst casualties on this day with 13 men killed. For the police the day of the Battle of Ashbourne, 28 April, proved to be their worst.

The vast majority of those killed were buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in the aftermath of the fighting. The staff of the cemetery struggled to deal with the large numbers of bodies being brought for burial. Despite great strain they succeeded in giving all a dignified burial and recorded their details in our registers.

Celtic Crosses

If you’re in Dublin, do go on a tour of Glasnevin Cemetery. And when you’re there, stop at the new memorial to all those who died in the 1916 Rising (to be unveiled in early April), and reflect not only upon the insurgents or the soldiers and policemen, but upon the innocents. It is fitting that their lives and their deaths should also form part of what we remember and understand about that week of conflict.

Much has been written lately about the many women who played active roles in the Rising. One of those was Elizabeth O’Farrell, the nurse who carried the white flag of surrender out of the GPO – and who was almost airbrushed from history

And that planned new memorial – a ‘necrology wall’ listing the 485? It is, inevitably, controversial. Depending on what you read it is either a bewildering, ‘bizarre’ and revisionist decision, or a brave new effort to recognise all the dead equally and non-judgementally. But perhaps that is, after all, the job of a cemetery. 

One-Million-Dubliners

And if you can’t get to Glasnevin, try to see the film One Million Dubliners. It’s a brilliant, moving, evocative and beautifully made film that will show you why this historic cemetery has so rightly earned its place as one of Ireland’s major tourist attractions.

** The first photograph in this post is the front cover of the research report 1916 Necrology by the Glasnevin Trust

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.

2012-05-19 16.04.23

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.’

2013-10-20 13.44.38 HDR

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.

annie-mays-bar-skibbereen-920x450

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

O’Donovan Rossa – the First Terrorist?

Fiery Rossa

The world was shocked this week by appalling acts of terror. Terrorism is rightly and universally condemned in modern Ireland – and yet this year we celebrated the centenary of the death of a man whom many, including his fellow patriots, denounced as a terrorist in his lifetime while others hailed as a hero.

Our American and Canadian readers might be surprised at how relevant his story is to their own countries.

Rossa Prisoner

I write of course of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa of Skibbereen, the ‘Unrepentant Fenian’, whose state burial in 1915 was the occasion of a fiery speech by Patrick Pearse that is commonly seen as a catalyst to the 1916 Rising. In March Back in Time I introduced him and wrote about the awful background that turned him into a revolutionary – the death of his father from famine fever and his family’s eviction and departure from Ireland. To the end he refused to call the cataclysmic events of 1845 to 1850 a famine: there was no shortage of food, he pointed out, just a shortage of humanity. It fired in him a lifelong hatred of British rule which hardened through terrible treatment in prison and which he brought with him to exile in America, where he and his fellow Fenians were accorded a hero’s welcome.

The Cuba Five were so named for the ship that brought them to America. Courtsey Library of Congress

The Cuba Five were so named for the ship that brought them to America. Courtsey Library of Congress

The Fenian brotherhood Rossa joined in America in 1870 had organised several raids on Canadian communities during the 1860s and early 70s. All were unsuccessful, but resulted in loss of life and a worsening of relationships between Canada and America, seen as harbouring and tolerating Fenian activity. The raids involved hundreds of Fenians, many of them battle-hardened veterans of the American Civil War. (For more on the Irish in the American Civil War – the numbers and the stories will amaze you – see Damian Shiels’ meticulously researched blog and website.)

According to this article on the Fenian Raids:

Ironically, though they did nothing to advance the cause of Irish independence, the 1866 Fenian raids and the inept efforts of the Canadian militia to repulse them helped to galvanize support for the Confederation of Canada in 1867. Some historians have argued that the affair tipped the final votes of reluctant Maritime provinces in favour of the collective security of nationhood, making Ridgeway the “battle that made Canada.”

Fenian Raid on Canada

The Battle of Ridgeway, courtesy Library of Congess

Embracing this militaristic approach, Rossa became as notorious an extremist in America as in Ireland. He founded a newspaper, The United Irishman, to propagate his views and raise funds for his infamous skirmishing fund. This fund, in fact, was to pay for a bombing campaign carried out in Britain from 1881 to 1885, causing injuries and deaths (to civilians, including children) – and real terror.

One of the exhibits in Skibbereen this summer consisted of newpaper clippings from American newspapers about Rossa, amply testifying to his notoriety. The top right clipping consists of snippets about Well Known People – Rossa is listed alongside William Morris, Geronimo and the Csar Of Russia

In many ways O’Donovan Rossa encapsulates a central dissonance at the heart of Irish History: he was a passionate patriot who believed in armed struggle, while many of his contemporaries espoused a pacifist (see Michael Davitt as a prime example – he referred to Rossa as O’Donovan Assa) or parliamentary approach and saw Rossa’s campaign of violence as undermining their objectives. Now, in 21st Century Ireland, we are faced with the dilemma of how to deal with historical figures who are both important markers in the struggle for independence and echoes of a violent past many no longer wish to glorify.

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins opened O'Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen

The President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins opened O’Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen

In Skibbereen this summer Rossa was celebrated in several ways. We attended not just the March, but a play, two exhibitions, a lecture, and the grand opening of a refurbished park in Rossa’s honour by Michael D Higgins, the President of Ireland. In Dublin his 1915 state funeral and graveside oration were given a full scale re-enactment, attended by the President, the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) and many dignitaries.

