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Speech at the official opening of the O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park

Skibbereen, 11th June 2015

I was delighted to be invited here today to open the refurbished O'Donovan Rossa Memorial Park. I would like to thank the Secretary, Linda Carroll and the other members of the O’Donovan Rossa Centenary Committee for their invitation and all of you for such a generous welcome.

It is fitting that we are in Skibbereen today to remember the life, death and legacy of one of the last of the great revolutionary Fenian men – Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

It would be impossible to understand the life and work of O’Donovan Rossa without the influence of his place and circumstance of his birth taken into account.  The Skibbereen of his youth, his memories and terrible experiences were to influence his entire life.  The Skibbereen area was one of the worst affected by the Irish Famine, which saw one million people die of hunger and disease and another million forced to emigrate. Skibbereen became notorious as the centre of some of the most harrowing suffering endured by famine victims throughout the country, symbolic of the destitution and unspeakable hardship caused by the failure of the potato crop. Between 8,000 and 10,000 unidentified souls are buried near here in the Famine graveyard at Abbeystrewery.

We can only imagine the impact of the Famine itself on the teenage Jeremiah during his formative years – his long poem Jillen Andy recalls an occasion when he helped to bury an old woman from Skibbereen - Mrs Hayes:

“Four men bear Jillen on a door – ‘tis light,

They have not much of Jillen but her frame.

No mourners come, for ‘tis believed the sight

Of death or sickness now begets the same.

And those brave hearts that volunteer to touch

Plague-stricken Death are tender as they’re brave.”

That life experience marked the man whose life we commemorate as it marked a whole nation. The poem continues:

“That little boy that stood within the grave,

Stands for his Country’s cause in England’s prison chains.”

He thus explicitly connects his own circumstances to his early experiences.

He concluded the poem with the words:

“Welcome these memories of scenes of youth

That nursed my hate of tyranny and wrong,

That helmed my manhood in the path of truth,

And helped me now to suffer and be strong.”

The emotion in these lines is not affected. It is reflective of a powerful shared personal and communal sense of grief, and righteous anger at a great wrong. O’Donovan Rossa was true to his word – he was willing to suffer and was strong, defiant and rebellious in his convictions. Born at Rosscarbery in 1831, he was reared by his Irish-speaking maternal grandparents at Reenascreena. As a young man, the tragedy of famine struck this district and his family was directly connected to it. His father died in 1847 and shortly afterwards his mother was forced to emigrate, leaving him behind in Skibbereen as she took the rest of her family to America.  Jeremiah remained in the care of his aunt in Skibbereen.  This story - of a mother being forced to leave her son behind - is emblematic of Irish emigration in the throes of, and in response to, the impact of the Famine, An Gorta Mór.

Even before the tragedy of the famine had such a profound impact on the young Jeremiah, it is likely that he had already been aware of the growing political tumult of the mid-nineteenth century. Where the 100th anniversary of the death of O'Donovan Rossa on 29th June 1915 is what we make central to our celebration today, we cannot but remember that we are also 11 days away from the 172nd anniversary of Daniel O’Connell’s monster repeal meeting here in Skibbereen. No doubt among the thousands who would have attended this meeting would have been the 12-year-old Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.

The great issues of the 19th century had been Emancipation, Home Rule and above all, fixity of tenure, fair rent and the right of fairness in relation to land. When we recall O’Connell’s meeting in 1843, we recall the tremendous hope in our country at that time for freedom and that O’Connell would go on to be remembered as The Liberator. This hope faded as O’Connell’s campaign for the Repeal of the Union failed to attract the interest of the nation and soon became a casualty of the insufficiency of the parliamentary process in Westminster.

Before, and especially after the famine, the issue of land dominated in rural Ireland and, following a sequence of political and military failures, support for the tradition of physical force was increasingly coming from abroad. This tendency would continue in the merging of Davitt’s mass movement and Parnell’s remarkable parliamentary efforts. Such issues, and the related events in the life and death of O’Donovan Rossa symbolise the threads of democratic demands and the subsequent resort to physical force which run through Irish history and our struggle for freedom.

