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Direct link between the Great Famine and The Rising explored at the Irish Famine Summer School ‘From Famine to Freedom’ at Strokestown Park House, 14-19 June

Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa

Is there a connection between the Great Famine and the revolutionary movement for Irish freedom? If you asked the famous Fenian, O’Donovan Rossa, he would have said ‘yes, undoubtedly so’.

Jeramiah O’Donovan enjoyed an idyllic childhood in rural West Cork and in the picturesque town or Rosscarbery. He grew up in the households of his grandparents and parents where Irish was spoken, neighbours visited to sit around the fire, socialise and tell stories. During his childhood Jeremiah also got his first taste of nationalism, when he was exposed to the power of Daniel O’Connell’s repeal campaign and as a child was lifted up to shake ‘the Liberator’s’ hand as his carriage passed through Rosscarbery village in 1843. A gifted student, he 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 O’Donovan family were utterly shattered by the Great Famine of 1845-52. West Cork was particularly hard hit – to one side of Rosscarbery was Skibbereen, a town synonymous with the horror of the Famine, and to the other side was Clonakilty, known during the Famine (and long after) as ‘Clonakilty, God Help Us!’ because it was the location of a vast workhouse to which many starving rural dwellers flocked.

Early on in the Famine, all the O’Donovan family’s money wasgiven over to pay the rent for the tenant farm. Although they grew wheat, this was sold to pay rent. In March 1847 O’Donovan Rossa’s father died from famine fever, leaving the family penniless. Debt collectors pressurised Nellie O’Donovan, and seized all the belongings of the family for a public auction. Rossa recalled how the family were left hungry and dependent on relatives and neighbours. Nellie took the only action she could, she immigrated with her family to America. Jeremiah had found a job in a hardware shop in Skibbereen and so stayed on in Ireland. Later in life he recalled travelling back to his local village to see his mother and siblings 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.”
The bitter and heart-breaking experience of the Famine cemented O’Donovan Rossa’s nationalist views. He blamed the British government for the catastrophe. In 1856 he founded the Phoenix National and Literary Society to “liberate Ireland by force of arms”. This was two years before the founding of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, with which it eventually merged.

The rest, as they say, is history. O’Donovan Rossa spent the rest of his life engaged in republican activity – most famously as the instigator of a terrorist dynamite campaign in England. Over time he became the personification of Irish resistance to British rule. All the newspapers talked about him. He was referred to as Jerry O’Dynamite or Dynamite O’Donovan Rossa all across Europe.

His burial in Ireland is the event he is now most remembered for. His huge funeral procession through Dublin in 1 August 1915, followed by a ‘hot as hell’ graveside oration by Patrick Pearse, were one of the first public indicators of the radical nationalism that would manifest itself in the Easter Rising of 1916. Radicalised by the horror of Ireland’s Great Hunger, O’Donovan Rossa was the embodiment of the Fenian dead “and while Ireland holds these graves Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

If you enjoyed this article, you will really enjoy Irish Famine Summer School ‘From Famine to Freedom’ at Strokestown Park House and the Irish National Famine Museum, which runs from the 14th to the 19th June 2016. This piece is based upon Shane Kenna’s Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian published by Irish Academic Press

Charles Trevelyan – Principled Man of his Time or Informed Overseer of a Million Deaths – Why not come and decide for yourself – Strokestown Courthouse, Friday 17th June, 8pm

Charles Trevelyan

Charles Trevelyan

When journalist Laura Trevelyan, was working in Northern Ireland in the 1990s she was ‘constantly surprised by the amount of people who knew about Charles Trevelyan and the impact that the famine has in Ireland, more than 150 years later’.
For instance, when she was interviewing a member of Sinn Fein in south Armagh she was asked if she was related to Charles Trevelyan (she’s his great-great-great-granddaughter). She was then asked ‘how I could live in Ireland when I had the blood of the Irish on my hands’.

Laura Trevelyan, curious about this famous relative of whom she knew so little, went on to investigate his life, and the lives of other members of the Trevelyan family, the result of which was her book A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and their World. Although she acknowledges the British policy toward Ireland as indefensible in the modern context, she points to other more positive examples of his legacy, such as his work on the meritocratic entry system into the British civil service.

At the Irish Famine Summer School, which runs in Strokestown Park House from the 15th to the 19th June, we will be staging a mock trial of Charles Trevelyan at Strokestown Courthouse. There will be an opportunity to take both sides of the argument into consideration in a courtroom setting.

Laura Trevelyan suggests that some historians have portrayed Trevelyan as ‘someone who wanted the Irish to die’ whereas really he was a providentialist who saw the famine as the will of God. He laboured long hours trying to work out how relief policies could be best implemented. And yet, in his own writings, we find statements such as “the greatest evil we have to face is not the physical evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the Irish people.”

Professor Christine Kinealy, founding director of the Great Hunger Institute in Quinnipiac University, Connecticut, who is speaking at the Irish Famine Summer School this year, said of Charles Trevelyan in her book A Death Dealing Famine: The Great Hunger in Ireland:
“There was a greatly inadequate response from the government – and from Charles Trevelyan – and it is a mistake to see him in a more favourable light than his actions permit.”

Why not come decide for yourself?

The Irish Famine Summer School at evocative Strokestown Park House and the Irish National Famine Museum runs from June 14th to 19th. Various events are free. Others like out of town trips, The Trial of Charles Trevelyan and the Conference Dinner can be paid for separately without registering for the conference. To see our full programme and to book your place please go to http://irishfaminesummerschool.com/