We toured Glasnevin Cemetary on Dublin this summer. The tour included a re-enactment of Patric Pearse's oration at the grave of O'Donovan Rossa

We toured Glasnevin Cemetary on Dublin this summer. The tour included a recital of Patrick Pearse’s oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa

To give you a flavour for how Rossa is revered as a hero watch this YouTube clip – the ultra-nationalist ballad features Pathé News footage of the actual funeral.

But not everyone felt that it was appropriate for the Irish government to underwrite such commemorations. This was expressed well by the historian, Carla King writing to the Irish Times. She summed up thus:

…while O’Donovan Rossa is a figure for whom we can feel some pity, his philosophy, with its commitment to mindless and counter-productive violence, launched a tradition of which we should be ashamed.

Another historian, Marie Coleman wrote:

It was unclear whether the focus of the event was Rossa himself or the significance of the funeral as signifying the rejuvenation of republicanism as a precursor to the Easter Rising. If the former, the State’s endorsement of an archaic form of irredentist Irish nationalism will sit uncomfortably with many in 21st-century Ireland and with unionist opinion in Northern Ireland.

Another exhibition opening - this one at the Skibbereen Library

Another exhibition opening – this one at the Skibbereen Library

Like many Irish people growing up in the 50s and 60s I was brought up on stories of the epic Fight for Irish Freedom, although in my family’s case it was also complicated by ancestry on both sides of the divide. In that narrative, Rossa was one in a long line of heroic freedom fighters. To dig a little deeper still into the story of O’Donovan Rossa, I went looking for signs of the man himself around Skibbereen and found them in some surprising places.  My next post will relate to Rossa’s time in Skibbereen and the legacy he left in this West Cork town.

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

Banners

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

A Grand Job!

uillinn name

Here’s a riddle: what’s the connection between rusty steel and the President of Ireland? The answer – Skibbereen! Skibbereen on a summer afternoon in June, in fact…

Welcome, President!

Welcome, President!

This week the President was in West Cork and on Thursday he came to Skibbereen. Before I lived in Ireland I was pretty ignorant as to the role the President plays in the life of the Republic. It’s not a political position – nothing like the American President, for example: although officially ‘head of state’ the Irish President has no powers – the executive running of the country is entirely in the hands of the government. Instead, the President of Ireland – Uachtarán na hÉireann – acts mainly in a ceremonial capacity and is very visible in civic life. There are always buildings to be opened, institutions to be founded, statues to be unveiled, speeches to be made, important visitors to be hosted… 

President Michael D Higgins formally opening Skibbereen's new Arts Centre

President Michael D Higgins formally opening Skibbereen’s new Arts Centre

Presidents can either be chosen by popular consensus or elected by a vote of all Irish citizens. Michael D Higgins was elected in October 2011 and his tenancy will run for seven years. Following this he can serve a further term if he and the people so wish. A Limerick man, Michael D (as he is usually known) is well liked: he’s had an impressive career in public life – academic, lecturer, professor, politician, poet, sociologist, author and broadcaster. He served as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and was President of the Labour Party for many years. He is the first Irish President to have made a state visit to the UK.

His first appointment in Skibbereen was to open Uillinn – West Cork’s new Arts Centre: that’s where the rusty steel comes in – partly… Regular readers of this blog will know all about this building. It was controversial while under construction, mainly because of the Cor-Ten steel cladding to its prominent five storey tower. Cor-Ten or ‘weathering steel’ is a material consisting of alloys which encourage a rust-like patination on exposure to weather, forming a fully protective coating over a number of years. In fact, the weathering process takes about as long as one term of office of an Irish President! I know many people disagree (although I think some are coming round…), but I find the ‘rusty’ finish very attractive, and I like the fact that the appearance keeps on changing in an organic way.

I was impressed with Michael D’s speech: he’s an enthusiast for all the arts and emphasised how important this modern building is – not just for Skibbereen but for the whole of West Cork. The site – right in the centre of town – had been a bakery for generations, and the President pointed out the analogy between the essentials of bread, fundamental food for the body, and the arts – food for the soul.

'Presidential Salute' in the O'Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

‘Presidential Salute’ in the O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

Next item on the afternoon’s agenda was a visit to the park: the President was to unveil a new memorial to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa – a local hero who had links with Skibbereen. Finola has mentioned him previously and is currently working on a post about him: July this year marks the centenary of his death. O’Donovan Rossa fought for Ireland’s freedom, just as Michael Davitt did (I wrote about him last week). The President gave a passionate speech emphasising the debt that the Ireland of today owes to those campaigners of yesterday, and I was pleased to hear him mention Davitt specifically.

Ready for the unveiling...

Ready for the unveiling…

New commemorative sculpture in Skibbereen's O'Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

New commemorative sculpture in Skibbereen’s O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

I think the new memorial is a great piece of modern commemorative art: it’s rusty steel again! Five columns are placed in the centre of a garden, each telling something of the hero’s story. You have to work to see all the images: they are made by perforating the ‘weathering steel’ sheets. It’s very effective because it can’t be ignored – you just have to stop and work it all out. I commend the artist – but nowhere can I find any mention of who that is! I’m still searching…

President Higgins speaks out with passion about freedom fighter Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa

President Higgins speaks out with passion about Ireland’s freedom fighter Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Michael D is a fluent speaker in Irish. He slipped easily between English and Irish while giving his orations – and made it sound so simple! The sun almost shone, the crowds were in good spirits, and the Band played. The rusty steel was looking good. All in all, the visit of Ireland’s President to Skibbereen was a grand job

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