As the sky dimmed over the West Cork town of Skibbereen, the smell of peat smoke was in the air.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s mercurial rebel spirit stalked the streets of his hometown once again, convincingly portrayed by local man Declan McCarthy.
The Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa torchlit parade, held on Friday night, marked the opening of Skibbereen Arts Festival, as well as forming part of the centenary celebrations for O’Donovan Rossa, the patriot whose funeral in 1915 generated an upsurge of rebellious spirit just months before the 1916 Uprising.
McCarthy , who collaborated with UCC historian Gabriel Doherty to organise the torchlit parade, praised the centenary committee, as well as the Skibbereen Arts Festival organisers who rallied local shops and businesses to take part.
“The whole community is behind this; it’s marvellous to see,” he said.
The parade was joyful, poignant and rousing in equal parts. Most moving to see was the affectionate welcome from Skibbereen townsfolk for a 40-strong contingent from Cork’s Polish association who joined the celebrations, honouring the small West Cork town’s historic gesture of support for them during their bloodily-quashed January Rebellion of 1863.
A case indeed of “hurling the little streets against the great” from the 2,000- strong town whose newspaper, the Skibbereen Eagle, once carried a headline: “Kaiser Wilhelm: the Skibbereen Eagle has its eye on you.”
During the parade, the local GAA team carried pitchforks topped with flaming turf sods.
Hundreds of participants were decked out in their finest 19th century garb, cheerily waving banners proclaiming “Freedom for all nations” and “Down with the Tzar”.
George Maguire, from Reenascreena, where O’Donovan Rossa was born, said the Fenian leader’s memory is very much alive. “Of course it is; sure I walk past relatives of his every day on the street,” he said.
George and his wife, Eleanor, were just two of the many locals who had gone to great lengths to look the part for the evening, with Eleanor sharing her tip for low-maintenance vintage dress. “We went in to St Vincent de Paul in Clonakilty this morning,” she said. “It was great, we got the whole lot there.”
Local antiquarian Matthew Clarke of Mardyke Magpie antiques did a roaring trade in the days leading up to the parade as businesses and locals alike hunted down accessories to add authenticity to their efforts.
His wife Katie, a cycling instructor, had sourced a vintage bike to take part in the parade.
The parade finished in the square on Main St. A hush fell over the assembled crowd as McCarthy took to a makeshift stage made of hay bales.
The atmosphere was charged when McCarthy, pacing the stage against a backdrop of flaming turf sods on pitchforks, delivered a rousing speech from Roger McHugh’s play about the Irish patriot.
“Tyranny is the same the world over,” proclaimed McCarthy, “whether it call itself Tzar or by any other title.
“And freedom is the same the world over, whether it shows itself in the marching men of Poland, or the marching men of any other small nation.”
As McCarthy delivered his rabble-rousing finale, the crowd erupted in a spine-tingling roar. For a moment, it felt as if O’Donovan Rossa was with us again.
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