HAVING been closely involved over the last year in the planning and delivery of the programme of events in West Cork over the last seven weeks to mark the centenary of the death and burial of the Cork Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, I am in no position to offer an objective assessment of the success or failure of that commemorative programme.
I am simply too close to the subject. What follows, therefore, is an entirely personal and completely subjective view on that programme, which also featured a large number of commemorative events in Dublin to mark the exact centenary of his burial, of which the State commemorative event in Glasnevin on Saturday morning was clearly the most significant.
This was the first of the official programme of events to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising (see www.ireland.iefor more details), and was marked by due formality, with the presence of the President, members of the Oireachtas, diplomatic corps, relatives and descendants of O’Donovan Rossa, members of the West Cork commemorative organising committees, and other members of the public.
The commemorations also involved the very successful launch in Rosscarbery by An Post of a stamp in memory of the man in question — their first ever such launch outside Dublin. I speak for all those involved in the West Cork programme when I say how conscious we are of the signal significance of this event, from both a national and Cork perspective, and as residents of the Rebel County (mostly natives, with the odd blow-in, such as myself, added for ballast) we are delighted that the funeral of this son of Cork has been selected for this honour.
More generally, this sense of delight is one that has permeated the entire programme — right from the moment President Higgins began his speech to mark the opening of the newly renovated O’Donovan Rossa Park in Skibbereen on June 11.
This speech— a forthright assertion of the Republican tradition embodied in the name of O’Donovan Rossa, a tradition that saw President Higgins’ own father serve as a member of the IRA in north Cork during the War of Independence — set the tone for the subsequent programme.
It was based on a sense of pride, but was altogether lacking in hubris; it was wide-ranging in scope but it kept certain core principles constantly in mind; it was knowledgeable without being showy or elitist; and it was plain good-humoured.
The programme began in earnest over the weekend leading up to the centenary of O’Donovan Rossa’s death on Staten Island on June 29, 1915, with events in both New York and West Cork. I must express my appreciation here of the commitment shown by the organising committee in New York in devising their own commemoration, specially tailored to the local conditions, which dovetailed perfectly with the events in West Cork. These commenced on Saturday, June 27 with a GAA tournament expertly hosted by the O’Donovan Rossa club in Skibbereen, in which participated football and hurling teams of all ages, from the various locales associated with the man (including Carbery Rangers and Clonakilty). The following day, Rosscarbery was en fête, with the square closed to accommodate the enormous crowd gathered for the unveiling of the new monument in memory of three local patriots— Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Michael Collins, and Tom Barry.
This was preceded by a memorial Mass in the local church where O’Donovan Rossa was christened — and the frisson that went through the packed congregation when the opening notes of Seán Ó Riada’s classic score for Mise Éire were played at the beginning of the liturgy will be one of my abiding memories of the programme. On June 29, the library in Skibbereen hosted a most informative exhibition, organised by the Library Service of Cork County Council, and which I sincerely hope shall visit county branch libraries over the coming months.
And that was just the first weekend.
Since then a number of additional events have taken place in both Skibbereen and Rosscarbery, while the local communities in Reenascreena (where O’Donovan Rossa spent much of his youth) and Clonakilty (home to Mary Jane, nee Irwin, his wife) began their programmes.
Perhaps it is fair to suggest that with regard to Reenascreena, the most significant occasion was the unveiling of the casket that had held the coffin in which O’Donovan Rossa’s body was borne from New York to Dublin via Liverpool. This journey had been marked by moving scenes, with the Irish dockers of New York silently lining the quayside to mark the departure of his remains from American soil.
The Irish dockers of Liverpool did likewise when those remains arrived in that city, and again when they left for Dublin, all the time ensuring that the casket never touched English soil as it was transhipped.
The dockers of Dublin — who, of course, had been practically starved during the Lockout two years before — turned out in huge numbers in a repeat of the scene as the ship arrived in Dublin port.
This casket, which had inevitably weathered as a result of exposure to the elements during the intervening century, has been stripped of its rust, treated, and repainted to effectively restore it to its original condition. It has been put on permanent public display in a wonderful new viewing area adjacent to O’Driscoll’s pub in the village.
Clonakilty, too, made its contribution with, among other events, a memorable cultural evening in An Súgán pub on July 10, in which Judith Campbell, an American academic historian, with research interests generally in Irish-America history and specifically in the life of Mary Jane (who grew up in the house adjacent to the pub), played a prominent part.
One of the most important features of the commemoration was the singing that was a constant accompaniment to ‘the talk’. In this respect the event organised by Comhlatas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Skibbereen was hugely significant. The rendition of patriotic ballads during the performance was all the more striking because the patriotic airs were for some (those more advanced in years) familiar, and for others (mainly the young in audience) much less so.
There are so many other memories: A History Ireland hedge school; an academic conference; a historical re-enactment; an exhibition by the Irish Volunteers Commemorative Organisation; book launches; school projects; a display of newspaper articles from both sides of the Atlantic covering all periods of O’Donovan Rossa’s life; and platform dancing, orations, and recitations.
An Gaeilge played a vital role throughout the programme, with Irish language elements to nearly all events, with some exclusively conducted through the medium. One could honour the memory of a man who treasured this defining part of his cultural pedigree in no other way.
The performance of the play Rossa, written by Maria Young and inspired by the 1945 award-winning drama of the same name by UCD academic Roger McHugh, was one of the most powerful theatrical pieces I have ever witnessed, and will, please God, grace stages in addition to Skibbereen and Rossmore.
As for the night-time street parade through Skibbereen, in memory of a march organised by O’Donovan Rossa and others in support of the Polish national uprising of 1863 — it was a privilege to be alive and well and in the town that night.