Jeremiah O’Donovan (Rossa)
Born September 10th 1831 in Reenascreena near Rosscarbery, County Cork, Ireland, Jeremiah O’Donovan (Rossa) was the personification of a Fenian. He devoted his life to his vision, the Irish vision of a free Ireland. He published 2 books, “Irish Rebels in English Prisons” and “Recollections.” In life he inspired many Irish and Irish-American’s to take the cause, but he did not live to see Ireland freed; however he did take a major role in the movement that eventually set it free, or freed in part.
In death, O’Donovan (Rossa) became a martyr to his vision. Padraig (Patrick) Pearse described O’Donovan (Rossa) as “not the greatest man of the Fenian generation, but he was its most typical man.” It was in death, with the famous oration by Pearse, O’Donovan (Rossa) would become most inspirational.
The year was 1847, also known as “Black 47” to Ireland. The potato crop, the primary source of food for the Irish Catholics, was rotting away. The streets were littered with the dead or dying, all of whom were evicted from their farms by English landlords when they became too sick to work. Mean while, every day, from all parts of Ireland, armed British Troops were escorting perfectly fine crops and cattle from the farms for shipment to England. In March of Black 47, 15 year old O’Donovan (Rossa) bore witness to his father’s death from malnutrition related disease.
Following O’Donovan (Rossa)’s fathers death, the family was evicted from the farm. The family divided and O’Donovan (Rossa)’s mother immigrate to the United States with his brothers and sister. Jeremiah stayed behind and moved in with his uncle in Skibbereen where he apprenticed as a shopkeeper at the family grocery.
Jeremiah’s rise as a Fenian in the Irish Republican Brotherhood
9 Years later, 1856, in response to his disdain for British rule in Ireland, O’Donovan (Rossa) founded the Phoenix National and Literary Society. The Phoenix National and Literary Society was a secret society with one goal, to liberate Ireland by force. By 1858, the goals of the organization captured the attention of James Stephens, who founded with other Fenians, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th 1858.
With O’Donovan (Rossa)’s interest in James Stephens and the objectives of the IRB, The Phoenix National and Literary Society was ultimately incorporated into the IRB. A sister organization to the IRB was formed in America, its name, the Fenian Brotherhood. The members of the IRB and the Fenian Brotherhood were known as Fenians after the Fianna. The Fianna were a fabled tribe of warriors in Ireland.
The Phoenix Conspiracy and Fenian Uprising
Unknown to Stephens and O’Donovan (Rossa), the IRB was infiltrated by a spy. In December 1858, O’Donovan (Rossa), along with others, was arrested for the “Phoenix Conspiracy”, an anti-British demonstration. He was held without trial and wasn’t released until July 1859. The detention would not stop O’Donovan (Rossa), it merely fueled the flames.
“The Irish People”, an underground Fenian newspaper of the IRB was run by O’Donovan (Rossa)’s from 1862 through 1865. It was in 1865 the office of The Irish People was raided by the British. Documents were seized and O’Donovan (Rossa) and his staff were arrested. The British Government charged them with treason in planning “the Fenian rising.” O’Donovan (Rossa)’s trial was heard before Judge Keogh who sentenced him to life. He served his time in Pentonville, Portland and Chatham prisons in England. While in prison, Jeremiah won an election in 1869 to the British House of Commons Tipperary seat, but the election was said to be invalid because he was imprisoned.
A Fenian’s Release
The capture and imprisonment of key Fenians did not change the objectives of the IRB. Battles raged in Ireland and raids in Canada. Many members of the Fenian Brotherhood and IRB were trained for combat by the U.S. Army during the civil war. The objective of the raids was to capture control of Canada and negotiate for release of Ireland. The raids were largely unsuccessful and many of the Fenians were captured and sentenced to English prisons.
President of the United States Ulysses S Grant was sympathetic to the Fenians as many of them were American civil war veterans. President Grant pressured Great Britain to release the captured Fenians. This pressure resulted in the “Fenian Amnesty of 1870”. The Fenian Amnesty ordered the release of Fenians held prisoner by England. The result of the Amnesty freed O’Donovan (Rossa), but only under the conditions he leaves Ireland never to return.
1870, Jeremiah O’Donovan (Rossa) along with his long time friend and fellow Fenian John Devoy boarded the SS Cuba with Charles Underwood O’Connell, Henry (Harry) Mulleda and John McClure. The group came to be known as the “Cuba 5”. They arrived in New York City. In exile, only Jeremiah and John Devoy continued the fight for Ireland. Devoy and O’Donovan (Rossa) established themselves in the Fenian Brotherhood but would later become “Clan-na-Gael.” Clan-na-Gael eventually divided into 2 groups, one headed by long time friend John Devoy and the other by John O’Mahoney. O’Donovan (Rossa) sided with O’Mahoney in the Senate Wing in belief Devoy’s tactics were too moderate.
Clan-na-Gael and Jeremiah O’Donovan (Rossa)
“The United Irishman” was an Irish Nationalist news paper published in the U.S. and Jeremiah became its Editor. The United Irishman published news on the Irish struggles against English hostilities. In 1875, through The United Irishman, O’Donovan (Rossa) created the “skirmishing fund.” The fund was designed to raise money to start a “Dynamite Campaign.” The dynamite campaign was a plan to blow up buildings in English cities.
O’Donovan (Rossa) vowed he would see Ireland freed or reduce England to ash. He was successful in some accounts; however this slowed down revolutionary movement with some in disagreement with his method. England demanded the extradition of O’Donovan (Rossa), but the U.S. government refused to arrest him.
In 1885, an English woman, Yseult Dudley, shot O’Donovan (Rossa) as he was exiting his office in Manhattan NYC. Jeremiah recovered as his wounds were not life threatening. England denied knowledge of this action and claimed Dudley was a mentally unstable woman acting on her own behalf.
Life following the Shooting
After recovering from the gun shot wounds, O’Donovan (Rossa)’s involvement in Clan-na-Gael had dwindled to a minimum. He remained outspoken and critical of British rule in Ireland. O’Donovan (Rossa) toured the U.S. and gave readings of his books. He spoke at meetings and encouraged others to get involved with the Irish Independence movement. In 1904 O’Donovan (Rossa) was made a freeman of the City of Cork.
Although he lived in Cork for a brief period, Jeremiah returned to the U.S. settling on Staten Island in NYC. He lived out his days on Staten Island until his death June 29th 1915 in Saint Vincent’s Hospital. At the request of Thomas Clark Luby, Jeremiah’s body was shipped back to Ireland for a hero’s funeral. As his remains moved along the streets of Ireland August 1st 1915, crowds in the tens of thousands gathered to pay last respects. It was at his funeral the eulogy given by Pearse ended with the famous line “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”
In honor of Jeremiah O’Donovan (Rossa), a memorial was erected in St. Stephens Green, Dublin and another in his place of birth, Reenascreena, Rosscarbery Co Cork. In 1923, the Richmond Bridge in Dublin was re-named O’Donovan Rossa Bridge which crosses the River Liffey. Streets in Cork City and in Thurles, Co Tipperary were named after him as well. There are also several Gaelic Athletic teams named after him. In Brooklyn, NY a group known as “the O’Donovan-Rossa Society” meets at a bar called “Rocky Sullivans” to reflect the hardships of Ireland then and now.