Fáilte Romhat

  Mary Jane Irwin

Mary Jane Irwin

FEW of the many sons and daughters of this ancient Town of Clonakilty who brought it lustre and renown had such a hold on the affections of its citizens as Mary Jane Irwin, the gently natured, almost child-wife of the Irish Patriot, O'Donovan-Rossa. The romance, the tragedy, the vicissitudes and withal the overwhelming happiness of her life became a legend.

Those Irwins of the Quay, were a proud and haughty family. Proud of their descent, of their religion and their race; proud too of their worldly success as merchants, employing much labour in the harbour and in their stores, and enjoying the loyalty and respect of their employees.
Members too of this proud old Clonakilty family adorned the professions.

And into his happy Kingdom came the "troublesome" Fenian.

Let Rossa tell his own story.
 "I came into the Town in 1858 to start the I.R.B. organisation. I had to contact two men, one was Maxwell Irwin. He wasn't home, had gone to an auction of a cargo of shipwreck at Crookhaven, so the little girl told me who came to the door after I had telephoned on the bright brass knocker. She was a pretty girl of 12 years with twinkling eyes and red and rosy cheeks and coal-black hair.
Five or six years afterwards I met the entire Irwin family, not for their welfare I fear as the boys of it found their way to prison and to exile through acquaintance with me,"

An amusing incident is related of the christening of Miss Irwin. The godfather (cousin) was the Hon. Timothy Warren Anglin. and he had arrived at the house on the Quay late in the evening and was rushed immediately to the Church with nurse and baby.
When the priest impressively announced: " I now christen thee " Mr. Anglin proudly proclaimed "Timothy Warren Irwin."
"Oh, no, no," gasped the astonished nurse.
"Why not pray," demanded Mr. Anglin haughtily.
"Begging your Honor's pardon, Sir, its not that kind of a baby at all."
So the priest in lieu of anything better christened the child "Mary Jane."

On October 22nd, 1864, O'Donovan-Rossa for the third time entered the holy bonds of matrimony.
The marriage of Mary Jane, poetess daughter of Maxwell Irwin and Margaret Keohane, of Rosscarbery, took place at the Parochial House, Clonakilty.Rossa was in his 34th year, a widower twice over with a growing family of five small sons.The young wife was just 18, Her family wailed, protested, much as they admired the man they looked with fear on this marriage of their convent-sheltered daughter.The Parish Priest admonished, spoke sternly to her, all to no avail. Tall, and straight as an Irish oak with a natural dignity was Rossa in those days.For nearly fifty-two years this marriage flourished happily until death dissolved its bonds.

 In Chatham Prison in July 1870, the husband wrote:
"A single glance, and that glance the first,
And her image was fixed in my mind and nursed,
And now it is woven with all my schemes,
And it rules the realms of all my dreams.

"A single glance, and that glance the first,
And her image was fixed in my mind and nursed,
And now she's the woof of my wordly schemes
And sits enthroned as the Queen of my dreams."

 In the year 1862 before her marriage she, the wife-to-be had written:;

"When first he called me "Mollis," he sighed,
And told me he loved one other beside
One other who was already his bride,
And I should love her for himI cried;
Then he told me that other was Erin,

Oh! but my love is fair to see!
And, Erin, his fairness is all to thee
Strong with a lion's strength is he,
And gentle with doveling's gentleness he,
My loved and Thine,  Oh!  Erin."


All too soon the fears of the Irwin family were realized, for less than a year after the marriage Rossa was sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime of treason felony.

The Clonakilty Parish register of births has this entry"6th May, '66 James MaxwellJeremiah O'Donovan-RossaMary Jane Irwin. Strand."

So their first was born whilst the father languished in prison chains.

A few months after the child's birth the young wife sailed for America leaving all the children with her beloved parents. Since she had shown marked talent for elocution during her Convent training, she immediately enrolled under Frobisher for a complete course in elocution and public speaking. For three long years she studied tirelessly earning the money for her tuition by selling poems and stories to the "Irish People" newspaper and other Irish periodicals.

