Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was born in a small village called Reenascreena near Rosscarbery, Co Cork. He was the son of a tenant farmer, Denis O’Donovan and his wife Nellie O’Driscoll. While a young boy, the failure of the main food crop of the Irish population which was the potato, in successive years between 1845 and 1847 lead to a devastating famine which hit the West Cork area in which he lived, particularly hard. The Great Famine as it became known, caused one million Irish people to lose their lives in these years and another million to emigrate. O’Donovan Rossa’s own father died in 1847 of an illness related to severe malnutrition and the teenager moved to Skibbereen to work in his cousin’s shop in the town.
The 1848 Young Irelander rebellion and the growing independence/anti-imperialist movements in Europe around this time inspired the young O’Donovan Rossa and in 1856 he formed the “Phoenix National Literary Society” in Skibbereen town. This was essentially a secret society whose aim was Irish independence from Britain. He married the first of his three wives, Nano Eager, a Killarney woman, in 1853. By 1858 he had been sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) known colloquially as the “Fenians”, a reference to “Na Fianna” a band of warriors who defended Ireland from invaders in Irish mythology. Following the death of his first wife in 1860 he subsequently married Ellen Buckley from Castlehaven who died in childbirth in 1863.
He was imprisoned in 1865 as a result of his activities as manager of the nationalist newspaper “The Irish People” and served his prison sentence in a variety of prisons in England. His peers planned the rebellion of 1867 which failed after a few brief skirmishes and armed battles in some isolated parts of Ireland, most notably Tallaght outside Dublin. The ringleaders of the rebellion were rounded up by the authorities and also eventually imprisoned in England following trial.
The Fenian prisoners were granted early release from jail in 1871 following a public enquiry into the conditions in which they, including O’Donovan Rossa were held. All the released prisoners were forced to emigrate and O’Donovan Rossa moved to New York City with his now third wife, Mary Irwin from Clonakilty in West Cork, whom he had married in 1864. They were to have thirteen children together. He ran the Chatham Hotel, in Chatham Square in Manhattan in subsequent years in the notorious “Five Points” district which now is in the heart of modern-day Chinatown. This was made famous in recent years by being the setting for the Martin Scorcese film, “The Gangs of New York” (2002).
While in New York, O’Donovan Rossa continued his fight against British rule in Ireland and very successfully raised money to fund a so-called “Skirmishing Fund”, essentially a late nineteenth century terror and bombing campaign. His fame grew further as he ran for office in New York city immediately upon his arrival, against the infamous “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall fame. Although ultimately unsuccessful, his public utterances and writings as well as his continued support for the physical force tradition of Irish nationalism kept him in the public eye on both sides of the Atlantic. He was finally released from banishment by the British government in 1891 and travelled to Ireland in 1894 and again in 1904.
Although he lived for a short period of time in Cork City around this time, he returned to live in Staten Island, New York City and died there on 29th June 1915. The leadership of the republican/nationalist movement in Ireland saw an opportunity to use the death of O’Donovan Rossa as a propaganda outlet and requested their comrades in the United States send his remains home for burial in Ireland. He was given a public funeral which attracted a very large attendance from throughout the island of Ireland and the eulogy at his graveside was given by Padraig Pearse who was to come to even greater public prominence nine months later as the leader of the 1916 rebellion in Dublin known as “The Easter Rising”. The speech is one of the most famous pieces of Irish oratory and a part of the closing section is quoted below.
“The Defenders of this Realm have worked well in secret and in the open. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that 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.”
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa is buried in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin. He is commemorated in Ireland by a bridge over the river Liffey named in his honour, a monument in Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin City centre, a park (with statue) named after him in Skibbereen, Co Cork and several Gaelic football and hurling teams named in his honour including the Skibbereen G.A.A. Club O’Donovan Rossa.