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