At the end of her training a tour of lectures and readings throughout the length and breadth of America was organised, the money raised being used to swell the Fund for the release of Irish political prisoners in English prisons. But four more years of feverish work had passed before her efforts were rewarded and the life sentence of Rossa was commuted, and he and what lived of his fellow prisoners were banished to America for twenty years. During those years her lovely voice, her passionate pleading, drew huge crowds and moved vast audiences to tears. But her heart was breaking. She had sent, too, the first photo taken of herself and baby to Portland prison. The Prison Governor returned it "Prison rules do not allow convicts the possession of likenesses."

"Was it much to ask them, Baby,
These rough menials of the Queen,
Was it much to askto give him
This poor picture, form and mien,
Of the wife he loved, the little soul
He never yet had seen?"

She speaks, too, of the visit of wife and infant childto the prisonthe shock, the horror of seeing the harsh, tanned features, the shrunken eyes, the pain-wrung words, the felon garb behind the prison bars:

"It needed not, my love, this anguished glance,
This fading fire within thy gentle eyes,
To rouse the torpid voices of my heart,
'Till all the sleeping heavens shall heed their cries.

"God of the wronged, and can THY vengeance sleep?
And shall our night of anguish know no day?
And can THY justice leave our souls to weep
Yet, and yet longer o'er our land's decay?"

"Must we still cry'How long, O Lord, how long!'
For seven red centuries a country's woe
Has wept this prayer in tears of blood, and STILL
Our tears to-night for fresher victims flow."

Back to Clonakilty Mrs. Rossa sailed to recover her baby and board at Cobh the ship carrying the released prisoners to the promised land.
Fighting for Ireland was never profitable from a financial viewpoint and Rossa had many hard knocks trying to support his growing family.
In 1871 he started a passage ticket agency, next he undertook the editorship of a weekly American paper called the "ERA," and after this went into the hotel business. A second attempt at the same business proved a failure.
It was then the "United Irishman " was born, probably the only one-man paper in America.
With Rossa it was a continued struggle for existence, but this was the least of his worries.Recreant Irish Americans attacked him from all quarters, pursued him indeed with unheard of malignancy. They slandered, vilified him, imputing to him unworthy motives, causing him to be misunderstood when he attempted to clean up their rotten Tammany politics.
In those days of Rossa's struggle, John Bull was as predominant in N. York as he ever was in London, and no Irishman of the Rossa stamp or belonging to any Irish Revolutionary organisation could obtain either a municipal or federal position.
The assassin was ever employed and Rossa carried in his body to the grave some of the bullets fired at him by a supposedly-mad Englishwoman. No other man but the lion-hearted O'Donovan-Rossa would have stood up to itand he never carried his troubles home.

One day he caught his wife reading a most violent attack on him in an English paper.

"What a terrible man," said he. "And is that your husband, my poor woman."
And during those days and in all the ensuing years was there ever such a home as Rossa's!

Love, affection, devotion, tenderness, humility, akin to the home at Nazareth indeed. Mass each morning, Rosary each night, little altars in every room for special devotions. Every joy that came a blessing from the Lord; every Cross to be borne bravely in His name. Was it any wonder indeed that a great peace came to the heart of the noble Fenian.
Of the young family, Maxwell was always the adored one, When he was little, his mother dreamt he had asked her: "Dear mother mine, if every wish you wove wrought sure fulfilment to the child you lovewhat would you wish me?"

"Little Dove,
"If I had wishes and some fairy came
To realize them, I would wishnot fame,
Not wealth, not honour in the high of name",
Not empty titles, power or proud estate
But I would ask that you be Truly great
Within the orbit of your stated sphere,
That all your actions tend to Godly fear,
To firm uprightness! That you tend and aim
In life forever be to bless God's name;
To serve your country and your fellow-man
In deeds a life may compass in its span."

And now a great blow was dealt to the house of Rossa.

