The Fenian and Irish Republican Brotherhood leader, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915) holds a prominent position in the pantheon of Irish republican and nationalist leaders. Most known for his efforts on behalf of the Irish Republic along with John Devoy and others during his time in the United States, as well as involvement in the ‘dynamite campaign’ by Irish republicans in English cities during the 1880s, relatively little is known about his strong connections with Kerry, and particularly, Milltown.
O’Donovan Rossa was married three times. His first wife, Honora (Nano) Eager, who was described as ‘a young girl of outstanding beauty and grace’ was born in the ‘charming old-world village of Milltown, not far from the banks of the Laune.’ A daughter of Alexander (Sandy) Eager of Ivy Lodge, Milltown, she was a member of a family who traced their ancestry to Scotland. Alexander owned a farm and a ‘jingle house’ or coaching establishment in the village. The family home, which is no longer extant, was located near the present site of the Mid-Kerry Co-Op mart.
In December 1955, Seán Ó Luing penned an extensive article for The Kerryman in which he described O’Donovan Rossa’s connections with mid-Kerry. The west Cork man was, at that time:
‘twenty-two years of age, handsome, tall, athletic and powerfully built. He became engaged to the gentle, graceful cailín from Milltown and in June 1853 they were married in Skibbereen. And so it came about that Rossa was a frequent visitor to the Eager residence at Ivy Lodge, Milltown. Although his views on Irish national question were strong and uncompromising to a degree, and by no means in accord with the conservative opinions of the Eagers, nevertheless his attractive personality made such an impression on his people-in-law that the young rebel became a favourite with all the Eager family.’
The couple moved to and lived in Skibbereen where they ran a shop. In Ó Luing’s account, an incident during one of the couple’s return trips to Kerry had a profound impact on O’Donovan Rossa. While at the Killarney Races, he had read an account in The Nation newspaper of the departure of Young Irelander Charles Gavan Duffy’s for Australia in despair at the political situation in Ireland. That night at Ivy Lodge, ‘in a mood of depression’ O’Donovan Rossa wrote a diatribe on the state of affairs in his country which politicised him even further.
Following his arrest in December 1858, Nano was left to rear their four young children alone and the family business was ruined. A legal dispute forced Nano and the children from their home. O’Donovan Rossa was released from jail in 1859 but Nano, already in poor health, died a short time later. She left her husband ‘a man laden with the sorrow of death and irreparable loss.’