Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: Family separate the man from the myth

The lone Irish-based descendent of O’Donovan Rossa tells Noel Baker how her family is proud of its famous ancestor. We get a bigger picture of him as a human being and not just as a Fenian.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: Family separate the man from the myth

FOR one descendant of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the ‘homecoming’ has already taken place and there is now a chance at something like a family reunion.

Eileen Quill is O’Donovan Rossa’s great granddaughter and, despite being born and raised in New York, she is also the only Irish-based descendant of the West Cork rebel.

Eileen lives in Youghal and works alongside her husband, Fergus, who is a fourth-generation master baker at their Collins Bakery firm. The historical lineage on her side of the family is, arguably, even more pronounced. After all, not everyone has an internationally recognised rebel hero in the family tree.

“I grew up in Staten Island,” she says, still a hint of the stateside accent present in her voice. “[My great grandfather] lived on Richmond Terrace, across from Manhattan. He would have seen the vista of Manhattan in the distance and would have had a lot of connections.”

As the O’Donovan Rossa legend has grown over the years, it seems he was always a mythical figure within his own family down through the generations. It has involved piecing together bits of the family tree, but when he was exiled to America, a lot of the roots he set there remained on that side of the Atlantic.

“They all grew up in New York, they were all New Yorkers to all intents and purposes,” Eileen says of the generation that came after O’Donovan Rossa. “But they knew all about his history.”

And what a history. Leaving aside his rise in the Fenian ranks, his spells in British prisons, and his inspiring leadership style, there is much to be written and said about O’Donovan Rossa as a private person.

“He had a big family to rear and didn’t make a lot of money in anything he did,” Eileen says. “He was entrepreneurial, he wanted to do everything. I’m entrepreneurial, but maybe a bit more focus,” she adds with a laugh. “He had fingers in a lot of pies, he was very connected to a lot of organisations in NYC, he was very well liked. His reputation preceded him before he got there.”

The family have gradually been learning about his exploits. “My grandmother, she and her sisters, they were elderly women when we were smallies. I can remember my grandaunt, they were all well dressed, two of them were nurses during World War One. My grandmother worked in publishing all of their life, another sister was almost always at home. They didn’t so much talk about growing up at the time as I don’t think it was so memorable — it was a hard time, there was no money ever. People were very good to them.

“My grandmother and her sisters would have felt… a bit oppressed by it all. They loved him dearly and they loved mother to the ends of the earth. It was a house full of memorabilia we would have had. There was a hardback of a book he wrote in prison, photos on the wall.

“When he was spoke of in America it would have been by people with Fenian perspectives. My own children came home with history books with his picture in it — that’s a very unusual thing.

“He was more mythical as a young teenager,” Eileen says, referring to her own adolescence. “We were told he was a rebel and all about Ireland and that he came from an Irish-speaking home and spoke Irish as much as possible, even though I never remember my grandmother speaking Irish. It was definitely left behind.”

Away from the thrills and spills of rebel life, Jeremiah and those closest to him would have had much to endure.

“They suffered terribly,” Eileen says. “Mary Jane was 19 when she married him; he was 32, he had a child from previous wife who died in childbirth, another two who died early.”

She says they were “lots of knocks” and one remarkable aspect of it was that Mary Jane, as Jeremiah’s wife, took an active role in fundraising and that her family took in Jeremiah’s child from his previous relationship.

The sprawling nature of the Stateside family means that getting everyone together is nigh-on impossible. The anniversary events will bring many of those far-flung relatives back to Ireland.

“I think [to talk of] his legacy is to simplify it,” Eileen says. “It’s everything it always was prior to centenary, it’s just more evaluated. We get a bigger picture of him as a human being and not just as a Fenian.”

Eileen sums up O’Donovan Rossa’s enduring appeal with one simple statement, and one that is undeniably accurate, given how he had died before some other epic events that formed so much of what we view as modern Irish history.

“He was a member of every political party,” she says.


Events commemorating the centenary of O’Donovan Rossa’s death began on June 11, when President Michael D Higgins officially opened the redeveloped O’Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen.

Since then, events have taken place around his native West Cork and in the US, including a wreath-laying ceremony in Staten Island, New York, on June 29. Details on

This week, events taking place include:

An Irish language and traditional music evening in Reenascreena, West Cork;

‘Diarmuid Ó’Donnabhain Rosa’ — Leacht Phoibli le Traolach Ó’Donnabhain in Ostan West Cork in Skibbereen on Tuesday;

The opening of a schools’ exhibition in Skibbereen library on Wednesday;

The unveiling of an official commemorative stamp in Rosscarbery on Thursday;

The re-staging of the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery on Saturday.

In addition, the speech delivered by Padraig Pearse at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa in 1915 has been and continues to be re-enacted daily at 2.30pm by an actor dressed as Pearse in full uniform at Glasnevin Cemetery.

Other events, such as another re-enactment organised by Sinn Fein and the Cabra Historical group, will also take place on August 1. A marching band will depart from Dublin City Hall at 2pm and proceed along the original route through Westmoreland St, up O’Connell St Parnell Sq. West, onto Berkley Road, Cabra Road and finally Finglas Rd to Glasnevin, arriving at 3pm.

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