A stranger arriving in Cork city on the way to West Cork in the mid-1840’s might have been a member of the Society of Friends (several members had already come to the aid of the starving people of Skibbereen where they were providing free soup) or he might be a press correspondent sent to investigate reports in the World Press of thousands of people dying of starvation in the densely populated area of West Cork.

At the port he would notice throngs of men, women and children with their few belongings wrapped in a “kerchief” or in a calico bag waiting anxiously for the first ship that would take them to America or indeed anywhere away from hunger and death. He was in the midst of the devastation caused by the failure of the crop which was the almost exclusive sustenance of most of Ireland’s people – the potato. The extent of the disaster was worsened by the fact that the high-yielding variety of potato, called Lumpers, grown to sustain a rapidly increasing population, became susceptible to blight sooner than other varieties.

A population which had risen from five millions in the year 1800 to a figure approaching eight millions by 1840 coupled with a one-crop culture had set the scene for rural catastrophe. The visitor taking the road to Bandon would encounter emaciated bodies lying by the roadside and small groups of the living people, weak from hunger, slowly heading towards Bandon whose prosperity in the midst of an impoverished countryside might provide some relief for the starving. Their goal would be the Workhouse, the only source of relief under the English Poor Law Reform Act of 1834.

The Commissioners appointed under the Act had divided West Cork into six “Unions” – Bandon, Kinsale, Skibbereen, Dunmanway, Bantry and Macroom. Bandon Union was not the poorest area, yet of the 14,350 families inhabiting it, almost 10,000 families lived in mud-walled cabins.

The written records of Bandon Workhouse make chilling reading. In the third week of March, 1845 (before potato blight had struck) the number of inmates was 338. By the following December, the Workhouse contained 1,066 destitute people with a weekly death rate of thirteen. In the third week of March, 1846 there were 1,088 inmates and fifty-nine died. People without food or shelter huddled at the gate trying to get it and in May, 1849 the number housed in the Workhouse reached 4,200 and the weekly death rate reached seventy-eight.

The long journey to Skibbereen with dying and destitute people along that thirty-six mile journey was a harrowing experience. The Society of Friends work tirelessly in the soup-kitchens of Skibbereen giving out their soup to all that come. Famine fever among the starving wretches adds to the awful tragedy. There are not enough coffins to bury the numerous dead from the Workhouse. One coffin, with hinges and a bolt at the bottom, is used to bring each body to a growing heap, the bolts are drawn, the body falls and the coffin brought back for re-use.

The famine is deeply imprinted in the Irish psyche. About a million people died of starvation or disease and a further million succeeded in emigrating. The long-standing hatred for the English connection was given a new intensity and the emigrants brought this hatred with them to America and Australia and even to England itself. Henceforth these emigrants and their descendants were active supporters with money, arms, and trained men of the revolutionary movement in Ireland.

Press correspondents wrote more about the dying and dead around Skibbereen than of those other parts of Ireland. Yet it was there that a small flame was lit which spread like wildfire. Eventually that flame would bring forth the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the freedom of twenty-six of Ireland’s thirty-two counties

After the catastrophe of the Famine and the defeat of the Young Irelanders in 1848, Ireland appeared spiritless and politically dead. Landlords continued to evict thousands of their poverty-stricken tenants without protest. However Duffy was mistaken in thinking that he left “A corpse on the dissecting table”. The corpse would re-awaken in a most unlikely spot – Skibbereen, the town that saw hundreds of its dead taken to their last resting place in the hinged coffin of the workhouse.

What accident caused this re-awakening? Can it be attributed in part to William Thompson, the Socialist, who died in 1833? Thompson inherited an estate of 14,000 acres in Glandore and achieved an international reputation as a socialist. His ideas ante-dated Marx by fifty years and his writings include Principles of Distribution of Wealth. Harold Laski, the English Socialist would later write: “No one could read them (Thompson’s writings) without a sense that their case against capitalism must be answered and that it was not easy to answer”.

