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Hidden in the new UK crime records on Findmypast is a remarkable piece of Irish history, several journals of the time that legendary Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa spent in gaol in England. The journals, written by the governors of Portland and Chatham Prisons, give a day by day account of O’Donovan Rossa’s time in prison.
Fenianism was the main force in Irish nationalism in the late 19th century. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa was one of the most high profile members in Ireland. From Skibereen in Cork, he had witnessed the Famine first hand and had watched his father die from famine fever. He was vehemently against British rule and believed in drastic action to achieve independence. This year marks the centenary of his death in New York, and of Padraig Pearse’s famous graveside oration that marked a pivotal moment in the road to the 1916 Rising.
He had been convicted of the crime of treason felony in Dublin in 1865, along with several fellow Fenians. O’Donovan Rossa who ran the Irish People newspaper, the fenian mouthpiece, was sentenced to penal servitude for life. According to the Irish Prison Registers, also on Findmypast, he and his fellow nationalists were charged with “Conspiring to depose the Queen, to compel her Majesty to change her measures and counsels and to move and stir foreigners to invade Ireland” due to articles that had appeared in the Irish People. After a brief spell in Mountjoy prison in Dublin, he was sent to England in December 1865.
The 24 Fenian “treason felons”, including O’Donovan Rossa, arrived in Portland prison in Dorset in the south west of England on May 14 1866. They had spent the previous months in solitary confinement in Pentonville and Millbank prisons but were moved once again to start their hard labour. Portland had been developed with quarries for convicts to work and the fenians were to start breaking stones as soon as they had been passed fit. Writing in his journal the governor notes that the fenians were to be housed together in an empty ward. They were to have a guard patrolling under the window each night and the governor had picked two guards who were known for being “strict”.
O’Donovan Rossa would later write that he had started his sentence determined to follow the rules laid down but that the treatment he received in gaol made this impossible. In the journals on Findmypast you can read the tense situation that developed between the fenians and the prison authorities. It is clear from the journals that there were major problems with staff professionalism. The governor often refers to disciplining staff for coming into work drunk. The fenian prisoners soon mounted a campaign of insubordination. There are frequent mentions of O’Donovan Rossa singing in his cell and being punished for “disturbing the peace of the place”. While it is clear that punishments were harsh, it is also clear that the prison authorities were aware that they were under some scrutiny with the care of the fenian prisoners.
At one point the governor writes about O’Donovan Rossa receiving a visit from his wife and baby. He notes with irritation that rather than simply being allowed to nurse the child, as had been agreed, the guards had allowed the fenian to sit with his wife as well. This was a bad idea, he insisted, as all the prisoners would be wanting such visits from now on. This visit was unusual. For most of his time in prison O’Donovan Rossa was not allowed to receive mail or visits from his wife. It got to the stage that he attempted to smuggle a letter to his wife in a Bible, which he slipped to another prisoner on the way to Mass.
In 1868 O’Donovan Rossa was moved to Chatham prison in Kent. Here too he was viewed as an insubordinate prisoner to be viewed with caution. Things came to a head when, on June 17th, he threw his chamber pot at the governor. Punishment was swift and harsh. The following morning he was manacled “as a restraint” and was to remain manacled daily for the next 35 days. In an entry beside a large black cross, a sign that the punishment had been discussed at board level, the governor notes that the manacles are to be removed at night. They were also removed at meal times.
On July 20th the governor notes that O’Donovan Rossa, finally released from his manacles, is to be put on a month’s punishment diet and after that to be put in a specially prepared cell with everything removable taken out. For the months that followed O’Donovan Rossa was constantly being punished for removing the mortar from between the bricks in his cell. He spent hours in the “dark cell” as his own cell was repaired.
The following year he managed to get a letter to his wife describing his treatment in gaol. The records on Findmypast also record Home Office letters to Mrs O’Donovan Rossa assuring her that her husband is in good health and also a letter organising for investigators to go to Chatham and Portland prisons to take statements from the fenians. O’Donovan Rossa’s letter had appeared in the press and there was an outcry in Ireland.
The inquiry led to O’Donovan Rossa’s release, in 1871. He went to America, making his home in New York, where he joined Clan na Gael and the Fenian Brotherhood. He went on to organise the first Irish bombing campaign in England becoming infamous by the 1880s. The British tried to get him extradited from America but were unsuccessful.
O’Donovan Rossa’s story is not the only Irish story to be found in the new crime records on Findmypast. The close links and complex history between the two countries are spread through the records making this an exciting genealogical source for anyone with Irish roots.
For more stories on tracing your Irish heritage from Findmypast click here.