Periodically, Ireland has suffered from
famine since potatoes became the staple food of the country, about 1700. For
instance, in 1740/41 there was a bad famine and 400,000 people perished. Again,
in 1822 the potato crop failed owing to bad weather, and though there was plenty
of grain in the country, because of bad distribution, Skibbereen, in May 1822
was reported to be in a state of distress "horrible beyond description". Typhus
and dysentery followed and there were many deaths.
But the famine of 1846/47 has made a deeper impression on us than any of the
earlier ones, partly, no doubt, because the older citizens of today knew and
conversed with people who had lived through that terrible time and, furthermore,
the Skibbereen district was one of the most severely stricken regions in
Oh father dear, I oft-times hear
You speak of Erin's isle
Her lofty hills, her valleys green,
Her mountains rude and wild
They say she is a lovely land
Wherein a saint might dwell
So why did you abandon her,
The reason to me tell.
Oh son, I loved my native land
With energy and pride
Till a blight came o'er the praties;
My sheep, my cattle died
My rent and taxes went unpaid,
I could not them redeem
And that's the cruel reason
Why I left old Skibereen.
Oh well do I remember
That bleak December day
The landlord and the sheriff came
To take us all away
They set my roof on fire
With their cursed English spleen
I heaved a sigh and bade goodbye
To dear old Skibereen.
Your mother to, God rest her soul,
Fell on the stony ground
She fainted in her anguish
Seeing desolation 'round
She never rose but passed away
From life to immortal dream
She found a quiet grave, me boy,
In dear old Skibereen.
And you were only two years old
And feeble was your frame
I could not leave you with my friends
For you bore your father's name
I wrapped you in my cóta mór
In the dead of night unseen
I heaved a sigh and bade goodbye
To dear old Skibereen.
Oh father dear, the day will come
When in answer to the call
All Irish men of freedom stern
Will rally one and all
I'll be the man to lead the band
Beneath the flag of green
And loud and clear we'll raise the cheer,
Revenge for Skibereen!
Lewis's Topographical Dictionary - 1842
SKIBBEREEN, a market and post-town, partly in the parish of ABBEYSTROWRY, but
chiefly in that of CREAGH, Eastern Division of the barony of WEST CARBERY,
county of CORK, and province of MUNSTER, 42 miles (S. W.) from Cork, on the mail
road to Bantry, and 167¼ (S. W.) from Dublin; containing 4429 inhabitants. In
1691, an engagement took place in the vicinity between the forces of Jas. II.
and Col. Becher, who commanded about 500 of the militia, when the former were
put to flight, with the loss of 60 men and a large number of cattle. Three years
afterwards, a party of 40 rapparees came into the town and plundered the custom
house, which belonged to the port of Baltimore, and killed two revenue officers.
The town, from its situation in a wlid unclenclosed part of the country, has
frequently been the rendezvous of disaffected parties, but it has been much
improved of late years, and is now a very flourishing place. It is situated on
the southern bank of the river Ilen, and comprises seven streets; that part
which extends into the parish of Abbeystrowry is called Brdigetown, and consists
of three streets, one of which has been recently formed. The number of houses in
the whole town is 1014, many of which, in the eastern part and in the parish of
Creagh, are large and well built; the approaches have been much improved by the
formation of new lines of road at each extremity.
This place had formerly a very considerable trade, arising from the manufacture
of woollen cloth, linen, checks, and handkerchiefs, which has altogether
declined; it is, however, very advantageously situated for trade, in an
extensive and improving district; the tide from the harbour of Baltimore flows
up to the town, and the river is navigable for vessels of 200 tons' burden to
Oldcourt, two miles below Skibbereen. In the town are capacious storehouses for
corn, and a considerable quantity of flour is also exported from the mills of
Mr. J. Clark, on the bank of the Ilen, a quarter of a mile from the town. A
porter brewery upon an extensive scale was established in 1809; it is the
property of Daniel McCarthy, Esq., and is in full operation, many of the
neighbouring towns being supplied from the establishment. The market days are
Wednesday and Saturday, the former for the Bridgetown portion, and the latter,
which is the principal market for Staplestown. Milk and fuel are also exposed
daily in the market-place for sale. The supply of provisions is very abundant,
particularly fish and poultry; pigs and sheep are also sold in great numbers.
The market-place being small, and the market house old and inconvenient, the
articles brought for sale on the regular market days are exposed in the public
streets and in a place called the square. Fairs are held on May 14th, July 10th,
Aug. 2nd, Oct. 12th, and Dec. 11th and 23rd; and petty sessions on Wednesdays.