Determined to break the custom of absentee landlordism, Thompson sought to educate the people. He founded a co-operative community, walked around his estate with the Tricolour at the end of his walking stick and spent most of his life in Glandore. He bequeathed most of his fortune to the co-operative movement, but years of litigation by his nephew, one of the Whites of Bantry House, succeeded in overturning his Will. An anonymous balladeer would write: “I’ll be the man to lead the van beneath the flag of green When loud and high we’ll raise the cry – Revenge for Skibbereen”

The government saw the revolutionary movement as a Socialist one. In the Fenian trials, Crown Prosecutor Barry charged that the accused were guilty of “Socialism in its most pernicious guise” and that the lower classes were taught to believe that they might expect a re-distribution of property, real and personal, in the country.

Another major influence was the establishment of the Nationals Schools in 1832, at which 400,000 children attended within ten years. West Cork people with their deep respect and desire for education were diligent in sending their children to school and so increasing numbers of people could read and write.

In 1856, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (usually called Rossa) the son of an evicted farmer from Rosscarbery, along with some other young men in Skibbereen formed a revolutionary society which they named The Phoenix National and Literary Society. They had named it after the Phoenix – a mythical bird that could rise from its own ashes.

On St. Patrick’s Day 1858 the Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in America by James Stephens, John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny. It was a secret oath-bound society and John O’Mahony was responsible for giving the popular name “Fenian” to the movement. In May of that year James Stephens called to Rossa’s house in Skibbereen and told him that the Irish in America would help with money, arms and men in achieving the independence of the country. He said that if Rossa could provide a number of men sworn to fight, an equal number of arms would be provided and that before any men were asked to move, the requisite arms would be in the country, hidden locally and ready for immediate use. Stephens also promised an invading support force of five to ten thousand men.

Within one month ninety of the members of the Phoenix National and Literary Society had taken the oath and joined the Fenian organisation. In October a drill-master who had served with the American Army was sent to Skibbereen and Rossa’s comrades, numbering about three hundred, began to practise drill in secret.

In the next six months the organisation spread through South Cork and parts of Kerry. Their first serious reverse was when members found that they were refused absolution in Confession and some priests began to denounce them from the pulpit at Mass. Father John O’Sullivan, Kenmare, learning from a penitent in confession that he was a member of the oath-bound Fenian Society, afterwards had a conversation with the penitent in the chapel yard and extracted from him a copy of the Society’s Oath.

On 5th October, 1858 the priest wrote a personal letter to Lord Naas, M.P., in Dublin. Among other details he wrote “I am led to believe that some seven to eight hundred men have been enrolled here and some three thousand in Skibbereen” . He also forwarded a copy of the oath. The priest’s letter was subsequently published and for decades his actions were debated in County Cork. The Church’s view on refusal of Confession was not accepted by the Fenians or I.R.B. Members, who held the view that they came to confess sins to God, through the priest, and that he could not refuse to hear their Confessions. The official Catholic clerical stance was an impediment to recruitment of some devout Catholics.

The Bishop of Kerry proclaimed that “Hell was not hot enough nor eternity long enough for those Irishmen” who became members of a secret oath-bound society. Despite such proclamations, some young priests in every diocese did not consider it a sin to belong to patriotic secret societies.

The Government became alarmed. Extra police were drafted in from Dublin. The informer, Dan Sullivan Goula, was persuaded to give evidence and on 5th December ,1858 Rossa and twenty others were each lodged in solitary confinement in Cork Jail.

According to English law, the uncorroborated evidence of an informer was insufficient to detain men in prison. All except O’Donovan Rossa and five others were released after some weeks and the Crown, failing to gather sufficient evidence for conviction, released Rossa and the other five after eight month’s imprisonment. During his absence in prison, his family were ejected from his leasehold premises in Skibbereen and he found difficulty in re-establishing his business.. He spent an increasing amount of his time in recruiting and organising Fenian circles. He travelled the length and breadth of Ireland as well as meeting the Irish in England and Scotland. He later wrote in his book Irish Rebels that “the lower you go among the oppressed people, the warmer you will find them and the truer and readier they will be to make sacrifices for freedom, friends or fatherland”.

Rossa would proudly boast that he had met thousands of the poorest of people in the small villages and large cities of Ireland and whispered treason and rebellion, yet not one among those thousands of humble people could be persuaded by any amount of English gold to give evidence at his trial that he had seen or met him in such a place or on such an occasion.

