Williams, 45, lives in Brooklyn but last week he landed in Shannon and, without catching up on his sleep, headed straight down to West Cork, the land of his forebears, as part of his continuing documentary project on his famous ancestor.
Williams’s father, William Rossa Cole, was ODR’s grandson and something of a legend in his own right. Born in Staten Island, he served for the Second World War and somehow inveigled his way from Paris following VE Day to Ireland, having apparently “forged a pass”. According to Williams, the demob-happy GI met Éamon de Valera. It seems that since both men were quite tall, at some point they stood back-to-back to see who was taller. The winner is not recorded.
With this kind of pedigree, it’s perhaps not surprising that Williams’s own inquisitiveness has seen him, alongside his brother, delve into the mythical back story of their great grandfather.
“Our grandmother, Margaret, she was O’Donovan Rossa and Mary Jane Irwin’s youngest daughter,” he explains. “From the youngest daughter of O’Donovan Rossa, our father had us when he was relatively old, around 50, so we kind of skipped a generation, we’re his great grandsons.
“Growing up there was always a portrait of [ODR] on the wall, a formal one, and then next to it was a cover from the satirical American magazine called Puck which had him on the cover, but in a very unflattering way, with a stick of dynamite.
“Growing up we were like, ‘wow, this guy — he did something’.”
Little wonder their interest was piqued. Williams recalls that their own father was friends with many great Irish writers, such as Brendan Kennelly and Seamus Heaney, and they would occasionally flit through the family’s New York apartment. Then, when they were in their early teens, their father would have begun addressing the history of Jeremiah, before trips in their late teens and early twenties to Ireland to further burnish their knowledge.
“Overall, it was never indoctrination or a political thing about Irish history,” Williams says. “It was never, ‘sit down children. O’Donovan Rossa — let me tell you what he did…’
“What was interesting was that we did not know much about the more controversial parts of his life — like the dynamite campaign. My brother found something on Wikipedia and said ‘hey, they used to call him O’Dynamite Rossa’.”
The renewed focus on his life has also presented Williams and his family with a chance to reappraise the unique position their great-grandfather occupies in Irish and Irish-American history.
“Before all the splits and civil wars he had a purity, if you can say that, a consistency in his life,” says Williams. “He was determined and he wanted to have things culminate in the way he wanted them to from an early age.
“Irish-American politics was powerful and big and full of its own schisms and from what I understand he got sick of all these groups that were self-serving, rather than expediting what he wanted to happen, which was getting the British out no matter what.
“A big part of the film is my brother and I discovering in these quarters of New York and Ireland what he means now and how his symbolism is changing and sort of flowering again. How, in a contemporary context, he becomes this political symbol.”
It has led to the brothers’ own documentary project, in which they want to tell the story of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa from their own perspective, without resorting to “talking heads”. They have filmed the re-enactment in Skibbereen of Jeremiah’s protest in solidarity with the Poles, and they will also have their cameras turned on the play Rossa in Rossmore, near Clonakilty, and a place which has its own connection to the man.
For many, the highlight will be the re-enactment of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral, which took place on August 1, 1915, at Glasnevin Cemetery. It was the largest of its kind since that of Charles Stewart Parnell. According to Williams, it was quite obviously a “unifying event”, something given extra poignancy by the trauma of the Civil War a short time later.