Tony Tracy takes a look at Williams Rossa Cole’s documentary Rebel Rossa, which unearths the legacy of his great grandfather Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, one of the most controversial figures in Irish history. Rebel Rossa screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
One of the most surprising and, no doubt, lasting elements of Ireland’s 1916 commemorations was the recovery of so many of the human stories of the Rising: the children who died, the previously overlooked testimonies and involvement of women and ‘forgotten’ relatives and the fleshing out of heroes whose names and contribution had become calcified by a century of post-colonial history books and partisan politics. Across a range of media and formats this work of reclamation was – and continues to be – carried out by a refreshingly eclectic group of both part-time and professional historians of different genders, political hues and methods. For many, it was this human connection, rather than any grand political or historical narrative that gave the centenary resonance and ensured that its participants and their choices will continue to be remembered and valued in our collective history.
It’s therefore difficult, from this vantage point, to recall that just six months before the centenary commemorations began, there was still considerable political ambivalence around how the Rising and the manner in which its key figures would be commemorated. It is perhaps therefore appropriate that, as 2016 draws to a close, this element of contested memory is what comes across most forcefully from Williams Rossa Cole’s documentary on Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
Belying his atypical name, New York nous and movie-star looks, the charismatic Cole is O’Donovan Rossa’s great grandson – or one of them anyway – and grew up with a proud and loving Irish-American father who brought his sons on several occasions to see the birthplace and the west-Cork landmarks associated with their famous great grandfather. We see some of these visits in family photos and home movies but in one touching piece of footage (which greatly enriches the visual texture of the film), Williams’ elderly and fading father cannot remember having taken his son to Ireland, even though he can still clearly remember an Irish ballad. It is both a personal and emblematic scene in a narrative about memory. Despite such visits and the fact that he has an archive of material relating to ‘the old Fenian’ stashed in his home office, Cole admits that he and his brother Rossa Williams Cole (who acts as cameraman and Co-Producer) never quite grasped the full story and significance of their ancestor.
In another vividly personal expression of the selective nature of historical memory, while he recalls two images of O’Dononvan Rossa in the family home – one the widely circulated respectable portrait and the other a Puck cartoon by the unreconstructed racist Frederick Opper showing the Fenian in exile dropping bombs on England and entitled ‘Gorilla Warfare’ – he has never fully reflected on the meaning of this second image, nor was it discussed. And so, aware that the centenary of his great grandfather’s return to Ireland for burial is approaching and spurred on by an ‘angel’ investor, he sets off on a modestly funded mission to discover who this man was and what his relevance to the 1916 commemorations might be.
While it seems odd that a documentary filmmaker like Cole (‘a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics and a founder of the Brooklyn Rail’ his website tells us) never got around to more fully exploring the archive of O’Donovan Rossa material which languishes unsorted in his home office, his timing could not be better. With a limited budget and a packed schedule he and his brother travel to Ireland to encounter a variety of individuals, organisations and events which illuminate their great grandfather’s legacy.
First is Sinn Fein in Dublin, who have elaborate and detailed plans for the upcoming centenary commemoration (they even have O’D R’s image on their current membership card as well as – strangely – a man dressed up the uniform of a 1916 volunteer hanging around their offices). PR man Bartle D’Arcy tells the Coles that they will be central to the event.
Next to the North of Ireland and an encounter with a small group of unreconstructed republican militants at the incredible ‘secret Irish Republican Museum’ in South Armagh, and a former hunger striker who movingly sings a ballad from memory and explains that it was the spirit of O’Donovan Rossa that inspired republican prisoners in their darkest days. Strong stuff. Hard-line republicanism is rarely seen or heard in post-peace process Ireland and the brother’s unique status as outsiders and insiders is crucial to allowing these uncomfortable ideas to be heard.
There are other meetings with various local historians from Cork and Skibereen as well as several professional historians – most notably O’Donovan Rossa’s biographer Dr Shane Kenna – who provide detail and commentary on his life. Kenna is the film’s key historical consultant and talking-head and while his long contribution somewhat interrupts and unbalances the flow of the film, his commentary is so authoritative and passionate that it’s easy to see why he is given such prominence.
The trip culminates with the August 1st 2015 re-enactment of O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral – the transport of the coffin to Glasnevin cemetery through the packed streets of Dublin and the rousing oration of Padraig Pearse that is often identified as setting in train the events leading to the Rising. Here the Cole brothers are transformed from curious outsiders to talismanic descendants of a prime force in Irish independence. Accepting their role while retaining a bemused critical distance, they suit-up and chat and smile for the many photographs at City Hall before leading the Sinn Fein cortège (walking in front of SF honchos McGuinness and Adams) to Glasnevin, where they are publicly acknowledged and applauded. A deep honour and an unquestionably moving ‘homecoming’ for the New Yorkers and if they were in any doubt as to the depth of feeling and significance their great-grandfather has retained, then it is surely dispelled at this point.
Yet something more complex emerges as we see them next participating in the official Irish government commemoration, attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins. Here, no doubt sensitive to Anglo-Irish diplomacy and the always delicate peace process, the event is all pomp and circumstance, the boys are kept in the background and the official speeches play down O’Donovan Rossa’s commitment to Irish freedom by whatever means necessary – to the undisguised disgust of Shane Kenna. The film reverses the order of these events – the Irish government one was in the morning (and launched the 1916 centenary commemorations) while Sinn Fein’s took place in the afternoon. The SF event is given precedence in terms of chronology but also therefore authenticity but the contrast between the two remains striking and thought provoking.
There then follows a series of smaller commemorations by various factions and organisations until the genial brothers, who are photographed hundreds of times by the graveside, relieved to be done, sit exausted by the Glasnevin graveside. Not quite: to their surprise, a politically neutral parade takes place the next day, now celebrating O’Donovan Rossa’s internationalism and concern with the working man. In this, at times, uneven film, this multi-vocal claiming of their famous ancestor is what gives the Cole’s odyssey real punch and offers a mirror on the competing values of Irishness a century after Pearse’s call to arms.
Made on a very limited budget and finished just in time for the Fleadh (the screened copy still in need of a few editing tweeks and a final colour-grade) Rebel Rossa was warmly received and produced a lively Q&A. While one longed for a greater sense of the historical man rather than the man of history (I discovered afterwards that he was married three times and had 18 children) and for more of that unsorted archival material to feature in the visuals and perhaps guide the narrative, the film is held together by Williams’ charisma and good-natured openness to contemporary Ireland and its complex relationship to 1916, particularly in relation to violence.
In the mixing of personal and the public memory, not to mention its value in documenting the plethora of commemorations, this modest but impressive film marks a worthy contribution to the centenary commemorations and demonstrates that history – particularly for the Irish – remains an open book.
Rebel Rossa screened on Thursday, 7th July 2016 as part of the Galway Film Fleadh.