In 1863 Rossa received an invitation from James Stephens to come to Dublin to act as business manager of The Irish People newspaper which was about to be started. Within a month Rossa had experienced the most active opposition to the sale of the paper by the priests. Shopkeepers selling the paper were bullied and, when bullying did not work, threatened with hell and damnation. Priests went to extraordinary lengths to prevent the sale of The Irish People even to the extent of bringing pressure on magistrates to refuse licences to publicans who sold the paper.

In Kilkenny, the penance enjoined in Confession by some priests was that the penitent should not read The Irish People. Despite the extraordinary clerical opposition, led by Cardinal Cullen himself, to the Fenian movement, membership increased dramatically. It was strong in both rural and urban areas. Very large numbers of Irishmen in the British Army, Navy and Prison service had also taken the Fenian Oath.

In 1864 Rossa married the poetess Mary Jane Irwin in Clonakilty and they set up their home in Strand Street. He continued to travel extensively on the business of The Irish People as well as organising Fenian “circles” and spent much of his time in the Dublin office.

On the evening of 15th September, 1865 Rossa, Thomas Luby, John O’Leary and other leaders were arrested and confined in individual seven feet by six feet cells in Richmond Prison, Dublin. During the remand period Cardinal Cullen issued a pastoral condemning the Fenian paper. It contains the quotation “they preach socialism, to seize the property of those who have any and to exterminate both the gentry and the Catholic clergy …………………. The managers of the Fenian paper, The Irish People, made it a vehicle of scandal and circulated in its columns the most pernicious maxims. Hence it must be said that for suppressing that paper the public authorities deserve the thanks of all who love Ireland, its peace and its religion.”

The trial of the Fenian leaders, John O’Leary, O’Donovan Rossa, Thomas Luby, James O’Connor and George Hopper, for high treason before Judge Keogh and a jury commenced on 29th November. After a two-day trial Luby and O’Leary were each sentenced to twenty years’ penal servitude. Rossa was next brought forward for trial. He had his case adjourned three times for legal reasons and, when the trial actually commenced, the defendant handed in a paper stating that he did not wish to be defended by Counsel. Over the following days, despite Judge Keogh’s ruling that many of his questions were not relevant, Rossa argued that no criminal act had been proven against him and concluded his examination by asking any gentlemen connected with the Continental press in Court to note that the London Times of the 14th November had written “Treason is a serious thing and these men are guilty of it” He claimed that this comment justified an affidavit he had made that the trial should not take place in Dublin where jury members would have read it and become prejudiced against the prisoner.

On 12th December, Rossa addressed the court for eight hours during which he reminded the Judge that he (Keogh) was once the intimate associate of forgers and swindlers and swore violent and inflammatory language (Keogh was a one-time parliamentary champion of Catholic rights who later accepted the post of Solicitor-General and later was involved in a financial scandal). Judge Keogh was compared to the infamous Judges Jeffrey and Norbury and his selection as a Judge could not impress people with feelings of respect for the administration of Justice.

The Fenian trials were the main news in Irish, English and American newspapers in this period and were discussed in every Irish household. Rossa was already well-known to his Fenian comrades. His independent spirit, his criticism of the legal formalities of the trial, his ridicule of Judge Keogh – the renegade patriot – and his exposure of Keogh’s past made Rossa a hero in the eyes of nationalists everywhere, in particular in his native West Cork.

The Jury found Rossa guilty on all counts and Judge Keogh sentenced him to penal servitude for the length of his natural life. On Christmas Eve he was brought in irons to Dun Laoghaire and then to Pentonville Prison in England. Penal servitude prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in cells measuring seven feet by three and a half. The furniture was a board, a mattress about a half-inch thick, two sheets, a blanket and a rug. Prison uniform but no underwear was the standard day clothing. Prisoners suffered from hunger and the intense cold caused several deaths among the Fenian prisoners.

Convicts were allowed write only one censored letter every six months and, if well-conducted, were allowed write a petition to the Secretary of State for Home Affairs. Rossa wrote such a petition and described his prison treatment. He also smuggled a copy of the petition out of the prison. It was printed in the Dublin paper Irishmen under the heading “A Voice from the Dungeon” . It embarrassed the government, and Prison Commissioners Knox and Pollock held a sham inquiry into the charges. Their report concluded: “The Senior Warder at Mill bank, a man of no mean experience with convicts, said that over his whole career he had never met Rossa’s equal. Rossa has no ill-usage to complain of. He must mend his ways or abide his fate”.

