On The Edge
SHE may have signed herself as Mrs William O’Brien on the cover of her book, ‘Under Croagh Patrick’, but it is easy to surmise that Sophie Raffalovich was very much her own woman.
I first tripped across her whilst writing about the inimitable Widow Sammon for The Mayo News’s ‘Unsung Heroes’ series. Raffalovich devotes a chapter in her 1904 book to the doughty widow’s 20-year campaign fighting her eviction from her small holding in Carrowkennedy in 1896 and its takeover by a so-called ‘grabber’.
The tiny widow certainly made his life a misery as she was repeatedly jailed whilst her case became a cause celebré, most likely because of a letter written by William O’Brien to the Freeman’s Journal.
Quite clearly Sophie had a huge influence on her husband, who was a renowned politician, a friend of Parnell and Davitt, a campaigning journalist and activist for the disenfranchised and rural destitute. Indeed, one can easily surmise that she was there when the United Irish League was founded in their Westport home in 1898.
But back to her moving memoir set in Co Mayo during their time living at Mallow Cottage, on the edge of Clew Bay. Take this excerpt from ‘Under Croagh Patrick’, it surely confirms her political radicalism and convictions.
“To understand the hated name of the grabber, I must ask the reader to realise the agrarian situation of Ireland, and to remember the evil is at its worst in Connaught, and above all in what are called the Congested Districts. Owing to arbitrary law and old tyranny, the rural population is pushed back on very small patches and has to manage to live on the poorest of poor land. It is like living in a perpetual siege under martial law….”
BORN into a prosperous Jewish banking family in the Black Sea port of Odessa in 1860 but raised in France from the age of four, Raffalovich’s journey to Irish nationalism is a fascinating one.
Always aware of her privileged upbringing, she studied political economy and held literary salons in London where she met Lady Gregory and, undoubtedly, other members of the fermenting Celtic cultural revival. During this exciting period it ignited a new-found confidence in the move towards freedom from the coloniser.
Interestingly, her romance and marriage to O’Brien was undoubtedly influenced by her mother, Marie’s republicanism. News of his highly publicised arrests would whet their interest in Ireland and they began corresponding with ‘l’Aiglon’ – the eaglet – as he was known in France.
Sophie finally met him for the first time in Paris in 1889: she was 29 and he was 37. Tellingly, she was the one who took the lead regarding their engagement after a short courtship. This was a major turning point in his career, as her independent wealth would give him the flexibility to become more politically independent and establish his own newspapers.
Having converted to Catholicism, the couple married in 1890. She never abandoned her Jewish identity, however, and was often the victim of anti-Semitism after she moved to Ireland.
During their time in Westport, it is clear that she worked alongside her husband in supporting those communities impoverished from repeated famine.
Indeed, she devotes another chapter of ‘Under Croagh Patrick’ to the plight of another widow, a Mrs Kitterick, who often walked barefoot the eight miles to Mallow Cottage to seek their help.
“How many times the poor barefooted creature walked that great distance, in all weathers, either to ask my husband’s advice, or to tell me some new fear that was troubling her,” Raffalovich writes.
Whilst the O’Briens ultimately moved back to his native Mallow, Co Cork, Sophie would continue her life of supporting the poor and disenfranchised. She outlived her famous husband by 32 years and died in relative poverty in Soissons, in northern France in 1960. Appropriately, she was awarded a Doctor of Letter in 1938 by the National University of Ireland for the work she did on her husband’s papers after his death.
But like so many women of that period, and indeed throughout history, the patriarchal dominance of the narrative has ensured her rich contributions to our society have been eclipsed.