O’Donovan Rossa’s great grandsons have made a documentary about their ancestor. It shows at Cork Film Festival, writes Ellie O’Byrne
WHEN film producer Williams Rossa Cole decided to make a documentary about his Irish patriot great-grandfather, discovering his forebear was the self-proclaimed “inventor of terrorism” was a shocking moment in a journey that propelled him and his brother to the centre of living history in centenary-era Ireland.
Pádraig Pearse’s graveside oration at the funeral of Fenian rebel Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, in August 1915, is acknowledged as one of the sparks that lit the fuse of the Easter Rising, but in life, O’Donovan Rossa was every bit as incendiary.
In Rebel Rossa, Williams Rossa Cole and his brother, who goes by the not dissimilar name of Rossa Williams Cole, set out to rediscover the mysterious figure that was frequently evoked during their upbringing in New York and occasional visits to Ireland.
In interviews with historians, O’Donovan Rossa’s controversial lifelong political struggle is revealed to the Coles. Following periods of imprisonment in English jails throughout the 1860s, during which he was punished brutally for his defiance of authority, O’Donovan Rossa was exiled to the US, where he organised and funded the first bombings by Irish republicans of English cities in what was called the “dynamite campaign”.
It was this tactical decision to commit targeted acts of violence on English soil that gave rise to the moniker of “inventor of terrorism”, historian Shane Kenna explains to the brothers.
“Yes, to hear that term associated with your great-grandfather is shocking,” says Cole, “but it’s also an interesting window into exploring what that term means, when it’s something that people throw around all the time.
“At that time, in the eyes of Irish Americans that was a justifiable, thought-out strategy. I get a kick out of throwing that in the face of Americans today who rant about ‘brown people’ coming to the States and committing terrorist acts.”
The brothers play up the cliche of the Yanks coming back to trace their roots during the documentary. There are moments, like when they are shown the metal cold-box that transported O’Donovan Rossa’s remains to Ireland and his birthplace of Reenascreena, Co Cork, and assured that it was to stop sharks from attacking the boat, when they seem like lost outsiders, laughing benevolently but confusedly along with jokes at their expense.
Yet Cole is a former Fulbright Scholar to London School of Economics, where he studied the role of social and political documentaries in British broadcasting, and little of the political nuance that the brothers find themselves immersed in evades him.
Films with a social justice leaning have formed the backbone of his 15-year career producing documentaries, from 2014’s Finding Fela! to HBO’s Gunfight, which explores both sides of the gun control debate in the US. His decision to visit nationalist communities in Belfast and Tyrone for the documentary is an astute one, portraying the steely present-day ideological core to O’Donovan Rossa’s legacy. His name gained him access to former H-Block hunger strikers who still believe in the cause his great-grandfather championed.
“How do societies and cultures look back on their revolutionary forebears and reintegrate them into the political narrative of the present?” he says.
“When we screened an earlier version of the film at the Galway Film Fleadh, people said that if you grew up in Ireland you could never make that film but it didn’t feel tense, maybe because we’re these bungling quasi-ignorant Americans coming in without quite knowing what the splits and allegiances are.”
West Cork visit
Shooting during the commemorative celebrations gave Cole a wealth of interesting footage to enrich what could otherwise be quite a dull history; in Skibbereen, he shot the night-time torchlit parade for their local legend, and found himself rubbing shoulders with Gerry Adams and President Michael D Higgins at commemorations of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral.
Yet one of the emotional highlights of the documentary wasn’t captured on film: Cole visited the British Library Archives and found stacks of primary evidence of his great-grandfather’s torture at the hands of his incarcerators: Shackled with his hands behind his back for excruciating periods of up to 35 days at a time, he was forced to eat on his hands and knees and denied correspondence with family and friends.
“There were stacks of files in the booth,” says Cole. “I thought, ‘Are these copies?’ But they were the real letters from the 1800s, from governors, and from him. It blew my mind. Luckily I had my phone and took a load of pictures. It was amazing in terms of the physicality of history, to hold that stuff in your hands.”
Digging up a harrowing past in Skibbereen, notorious as one of the worst-hit townlands during the Famine, Cole has no difficulty in understanding the root of O’Donovan Rossa’s commitment to Irish emancipation, forged by his childhood of hunger and eviction in famine-stricken West Cork.
The Coles find themselves guests of honour at commemorations that compete politically for the O’Donovan Rossa legacy; a Sinn Féin-backed event claims to play true homage to what Pearse described as an “unrepentant Fenian”, while the official State commemoration is met with accusations of revisionism from some historians. “I hope it comes across in the film that we are being used as a prop, by everyone; by all sides,” says Cole.
Sanitising the complex figure of his great-grandfather wouldn’t do justice to his memory, believes Cole: “If I wanted to make something that glorified him, I wouldn’t have put in anything about terrorism or the dynamite campaign. That’s not the point of the film; the point of the film is to examine what motivates somebody. You have to look at these figures from all angles.”
Rebel Rossa premieres on Sunday at 1.30pm in the Gate Cinema as part of Cork Film Festival
Truth is stranger than fiction: Other documentaries at Cork Film Festival
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