After the inquiry the authorities put the screws on him in earnest. Every puny privilege the prison system accorded was disallowed. He suffered many months on punishment diet and spent thirty-seven days in handcuffs.

Despite the vigilance of the prison authorities, further accounts of the treatment meted out to Irish prisoners serving penal servitude reached the outside world, causing adverse comment and agitation. Rossa was nominated for the vacant parliamentary seat in Co. Tipperary in November 1869, and to the severe embarrassment of the Government, was successful. After Rossa was disqualified from sitting as a member of Parliament because of his penal conviction the Government established the Devon Commission to inquire into Rossa’s complaints against his incarceration.

Its report examined Rossa’s submission that he and his companions were abused, humiliated, tortured and half-starved. In regard to Rossa’ most serious charge the report reads: “They [the evidence] place beyond all possible doubt that Rossa had handcuffs on, either before or behind, with the intervals already referred for thirty-four hours” Changes in prison regulations and practices were recommended and the Commission’s report published on 31st January, 1871 recommended that “The Royal mercy be extended to O’Donovan Rossa provided he shall depart out of the United Kingdom and remain out of it for twenty years”.

Considerable numbers of American officers trained in the American Civil War had returned to Ireland in 1865 awaiting the promised large supply of arms. Only small quantities in fact arrived and plans for a rising were postponed. A rising was finally fixed for 5th March, 1867 but it fizzled out in the heavy snow that fell all over the country that night. There were skirmishes in Dublin and in Kerry. In Cork, Peter O’Neill Crowley captured the coastguard station at Knockadoon but he and his companions were surrounded at Kilclooney Wood and O’Neill Crowley was shot. His comrade, Captain John McClure, ex- U.S. Army, was captured and became a fellow convict of Rossa’s in prison.

On 11th September, 1867 two of the leading Fenians, Colonel Thomas Kelly, the Head Centre, and Captain Timothy Deasy, a native of Clonakilty, were arrested in England. Colonel Richard O’Sullivan Burke and the Fenians planned to rescue the prisoners which involved attacking the police van taking the prisoners to the Courts in Manchester. A large group surrounded the Black Maria containing the prisoners and attempted to break through the roof with a heavy stone but without effect. Attempts to break the lock with a hatchet also failed.. It was decided to shoot open the lock and, unfortunately, the shot hit Constable Brett inside the van. The two prisoners were released and the Fenian rescuers fled. The constable died later that day.

The English public were outraged and clamoured for strong action. Suspected Fenians were rounded up and five – Allen, Larkin, O’Brien, Maguire and Condon – charged and held in chains during their trial. Some of the witnesses produced by the prosecution were manifestly unreliable, one leading witness had no less than forty-three convictions for drunkenness, another was awaiting trial for theft. Anti-Irish feeling was rampant and there was heavy public pressure on the police to secure convictions. A number of court reporters, were aghast that they could be condemned on such unreliable evidence, and made their views public. The five were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Condon finished his speech from the dock with the words:- “I have nothing to regret or to retreat or take back. I can only say, “God save Ireland”.

His words were taken up by the others who repeated “God save Ireland”. Two days before execution, Maguire was given a free pardon and Condon’s sentence was commuted. Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien were publicly hanged. The phrase “God Save Ireland” became the title of a ballad by T.D. Sullivan published in the newspaper The Nation. That ballad became the marching song of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the unofficial anthem of nationalist Ireland and the three patriots became for all time “the Manchester Martyrs”.

One day in the British House of Commons in 1877 a reference was made by the Chief Secretary of Ireland to the “Manchester Murderers””. A cry of NO! NO! NO! stopped him in his tracks and turning towards the sound, he said:  “I regret that there is an Honourable member who apologises for murder”.

Parnell , later to be the leader of the Irish Parliamentary party, standing up, said: “I wish to say as publicly as I can, that I did not believe and never shall believe that murder was done in Manchester”.

From that time onwards Fenians realised that Parnell’s heart was in the right spot and they gave him their support.