It is so appropriate that it is here in Skibbereen and West Cork where you hold him in greatest affection that we celebrate O’Donvoan Rossa and it is clear that throughout his life, whether in prison, or in exile in a foreign land, that O’Donovan Rossa maintained a deep and abiding love of his native area in west Carbery.

It was in Skibbereen then that he began his charismatic career and laid the ground for his emergence as the great revolutionary he became.  In 1856, at the age of 25 he began the "Phoenix National & Literary Society" using his contacts developed through his business interests to attract hundreds of local men to the organisation. Shortly afterwards, in 1858, James Stephens initiated O’Donovan Rossa into the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

In December 1858, he was arrested for his association with the Fenians and jailed without trial until July 1859, although he avoided a longer jail term by pleading guilty to the charge of membership. In 1865, he was accused of plotting a Fenian rising, put on trial for the most serious charge of high treason and sentenced to penal servitude for life in light of his previous convictions.  As a prisoner he was reinforced by his prison experience, his rebellious attitude and he suffered solitary confinement, was manacled and was the recipient of other terrible punishments. 

He was elected to Parliament in 1869 and upon giving a commitment not to return to Ireland, which in effect sealed his exile, O'Donovan Rossa was released as part of the Fenian Amnesty of 1870. Boarding the S.S. Cuba, he left for the United States with his great friend John Devoy and three other exiles, who would go on to be remembered as "The Cuba Five".

O'Donovan Rossa took up residence in New York City, where he joined Clan na Gael and the Fenian Brotherhood. Rossa additionally established his own newspaper dedicated to the cause of Irish national liberation from British rule, The United Irishman.

Later in life, Rossa was given permission to visit, and he visited Ireland in 1894 and again in 1904, an occasion when he was made a "Freeman of the city of Cork". On the same visit he returned to his old home to unveil the Maid of Erin not far from here. Like many other Maid of Erin statues in Ireland, unveiled at the turn of the last century, it commemorated the irrepressible demand for Irish freedom as expressed through the armed risings of the Irish people that were recalled at such unveilings.

Rossa was seriously ill in his later years, and would die at the age of 83.  I am aware that the majority of his direct descendents now live in the U.S.A., a reminder to us as a people and as contemporary citizens of an independent State, of the importance of continuing to recognise the considerable debt that we owe to previous generations of Irish emigrants.

Many of these emigrants of Famine and post-Famine times had to make their contribution in the face of deep-seated anti-Irish prejudice. During the Famine, for example, the London Times had, together with Punch and others, consistently developed a stereotypical version of the Irish not as victims of a laissez faire economic policy of empire but as insatiable in their demands, ungrateful and disloyal.  These papers and publications supported the British government’s interpretation of famine and its ideological response and policy that saw famine as a matter for local resolution, and for some, even providential in its cause.

Yet the post famine exodus of men, women and children created such an ongoing memory of culpable neglect at best, and more usually, an abiding communal recall of the consequences of imperial degradation, and a response that would now live on beyond the seas.  The London Times itself recognised this miscalculation in imperialist strategy some decades later in its editorial which speculated that this folk memory retained by the Irish migrants who were now becoming a powerful block in the most powerful nation on earth would pose a grave threat to Britain in the future. The life and legacy of O’Donovan Rossa shows that it indeed proved to be so.

Perhaps it was O’Donovan Rossa’s death abroad after a long struggle, and, of course, the later execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising themselves, that was of greatest impact on the people. The decision to bring O’Donovan Rossa’s body home for burial remains an important milestone in the journey to the Rising itself in 1916. Half a million people lined the streets of Dublin to witness and pay their respects at his funeral, astutely organised by a committee whose membership included many of the central figures in the Rising. The power of Padraig Pearse’s oration had thus a powerful point of reference as he declared his revolutionary intent, and I presume, correctly, is seen by many as a defining moment in Irish history:

“They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think they have foreseen everything, think they have provided against everything; but the fools, the fools, the fools ! – they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” 

The 100th anniversary of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral on 1st August next in Glasnevin will, therefore, be the first official State event in the calendar marking the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Next year’s centenary will be an opportunity for all of us to engage with the complex movements and historical events which led up to and followed the events of 1916. People of all ages, in Ireland and overseas, will have the opportunity to engage with the past and use that reflection to re-imagine the future direction of our country.

