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.

Revisiting

You Favourite Facebook photo - Ballydehob's 12 Arch Bridge

One of your favourite recent Roaringwater Journal Facebook photos – Ballydehob’s 12 Arch Bridge

We’re taking a blogging break for a couple of weeks. Since we won’t be posting during that time, here are a couple of your favourite posts from times past, to keep you going! 

You loved the traditional shops that are still to be found here and there in West Cork. Our Shopping for Memories post features Miss Evans’ shop in Bantry.

Evans Interior

Castles fascinate us all and you liked the post about the tower houses, When is a Castle… and the one about fortified houses, Trading up in Tudor Times. From the second one, here is Coppinger’s Court.Coppinger's Court, Ballyvireeen, near Rosscarbery

Michael Davitt struck a chord with many readers. We are still looking for heroes, and this was a man worthy of the name.

Straide, Co Mayo - Michael Davitt's statue outside the museum dedicated to him

Finally, to celebrate the Chief O’Neill Festival, just on last weekend on Bantry, here is our post on that wonderful event, from last year. Timmy McCarthy was an imposing figure as the Chief himself.Timmy McCarthy as The Chief

Be back in a couple of weeks with new posts!

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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Forgotten Hero – Michael Davitt

Straide, Co Mayo - Michael Davitt's statue outside the museum dedicated to him

Straide, Co Mayo – Michael Davitt’s statue outside the museum dedicated to him

On our recent travels in Mayo we chanced upon a little museum in a rural situation. I was fascinated by the setting: housed in an old church adjoining the ruins of a 13th century abbey (which itself has some fine medieval carvings). The church has been restored specifically to accommodate the museum, which tells the story of Michael Davitt – who was born close to the site of the museum in 1846, and was buried right behind it in 1906.

Sixty years: a relatively short life – but years filled with remarkable achievement pursuing the causes of basic human rights and of freedom for Ireland. Years filled, also, with considerable hardships.

eviction

Eviction

The village of Straide, in County Mayo, was hard hit by the famine – The Great Hunger – when Michael was born: a disaster that led to starvation and forced emigration for millions of Irish people. The Davitts were no exception to this. When he was only four years old Michael witnessed his own family being evicted from their cottage because they were unable to pay the rent to the landlord. He watched while their few possessions were piled on to the lane and their home was flattened.

Michael Davitt Museum exhibits

Evicted families had little choice: starvation, the workhouse or emigration. The Davitts took the latter course, arriving in Liverpool in November 1850. From there they travelled on foot to Haslingden in Lancashire and settled in the closed world of a poor, Irish immigrant community with strong nationalist feelings and a deep hatred of ‘landlordism’.

At the age of ten, Michael was sent to work in a local cotton mill. At the age of eleven his right arm was entangled in the machinery of a spinning machine and had to be amputated. There was no compensation for accidents suffered by child labourers in the Victorian world, nor – indeed – very much concern or compassion for the conditions suffered by the working classes generally in the British Empire at that time.

Lancashire cotton mill c1900

Lancashire cotton mill c1900

Michael was fortunate as his plight was noticed by a local benefactor, John Dean, who helped him to gain an education in a Wesleyan school. When he left the school at fifteen, Michael Davitt secured a job in a post office and learned to become a typesetter. He also started night classes at the local Mechanics Institute and used its library, where he read extensively about Irish history, contemporary Irish life and radicalist views on land nationalisation and Irish independence.

One of Michael Davitt's campaigning newspapers

One of Michael Davitt’s campaigning newspapers

In 1865 Michael joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Two years later he left his job to devote himself full-time to the IRB, as secretary for Northern England and Scotland, organising covert arms smuggling to Ireland. He was arrested in London in 1870, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years of penal servitude in Dartmoor Prison.

Dartmoor Prison - hard labour

Dartmoor Prison – hard labour! (Harper’s Encyclopaedia)

While imprisoned he came to the conclusion, recorded in his Leaves from a Prison Diary, that violence was self defeating and he became an advocate of agitation through non-violence: years later  Mahatma Gandhi cited Davitt as a major influence in the creation of his own peaceful resistance movement.

Ghandi visiting a cotton mill in Lancashire, 1931

Gandhi visiting a cotton mill in Lancashire, 1931

Eventually in Westminster the Irish Parliamentary Party began to campaign against cruelty inflicted on political prisoners and pressed for an amnesty for detained Irish nationalists. Partially due to public furore over their treatment, Davitt and other prisoners were released in 1877 on a ticket of leave: Michael had served seven and a half years. He and the other prisoners were given a hero’s welcome when they returned to Ireland.

'Licence to be at large'

‘Licence to be at large’

For the rest of his life Michael Davitt was devoted to the causes he believed in. In Ireland the Land League became a reality and eventually Irish tenant farmers were enabled to buy their freeholds with UK government loans through the Land Commission. County Councils in Ireland were also able to build over 40,000 new rural cottages, each on an acre of land. By 1914, 75% of occupiers were buying out their landlords. In all, over 316,000 tenants purchased their holdings, amounting to 15 million acres out of a total of 20 million acres in the country. This set the pattern of small owner-occupied farms that we see all around us today in rural Ireland – a system that has long struggled to be economically efficient, but which allows independence and self-pride, which the landlord system certainly did not.

Independent Ireland

Independent Ireland

Michael Davitt was not able to see the realisation of his vision for Ireland, but he played an important part in the movements that enabled it: many historians say that his role was central to it. Such were his energies and beliefs that he involved himself in universal human rights movements, and advocated for more than just the oppressed Irish. He said women should have the right to vote; he spoke out for labour unions and helped found the British Labour Party. He served in Parliament, wrote numerous books, founded newspapers and travelled the world speaking for the underprivileged everywhere. He spoke out against anti-Semitism and supported the Boer fight for freedom in Africa.

I had never heard of Michael Davitt (Finola had): it seems his name was erased from Irish history for a while because of disagreements with other campaigners. Fortunately, that wrong has now been righted, and we have this museum in his memory – celebrating his life and work and open seven days a week all through the year. There is a life-sized bronze statue outside it. Recently a new bridge in Mayo has been named after him. As a man he didn’t seek personal acclaim: he wanted his funeral to be unassuming, yet over 20,000 people filed past his coffin. At Davitt’s grave a Celtic Cross in his memory bears the words Blessed is he that hungers and thirsts after justice, for he shall receive it.

The new Michael Davitt Bridge, connecting Achill Island with the mainland - courtesy Polranny Pirates

The new Michael Davitt Bridge, connecting Achill Island with the mainland – courtesy Polranny Pirates

Davit wrote in his will: To all my friends I leave kind thoughts, to my enemies the fullest possible forgiveness and to Ireland an undying prayer for the absolute freedom and independence which it was my life’s ambition to try and obtain for her…

MichaelDavittStampHR

For his group, Patrick Street, musician Andy Irvine penned a song about Michael Davitt: his memory lives on…

O Forgotten Hero in peace may you rest

Your heart was always with the poor and the oppressed

A prison cell could never quell the courage you possessed