Maxwell who had been doing well in the American Navy and had written to his mother that he had been in a slight accident, that he was in hospital for minor burns of the face and chest, "but do you know my blessed little mother,' he said, "I am thankful in a way for this accident. For years I have wondered in my secret heart if I were really as fine and brave as your love has thought me or if in times of stress I would show the white feather and disgrace your brave, proud courage. And now I know and am thankful to God that your son is worthy of his father's name."
Next morning a letter arrived from the Commander of the U.S.S, "Seward" saying Maxwell had been a hero in a time of grave danger and by his quiet courage had saved the lives of many men. There had been a terrific explosion in the boiler room and the escaping steam had overcome the engineer in charge. Maxwell, without a thought for self, had rushed into that boiling inferno, shut off the engine, and dragged the unconscious to safety. "Your son, Jas. Maxwell, has brought great glory to your name," wrote the Commander. But Maxwell did not recover, he came home; came to Clonakilty for his native air; in three short weeks was home again; went to the more soothing air of a little town, in Tennessee.
In three months time he came back again. Maxwell died on November 2nd, 1893.
The bitterness of the grief of Rossa and our heroine was terrible to behold.
Their trust in God saved their reason. Rossa came to Ireland, his banishment over. He returned and the years rolled on. On November 11th. 1905, O'Donovan Rossa returned to Ireland. He had been elected Secretary to the Cork County Council, and was overjoyed that he could now spend the last years of his life in his native county. He got a wonderful reception in his native city, indeed the entire City seemed to turn out to welcome him.

But this happiness was of short duration. Before six months had passed O'Donovan Rossa made perhaps his greatest sacrifice in a life of much self-denial, His wife had begun to pine. Her wasting body bore little resemblance to the once lovely form. Her doctors averred she could not live parted from her children and Maxwell's grave. Rossa resigned, he knew his motives would be misconstrued and that-many would think him unappreciative of the honours done him. Yet between his desires and his duty to his wife there could be no compromise. Sadly Rossa returned to America.
Rossa's income was now precarious. Money was scarce. He worked like a Trojan, he had illnesses, his old wounds troubled him, his health began to fail. Over Rossa's brilliant mind a cloud was slowly forming. Under this stress his wife's health became improved. Her devotion and care for her husband was untiring. On June 29th, 1915, O'Donovan Rossa died after five long years in hospital.
No sooner was he dead than some of the lying newspapers renewed their attack, saying he had deserted the cause in his last days. His wife was horrified. She had come to Ireland to arrange for his funeral and from the Gresham Hotel on July 2nd, she issued this statement to the Press
"My husband, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa was, as he said of himself in the dock, an Irishman since he was born, and I can testify that during his last long illness he was the same unconquerable Irishman, breathing the same unalterable desire for the absolute freedom of his country and its utter separation from England that he breathed in the dock,"

Rossa's return to Ireland was as the return of a king to his people.
He had lived and died a Fenian and his death had made all Ireland Fenian with him.
He was buried in Glasnevin on the first of August, 1915.

Our heroine mourned the deaths of the leaders of the Easter Rebellion, most of whom she had met at Rossa's funeral
"Pearse, St. Enda. mourns you well:
Martyr of Freedom that fought and fell
In angelic sanctity, hear us tell
How we shall love you for ever,
And never cease to seek as you sought
Holding, as you did, Life at naught.
For the Honor and Glory of Ireland's cause,
And the chains of Bondage to sever."

Rossa's death awoke again his wife's fighting spirit. Into every Irish activity she threw herself with frenzied zeal. She wrote articles and poems for the papers, recited and lectured at important functions, received at her house her husband's old-time friends; the certainty of her husband's approval slowly filled her heart with peace.

 On August 18th, 1916, this heroic Clonakilty lady died suddenly.
After her death, in her desk was found a little poem to her children.

 Let us in conclusion quote a few lines:

 Wrapped in a silver cloud I'll float around them,
And feast my wistful eyes on features dear,
With every heavenly blessing I'll surround them,
That they may walk through life with naught to fear,
So when I leave thee darlings, do not sorrow,
'Tis but the body diesmy spirit still
Will guard thee through each night and through each
morrow, And bless the homes that all my loved ones fill!

T. O'D.

Clonakilty District Past & Present  - A Tourist guide to the area -[158 pages, forward dated 1959] The guide was published by the Southern Star Ltd for the Clonakilty C.Y.M.S.

My thanks to Henry McFadden for providing this information.