JEREMIAH O’Donovan Rossa (1831 to 1915) was born into an Irish-speaking farming family in the Rosscarbery area of West Cork in 1831 — though the precise location remains a matter of dispute to this day.
This area was notorious, indeed proverbial, for the extent of the suffering experienced during the years of the Great Famine — an event through which he lived and which clearly had a decisive influence on his attitude towards a variety of important contemporary issues in Ireland, most notably the questions of land ownership and the government.
The death of his father from famine fever in 1847, and the emigration of his mother and siblings to America in the following year, undoubtedly added a bitter personal dimension to these reflections, and his reading of the literature of the Young Ireland movement, most notably that of John Mitchel, seems to have influenced his thinking in an Anglophobic direction.
It is worth noting here that Mitchel’s Jail Journal is one of the classics of “Irish prison literature” and is arguably only surpassed in that genre by O’Donovan Rossa’s own writings, notably the autobiographical accountof his six years in English prisons.
The starting point for a discussion of his political activities is undoubtedly the creation of the Phoenix National and Literary Society in Skibbereen, Co Cork, with O’Donovan Rossa playing a leading role in both its establishment and operation.
The pioneering role of this society in the promulgation of a republican and cultural separatist agenda is widely attested to, and after the visit of the Fenian leader James Stephens to West Cork two years after its creation, it became the principal vehicle through which the newly-formed Irish Republican Brotherhood extended its influence in the West Cork area.
The first of O’Donovan Rossa’s arrests and convictions followed later the same year, although on this occasion he avoided a prison term on account of a guilty plea.
The subsequent years were difficult for him, as he lost two wives in quick succession: His first, Nora Eager, whom he had married in 1853, passed away in 1860, while the second, Eileán Ní Buachalla died in 1863 after only two years of marriage.
His union with his third wife, Mary Jane Irwin, in contrast, lasted 50 years, and he is generally described as being a warm and loving father and husband, if, necessarily, a frequently absentee one.
These absences were the result of terms of penal servitude to which he was sentenced as a consequence of his involvement with the burgeoning Fenian movement. During these prison terms he proved himself a most recalcitrant inmate, who was frequently sentenced to a range of prison punishments, which exacerbated what was already a most punitive regime.
The most notorious of these punishments involved a month in solitary confinement, and, on a separate occasion, his hands being handcuffed behind his back for over a month — a policy led to a public outcry when it was suggested that he had been obliged to eat his food in that position; in effect, like a dog.
His testimony as to conditions imposed on Irish prisoners in British jails at this time had a great impact on the committee that was established to investigate the allegations, whose report, by and large, confirmed their accuracy.
During his time in prison he was nominated for, and won, a by-election in Co Tipperary, but was prevented from taking his seat as a result of the subsequent decision by the Westminster parliament to set aside his victory on the basis he was a convicted felon.
He was amnestied, along with a number of other prisoners, in 1871, on the condition that he, and they, emigrated for the duration of the remainder of their sentences.
He decided to travel to the US, and on his arrival there, and on account of his international repute, attempts were made to recruit him for American political causes, but, in effect, he opted to remain within Irish republican circles in America, and spent most of the remainder of his life in support of ideal of an independent Republic.
Two of his most significant activities during these years were his work in establishing the radical newspaper United Irishman, and writing and producing it on a weekly basis for a quarter of a century; and his advocacy and active support of a campaign of dynamite attacks upon British cities.
Both of these initiatives contributed to a break with a long- time collaborator, John Devoy, a break that, ultimately, led to O’Donovan Rossa’s progressive marginalisation within Irish republican circles in the US.
His fame in Ireland, however, endured, and during his occasional visits to the country he was received with great warmth — such as on the occasion of the award of the Freedom of the City of Cork in 1904. In fact around this time he spent some months in Ireland, having been offered a paid position within Cork County Council — but owing to family circumstances he returned to America in 1906.
The last years of his life were marred by growing physical and mental ill-health, prior to his death in New York on 29 June 1915.
O’Donovan Rossa, through his secret and public political and cultural activities, on account of his combative manner while in prison, and by means of his numerous writings, was a major figure in the history of Irish republicanism, and of Cork, of Irish-America, and of Ireland itself.
His funeral, at which Pádraig Pearse delivered one of the great graveside orations, was one of the landmark events leading to the 1916 Easter Rising. He should not, however, be simply reduced to a figurehead, or a symbol — however great his name recognition or his symbolic value may have been during his life.
Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa sent this letter (as gaeilge) to the Limerick City Librarian, Seamus MacNamara (1912) pic.twitter.com/hACktaR7Bs— Liam Hogan (@Limerick1914) March 24, 2015
To use what some might think of, in my opinion mistakenly, as an old-fashioned term, he was, by any standard, an Irish patriot, and in this, the centenary year of his death, it is appropriate that his life, and his patriotism, be marked in the county and country of his birth.