Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: A man moulded by an idyllic childhood and famine horrors

What made Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa oppose British rule? Author Shane Kenna describes his early life and the key moments that helped shape his future path as a patriot.    

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: A man moulded by an idyllic childhood and famine horrors

JEREMIAH O’Donovan Rossa was born Jeremiah O’Donovan, at Reenascreena in the idyllic setting of West Cork on 10 September 1831 to Dennis and Nellie O’Donovan.

From the age of three, the young Jeremiah was sent to live with his maternal grandparents Cornelius and Anna O’Driscoll. There he lived with his aunts and uncles. Life at his grandparents’ home was tranquil, sublime and at times utopian. Their home was one of music, song, poetry and history.

The family were well-off tenant farmers and Jeremiah Rossa recalled that there were always servants about the house. They had a large quantity of livestock consisting of more than 20 cows, a number of horses, and goats, pigs, and sheep.

Parallel to the farming side of his grandfather’s life, Cornelius O’Driscoll also ran a linen bleach-green and some 20 looms. The family was brought up entirely in the Irish language and, despite learning English at school, it was understood that Irish was the family tongue as “the language of the table, the language of the milking, the language of the sowing and the reaping”.

It was from these fond experiences that O’Donovan Rossa developed a lifelong love of the Irish language and an idealised Ireland that was rural and Gaelic. He was inspired by the ideas of Gaelic mythology and the existence of fairies roaming throughout the land, the nostalgic fireside talks about rebellions and his family’s revolutionary antecedents.

At the age of seven, O’Donovan Rossa left his grandparents’ home and returned to his father and mother in Rosscarbery. He had returned to his parents to prepare for the sacrament of Communion and in their home, which was constantly visited by neighbours, he was embraced by a culture that enjoyed a Gaelic tradition called ‘scoruíocht’, where friends would sit by the fireside and tell stories of fairies, history, gossip and familial news, similar to the fireside stories he so enjoyed in his grandparents’ homestead.

Surrounded by a strong circle of friends in school, he excelled as a pupil and despite being nurtured in the Irish language; he was commended in his use of English. Adopting English was not easy for O’Donovan Rossa; he had grown up using the Irish language and, recalling a youthful struggle to learn English, found that all he could say was A, B, C.

He was a quick learner, however, and was recognised as a great pupil by his teachers, to such an extent that he ran ahead of his class. In his recollections, Rossa recalled joyful schooldays where he would memorise all his lessons, and thoroughly read his schoolbooks, many of which enflamed his burgeoning nationalism in future years. Of these, he recalled textbooks which nursed “the Irish youth into a love of country, or a love of freedom”.

The young O’Donovan Rossa had been inspired by Daniel O’Connell and his family actively supported the liberator. Jeremiah’s uncle, Patrick O’Donovan, was a campaigning activist within the Repeal Association and, through his uncle, he was introduced to a world of political spectacle, regular oration, and activism.

He recalled seeing Patrick out canvassing for Daniel O’Connell and pinning badges onto supporters who eagerly approached him to show their support for O’Connell. He was mesmerised by the great spectacle of monster meetings as thousands of O’Connell’s supporters descended en masse to hear about the Repeal campaign and learn of how Ireland could function with its own parliament.

Each monster meeting represented a great spectacle for the young Jeremiah, he gazed at the green banners and flags proudly unfurled by the nationalist supporters, enjoyed the almost military processions of O’Connell’s uniformed police and was enthralled by atmospheres that resembled carnival rather political rallies.

As a child, he even met the great man and recalled that O’Connell had passed through Rosscarbery in 1843, and the young Rossa was picked up over a crowd see the Liberator. Making his way through the crowd, “between the legs of some of them, I made my way up to the carriage that the Liberator was in. I was raised up, and had a hearty handshake with him”.

Like so many in rural Ireland, however, his idyllic childhood was torn apart by the experience of the Great Famine, 1845-52. West Cork was particularly affected by the blight and subsequent hunger, death and emigration. The Famine placed an immense strain on the O’Donovans and all resources were dried up to provide for the family.

O’Donovan Rossa recalled that, early on in the Famine, all their money was lost to pay the rent for the tenant farm. He noted that the wheat of his parents farm came to £18, 5s but the wheat had been seized by the landlord until it was threshed, bagged, and taken to the mill by the family.

In March 1847 his father died from famine fever, leaving the family penniless. Debt collectors increasingly put pressure on Nellie O’Donovan, and seized all the belongings of the family for a public auction, much to the family’s indignity. Rossa recalled how the family were left hungry and dependent on relatives and neighbours for assistance.

The following year, Nellie and her family emigrated to America. Left behind in West Cork, having secured a job in a hardware shop in Skibbereen, O’Donovan Rossa remembered the passage of his family, lamenting: “The day they were leaving Ireland, I went from Skibbereen to Renascrenna to see them off.

At Renascrenna Cross we parted… Five or six other families were going away, and there were five or six cars to carry them and all they could carry with them, to the cove of Cork. The cry of the weeping and wailing of that day rings in my ears still. That time it was a cry heard everyday at every cross roads in Ireland. I stood at that Reenascreena Cross till this cry of the emigrant party went beyond my hearing.

“Then, I kept walking backward toward Skibbereen, looking at them till they sank from my view.”

The Famine baptised O’Donovan Rossa in nationalism and he increasingly believed the catastrophe was caused by the British government. He now determined to resist British rule in Ireland and dedicated himself to the independence of Ireland, a cause which he maintained until his death in 1915.

Shane Kenna’s biography, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian, is published by Merrion Press.

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