Growing up in New York City, there was always a formal photographic portrait of our great-grandfather Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa on the wall of our apartment. In this photo, Rossa looks dignified, dressed in a 19th-century suit and broad-rimmed hat, his clear eyes giving the impression of strength, clarity and determination. Next to it hung an illustration from the cover of the 19th-century American satirical magazine Puck, one of many depicting Rossa in an unflattering light, as an angry old man on the fringes, nearly a lunatic. These images together, though so different, always conveyed to us the fact that this great grandfather of ours did something.
Our father, William Rossa Cole, was born on Staten Island, New York where the O’Donovan Rossas eventually chose to settle after his forced exile from his homeland in 1871. Our father loved Ireland. He loved the song, the writing and the craic, and when he would hear a brogue or visit Eire, which we did a number of times together, his face would light up. He had the “clear blue eyes” of Rossa but he was not a political man and, while Rossa was kept on in our names and honored, we didn’t get lectures on Irish history and politics. Besides knowledge of his brutal time in English prisons, his huge funeral on August 1st, 1915 and the famous oration by Pádraig Pearse over his grave (“The fools, the fools, the fools! – they have left us our Fenian dead . . .”) we didn’t know too much about the life of Rossa.
Our father died in 2000 and I inherited a trove of O’Donovan Rossa’s material that had come down through my grandmother Margaret, O’Donovan Rossa’s youngest daughter. Once in a while I would poke around in the boxes and the bronze-tipped cane that was given to Rossa by an American Fenian group in 1886 hung above the door of my daughter’s room. At some point, perhaps five years ago, my brother Rossa told me he saw on Wikipedia that O’Donovan Rossa, after his exile to New York, had waged a dynamite campaign on English soil and was nicknamed “O’Dynamite Rossa” by the press of the time. I was surprised, as that significant part of Rossa’s life was something that, from what I can recall, our family did not talk about. As a longtime documentary filmmaker, though, it peaked my interest about Rossa and his life even more.
Starting with a donation at the beginning of 2015, I embarked on the journey to make a film about Rossa, his incredible wife Mary Jane – our great grandmother – and their relevance in Ireland and the world today. It has been an experience that has taken me and my brother from Belfast and Tyrone to Dublin and, of course, all over West Cork as commemorations specifically about Rossa occurred in Ireland and in New York throughout the summer of 2015. These events culminated August 1, where the first state event of the 1916 centenary commemoration program took place at Glasnevin and Sinn Féin recreated the funeral procession in period costume. I have captured all of this on film, framing Rossa’s story in the personal journey of discovery about what Rossa’s life meant then and means now. (I am currently fundraising and starting to edit the film.)
While Rossa is known largely through Pearse’s famous oration, it has been great to see over the last year a renewed interest in Rossa’s colorful, controversial and consistent life. Above all he loved Ireland and strove for something that should be a basic human right: freedom and justice for all people no matter race, creed, religion, or nationality.
Being a relative is simply something you are born into. But it is what you do with that role that is important; how you carry the stories and the name onto future generations. Our grandmother wrote about her father and our father wrote about his grandfather. Both had strong connections to Ireland. Now my brother and I are doing the same only in a different medium.
Both the formal portrait and the Puck cover will remain on our walls. And we think our children will put them on theirs as well. ♦