Michael Davitt, Fenian and founder of the Land League, who had earned fifteen year’s penal servitude in Dartmoor, was released in December, 1877 and went to visit his old home in Mayo where he witnessed the dreadful plight of the people. He then went to New York where he met John Devoy, the Clan-na-Gael leader who in 1866 had been sentenced to fifteen year’s penal servitude. The parliamentarian Parnell, the Fenian Devoy and the Land Leaguer Davitt agreed to form a common front of revolutionary and constitutional nationalists – the “New Departure” – and American money was made available to the organisation.

At the invitation of Davitt, Parnell, who was escorted by five hundred young men on horse-back to the platform, addressed a great land meeting at Westport in June, 1879. He said:- “A fair rent is a rent that the tenant can reasonable pay according to the times, but in bad times a tenant cannot be expected to pay as much as he did in good times three or four years ago……

You must show the landlord that you intend to keep a firm grip on your homestead and lands.You must not allow yourself to be dispossessed as you were dispossessed in 1847″

The Land League organisation spread throughout the length and breadth of the land. Its basic slogans were printed on each membership card: “Ireland for the Irish, The Land for the People”

Isaac Butt, son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, the advocate who had defended many Fenian prisoners, concluding that armed resistance would never succeed, had founded a Home Rule Party with the stated object of obtaining an Irish Parliament with full control of Irish affairs. His party with fifty-nine members had won more than half the Irish seats in the 1874 election, when for the first time voting was secret under the 1872 Ballot Act.

The majority of Irish people had seemingly accepted Butt’s parliamentary policy but in a parliament of six hundred and seventy members, Butt and his party were totally outnumbered and were soon seen to be ineffective in advocating their policy. All that this respectable parliamentarian could achieve was a one-day annual debate on Irish affairs.

Realising their political impotence, two members of Butt’s Home Rule Party, the ex-Fenians Joseph Bigger and John O’Connor, decided on a policy of obstruction in the House of Commons. They were joined by Charles Stewart Parnell and their policy of obstructing the passage of English Legislation by taking up the time of the House with prolonged speeches and endless points of order forced its members to listen to Ireland’s viewpoint.

In 1881, Parnell assumed leadership of the reinvigorated party and became known to its members as the Chief. He was to dominate Irish politics and indeed the House of Commons until his death ten years later. His advocacy of Home Rule found an ally in William Gladstone, the leader of the Liberal party, who had lived for years close to the heart of the Irish problem and had seen how tenacious was the demand for Irish self-government. He finally became convinced that nothing less than Home Rule would solve the Irish problem. When he disclosed his plan for a Bill, his cabinet colleagues, Chamberlain and Trevelyan, broke with him. Chamberlain thought that what Gladstone proposed would lead to internal dissensions in Ireland and be disruptive of the British Empire. Other members thought that the Irish were fundamentally unsuited to have charge of their own affairs.

Gladstone’s Bill fell a long way short of full self-government but brought in sight the possibility of advancing the Irish cause through parliamentary means. However, the Liberal Party split. Randolph Churchill coined the phrase: “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”.

Parnell declared “I accept this Bill as a final settlement of our national question and I believe the Irish People will accept it”.

The defection of the Liberal Unionists ensured the defeat of the Home Rule Bill of 1886. Gladstone resigned and in the subsequent General Election the Conservatives gained a majority. Lord Salisbury formed a government dedicated to the proposition that what Ireland needed was twenty years of resolute government.

The country was deep in agricultural depression, tenants could not pay the rent fixed by the Act of 1881and evictions followed. The Bantry M.P. Timothy Harrington devised a scheme known as the “Plan of Campaign” In effect it was a device for collective bargaining on individual estates. When landlords refused to reduce the rent voluntarily, the tenants combined and offered a reduced rent. If this was not accepted, no rent was paid. The plan was seized on by farmers in the South and West with enthusiasm and a bitter agrarian struggle ensued. The Chief Secretary, Arthur Balfour, resorted to coercive measures to combat the Plan of Campaign for which he earned the sobriquet “Bloody Balfour”. His government even succeeded in persuading Pope Leo XIII to condemn the plan and boycotting as illegal. Catholic members of the Irish Parliamentary Party in turn denounced this as interference by the Holy See in the management of their political affairs by the Irish people.