Irish Legal Heritage: Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa (Part I)

Irish Legal Heritage: Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa (Part I)

Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa

On 10 September 1831, Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa was born in Reenascreena – a townland nestled between the villages of Leap and Rosscarbery in West Cork.

Jerimiah was the second of four children, and his parents were tenant farmers. Like so many Irish families, the O’Donovan’s were devastated by the horrors of the famine. When Jerimiah was only 16 years old, his father, Denis, became one of the victims of the Great Famine – dying of fever on 15 March 1847. (Shane Kenna, Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian(Merrion Press, 2015))

In 1853, Jerimiah moved to Skibbereen, County Cork, where he became a shopkeeper. It was here that he helped to establish the Phoenix National and Literary Society – a revolutionary society which was given the name “Phoenix” to “signify that the nation was to rise again from its ashes” (Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa, O’Donovan Rossa’s Prison Life: Six Years in Six English Prisons (1874)).

One of Jerimiah’s speeches, which he made to mark the anniversary of the Phoenix Society, illustrates the passion of a man who would become one of the most famous Irish revolutionaries:

“We Irishmen are slaves and outcasts in the land of our birth. What a shame! What a disgrace! Yes; disgraceful alike to peer and peasant – Protestant, Catholic and Presbyterian. Thus may foreign nations believe this country is not ours, and I am sure you will not be surprised that England is particularly positive on this point. She has made all possible efforts to convince us of it. She has broken the heads of many Irishmen trying to hammer this opinion into them. For seven long and dreary centuries has she been trying to force it on us; and against her during all this time the majority of Irishmen protested. Yet has she disregarded every protestation, every claim, and every petition, and instead of treating us as human beings or subjects, she has made every effort that pen, fire and sword could make to extirpate our race” (cited in Shane Kenna, Jerimiah O’Donovan Rossa: Unrepentant Fenian (Merrion Press, 2015))

The Phoenix Society ultimately merged with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and Jerimiah’s run-ins with the law that followed will be explored in next week’s Irish Legal Heritage.

Róise Connolly

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