Cape Clear Island Ferry leaves Baltimore at 2pm and returns from Cape Clear at 6pm
Remembering O’Donovan Rossa’s engagement with the Cape Clear island community of 1862.
As part of the Cork County Council 1916 Centenary Programme, a Commemorative Event will take place at Cape Clear island on Saturday 13th of August recalling Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s engagement with the starving poor of Cape Clear in 1862. On the ferry journey to Cape Clear a brief 2.30pm stop will be made at the Gascanane Rock to reconnect with a tradition associated with the rock and with O’Donovan Rossa.
At Cape Clear island a Silent Walk will take place from the corner at Dinny Burkes to South Harbour where O’Donovan Rossa met with and distributed relief to some 300 starving men, women and children. The neglect by Government and landlords and the shocking housing conditions on Cape Clear in the 1860s will be presented in an exhibition at Cape Clear Island Museum. Miss Terry Kearney, Manager of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre will launch the exhibition. All interested in the history of islands and in the life of West Cork man, O’Donovan Rossa are invited to attend.
Historical Exhibition at Cape Clear 4pm detailing the background to starvation and neglect of islanders in 1862
In 1800 the Parliament at Westminster passed the Act of Union taking full responsibility for the governing of Ireland. However, subsequent British Governments and landlords in the nineteenth century rarely considered that they had any duty of care towards their tenants and to the poor that their privileged class, had by their centuries of neglect created in Ireland.
The famine death and emigration throughout Ireland in the mid nineteenth century was not an act of God but was caused for the most part by English Government control of Ireland, the plunder of its resources and its wealth, the export of huge amounts of food while the population starved. Government political and economic policies, indifference and landlord neglect caused most of the deaths and the subsequent emigration of millions of Irish people between the years 1845 to the early 1900s. The West Cork area and the islands in particular were badly affected by extreme poverty, hunger and death during these years. At first glance, the extent of the suffering of the people of Cape Clear during periods of distress and starvation seems incomprehensible, given the abundant fish stocks in the surrounding seas. During this time however, the market price of fish collapsed and many fishermen sold off their fishing-gear, their household furnishings to buy food and pay rent, as neither shopkeeper nor landlord was prepared to give credit to the poor of the island.
In May 1862 people were dying of starvation in Cape Clear Island and the situation in nearby Sherkin Island was also desperate. Islanders were calling on the Skibbereen Board of the Guardians, for immediate relief. In a series of accounts, The Cork Examiner newspaper reported in graphic detail on the hardship and hunger being experienced by Cape Clear islanders. These reports stirred a great amount of controversy and brought newspapers into conflict with the Skibbereen Board of Poor Law Guardians. In an attempt to avoid further bad publicity, the Poor Law Commissioners composed of several landlords and business interests decided to send a ton of meal to the island.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa who was at the time a shopkeeper in Skibbereen was asked to undertake the work of Temporary Relief Officer for the islands for a period of three months. A boat was made ready to take him and the meal to the islands for distribution. He brought with him his neighbour, Michael O Driscoll, who also knew the island and its community and, like, Jeremiah was a fluent Irish speaker. The meal was put on board and next day set sail for the island.
Arriving in Cape Clear about nine o’clock in the evening Rossa and O’ Driscoll were met by the island curate Fr. Collins with a horse and cart to transfer the meal to his house at South Harbour. Word was sent throughout the island to have all those in need come to the priest’s house at South Harbour next morning to take their share of the relief. Some 270 starving islanders came and received a small measure of meal. Father Collins next took O’Donovan Rossa to see a bed-ridden woman who was living in a cleft of a rock on a hill at the back of his house at South Harbour. They had to crawl on their hands and knees to get inside her ‘house’ and there the poor woman was stretched upon flagstones, covered with heath. She could not sit up to cook the measure of meal that they gave to a neighbouring poor woman for her. The priest suggested that as there was some of the meal left, it would be no harm to give this neighbouring poor woman an extra measure of it in consideration of her attendance upon the sick woman. The woman was given the extra measure. O’Donovan Rossa lost his job because of this.
On the way to the other end of the island to take the boat to Sherkin a number of houses were visited. Some of them had flags for doors—the wooden doors having been burned for firing. In one house were five or six children; one of them was dead—evidently dead from starvation. On reaching the mainland O’Donovan Rossa reported the case of death to a coroner in Skibbereen; an inquest was held and the coroner’s jury brought in a verdict of: “Death from starvation”
The Report infuriated the Commissioners and their chairman, the Cape Clear island landlord called for a postponement of a discussion on Rossa’s Report until the next meeting of the Board of Guardians. At that meeting the landlord had other landlords and friends gathered around: He had an account of Rossa giving the extra measure of meal to the bed-ridden woman: he declared that to be a violation of the Poor Law Rules and Regulations; he proposed that Rossa be dismissed from the position of temporary relieving officer; that he get no salary for the time he had served, and that he pay out of his own pocket for the extra measure he had illegally given away.
The Board dismissed Rossa from his position and the struggle on that subject continued for about six weeks, during which time Rossa continued to visit the islands and bring help to islanders who had been abandoned not alone by the greedy landlords but the Westminster Government who governed Ireland at that time. O’Donovan Rossa brought the Commissioners before the court who found in his favour and the Commissioners were obliged to pay him his three months’ salary. They set out to destroy his business and have him arrested and imprisoned for his republican views.
The high profile given the Coroner’s verdict of death from malnutrition mentioned in Rossa’s report of 1862, and the accounts in the Cork Examiner of widespread starvation, shocking housing conditions and distress brought on a Parliamentary Inquiry which drew attention to landlord neglect of their tenants as well as conditions being suffered by much of the Irish population at the time.
Cork County Council Centenary Fund supports this event.