I was very pleased to hear that the US connection to O’Donovan Rossa will be marked by a commemorative mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York on the anniversary of his death on 29th June and, in turn, I know too that your local Skibberreen GAA club will be holding a special tournament on 4th July – America’s great day of commemoration.

As a people, we will be invited to consider many complex issues throughout the Decade of Commemorations. Our history is composed of complex narratives - local, national and international events in Ireland and, indeed in West Cork, were intimately connected to the great political currents which ran across these islands and Europe. The broad sweep of events a hundred years ago clearly links the mobilisation to bring O’Donovan Rossa’s body home to Ireland with the turmoil in Europe.

As we commemorate different events that took place in the year 1915, we are invited to recall and imagine the circumstances and lives of the people of West Cork at that time, to experience the emotion and public mobilisation that was involved in the return of O’Donovan Rossa’s body to Ireland just a few weeks after the coastal communities of West Cork had lived through the tragedy of the sinking of the Lusitania off the Cork coast, and then too as the first reports are coming back to Ireland of the thousands of young men who were killed fighting an imperial war in Gallipoli and in France.

Drama and the arts can provide evocative, challenging and innovative insights into these complex and interactive events and influences. They give us new eyes to look at old stories. I am delighted to see therefore that - inspired by the imprisonment of O’Donovan Rossa – a new play on the prison conditions he experienced will be held in Reenascreena in mid-July.  

The life experiences of O'Donovan Rossa are relevant today as support for the rights of prisoners wherever they are incarcerated.  I also note that there is to be another play on the life of "Rossa" in Rossmore on July 22-23.

O’Donovan Rossa held a unique place in the hearts of Irish men and Irish women as one of the last of the great Fenian men. It was this deep affection for him which I'm sure caused his followers, led by Tom Clarke, to decide to have his remains brought home; knowing in a well thought-out calculation the effect it would have on the populace.

In his speech at the unveiling of the Maid of Erin, O’Donovan Rossa recalled 4 risings, the 1916 Proclamation read out by Pearse recalled the six times in the previous 300 years in which the Irish people asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty in arms, thus making a direct connection between these stories and events. The Irish Republic Brotherhood, with the Irish Volunteers, and above all the Irish Citizen Army, struck then “in full confidence of victory” by armed force, they put in train a series of events which led to the achievement of independence and establishment of a native institutional democracy which would go on to become a Republic.

However, it is perhaps only since the Good Friday Agreement and the ever closer relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom that we have now reached the point where we can hope that we have moved beyond that threat of physical force.  Constitutional and democratic discourse have given us the mechanisms to ensure that differences on this island, or between our islands should for evermore be resolved through dialogue and understanding.

That settlement was sealed symbolically in the exchange of State visits of which I was proud to partake.  The new understandings were reinforced eloquently three weeks ago by Prince Charles in Co. Sligo – at the site of another place of sorrow on Irish soil – that, borne out of his own anguish in the loss of his great uncle, when he understood “in a profound way, the agonies borne by so many others in these islands, of whatever faith, denomination or political tradition.”

Neighbours who respect each other as equals are not required to demand of each other any false amnesia of either great wrongs or terrible and cruel events, and in the long difficult journey, with its complex accompanying narratives, that has brought us to this point of mutual respect and understanding between our countries, O’Donovan Rossa played a crucial part and should not be forgotten.

Pearse said of Rossa that “he was of the Gael, he thought in a Gaelic way, he spoke in Gaelic accents. To him, the Gaelic ways were splendid and holy, worthy of all homage and all service.” As we commemorate his life we can honour him by making a special effort for the language of his grandparents, a language he lived.

This Gaelic park is a fitting tribute to this great local giant of Irish history. I congratulate the O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Committee and all those who have been involved in the renovation of these gardens and the preparation of the imaginative programme of events which are planned in the coming weeks to commemorate the death and burial of Jeremiah O'Donavan Rossa.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh. Thank you very much.