The Archivist’s Nook: Irish Love Letters from English Prisons

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (center). From the Fenian Brotherhood Records and O’Donovan Rossa Personal Papers.

“Moll my Love, why don’t you write to me every day? You know it pleases me to get your letters. Did you know the desire I used to have to hear from you before we were married, and did you know how little that desire has weakened you would write to me every day. After these times are passed it is possible they may leave us unable to write to each other.”

So wrote Irish Fenian leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa to his wife Mary Jane (“Moll” to him) while confined in an English prison. O’Donovan Rossa and several other Fenian leaders – including James Stephens, John O’Leary, and  Thomas Clarke Luby – were arrested by the British government and charged with treason in 1865. Their poor treatment while imprisoned was immortalized in his book “O’Donovan Rossa’s Prison Life: Six Years in Six English Prisons” in 1874.

Mary Jane and O’Donovan Rossa were married only a year when he was arrested, and their first child together was born 7 months afterwards. O’Donovan Rossa was by no means a model prisoner, and often lost letter and visiting privileges as a result. Mary Jane and their infant son were not permitted to visit until almost a year after the arrest, when little James was three months old. She sent a photograph of herself and the baby, which O’Donovan Rossa never received. After it was returned to her with a note explaining photographs were not permitted, she composed a poem:

Letter excerpt. Richmond Prison, September 25, 1865. From the Fenian Brotherhood Records and O’Donovan Rossa Personal Papers.

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

Here at the American Catholic Research Center and University Archives, the prison letters of O’Donovan Rossa to Mary Jane are full of longing and love, but also share details of his case and plans for her future. In a letter dated September 25, 1865, O’Donovan Rossa encouraged his wife to pawn his watch and chain to  fund her passage to America. She did, and made something of a sensation on a speaking tour describing the suffering of the Fenian prisoners and reading her nationalist poetry.

August 9, 1870, O’Donovan Rossa wrote a letter laying out his plan to give evidence before the Commission looking into his case. As he worried Mary Jane would not approve of this decision, he explained “I would not leave it in the gentlemen’s power to say that any refusal to give evidence was proof that the statements could not be substantiated.” Both Rossa and his wife had lost much of their hope that he would be released; as he wrote “I am really pleased Moll that you are so strong, that that sickness of expectation + hope deferred is left you, and that you have made up your mind for the worst, for it is only thus that you can act for the best.”

However, in 1870, O’Donovan Rossa and many other Fenians were pardoned with the understanding they could not return to England or Ireland for the remainder of their sentences. In a letter of December 28, 1870, before he knew exactly when he would be released, O’Donovan Rossa wrote one last tender note to his wife:

“I wish that these lines may find you well. Settle down for a few days or it may be a few weeks, but settle so to be ready to start up immediately, since you are willing to remarry one who has nothing to offer you but increased love.”

Jeremiah and Mary Jane “Moll” O’Donovan Rossa would go on to America together and had a total of thirteen children. Their descendants still live in the United States today.

Per the instructions, “The Convict’s writing to be confined to the ruled lines of these two pages,” but O’Donovan Rossa was often in trouble for writing too small and too much on his allocated prison paper. From the Fenian Brotherhood Records and O’Donovan Rossa Personal Papers.
Mary Jane O’Donovan Rossa. From Fáilte Romhat.

 

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