The sessions-house and bridewell is a large and handsome building in the Grecian
style, occupying an elevated site near the entrance to the town from Cork. There
is also an infantry barrack; and Skibbereen is the residence of the inspecting
commander of the coast guard stations of the district, of which it is the head:
comprising those of Milkcove, Glandore, Castle-Townsend, Barlogue, Baltimore,
Long Island, Crookhaven, Dunmanus and Whithorse, and extending from Sheep Head
The parochial church of Abbeystrowry is situated in Bridgetown; it is a large
edifice in the early English style with a tower at the east end, erected in
1827, at an expense of £1200, towards which £900 was contributed by the late
Board of First Fruits. The R. C. chapel, situated near the sessions-house, is a
spacious and handsome edifice in the Grecian style, erected in 1826, at an
expense of £3000: the interior is fitted up with great taste, and the altar,
which is onramented with a painting of the Crucifixion, is very chaste; it was
built under the direction of the late Dr. Collins, R. C. Bishop of Ross, who
resided here, and is the principal chapel of the union to which Skibbereen give
name. There is also a Wesleyan Methodist chapel, a small but neat edifice.
Parochial schools for boys and girls were erected near the church, in 1825, by
the vicar; and an infants' school was built in 1835. There is also a Sunday
school under the care of the Protestant clergyman. Near the R. C. chapel are
large school-houses built by the late Dr. Collins, which are supported by the
National Board. A dispensary is maintained in the customary manner. There are
numerous large and handsome houses near the town, the principal of which are
noticed in the description of Abbeystrowry.
Skibbereen is the center of West Cork and it is an ideal base from which to
delight that the area has to offer. But Skibbereen - the town - has more to
offer. it also has Good accommodation whether your staying in hotels or camping.
Skibbereen: The Breach of Promise
When Donal O‘Driscoll and a
matchmaker named Collins called on the Widow O’Donovan in October 1913, they
surely, not even for a second, felt that their visit would eventually lead to a
trip to the County Court in Cork City. Such are the ways of true love.
Hannah O’Donovan had only recently buried her husband of thirty years. She had
married at the age of seventeen and was the mother of two sons and two
daughters. The daughters had emigrated, one to Canada and the other to London
where she worked as a waitress in White’s Club. The two sons lived locally.
Hannah now lived on her own and tried to make ends meet by working whenever she
Daniel O’Driscoll was a widower who lived on the other side of town. His powers
of recollection seemed to be very poor in some areas. He claimed that he was
sixty years old, sometimes he claimed to be sixty five, but when he stood in the
witness-box he admitted to being seventy four.
Neither did he seem to be too sure about the number of love letters which he had
written to the love of his life, Hannah. His memory also seemed to have failed
him when he was asked to recall how much drink he had taken on the day on which
the economics of the marriage had been settled. O’Driscoll was not sure whether
he had five or six cows. He did however have fifteen acres of land and had £100
in the bank or “somewhere”.
After the initial meeting in October, marriage negotiations got under way. They
continued through November, December and January. The widow had two very
definite ideas. She would not marry until her husband was a year dead and she
felt that O’Driscoll’s farm should be hers on his death.
O’Driscoll reluctantly agreed to the first condition. Negotiations on the second
proposal were carried out in the snugs and back rooms of various Skibbereen pubs
throughout the long winter months. The matchmaker, Collins, attended all
sessions and many were the glasses of porter and port consumed.
O’Driscoll’s opening offer was a settlement of £100. This was refused and the
Widow O’Donovan walked out. All was not lost however and at a later meeting
O’Driscoll upped his offer. He was now willing to sign over half his farm and
she was willing to accept. The agreement was signed. However, when the local
solicitor, P. J. Collins, was consulted, it was discovered that the Land
Commission would not agree to a sub-division of the lands. The lovers, the
matchmaker and their respective followers were at this stage celebrating the
forthcoming marriage and the whiskey had been produced. When an amended
agreement giving the whole farm to the widow was brought from the solicitor’s
office and placed before O’Driscoll he signed it readily. Furthermore, he went
into O’Shea’s drapery shop and bought the makings of a wedding dress for his
loved one and he also treated himself to a wedding coat.
He soon began to have regrets and so the matter came before the County Court in
Cork. It was a real ‘kiss and tell’ affair. The love letters were read out to
the court. They were pure white hot passion:
“Meet me in town, fair day Tuesday,
in Tobin’s. Hope you are well. – Donal O’Driscoll.”
The next letter was even more
“Town, Saturday. Will be there. Hope
you are well. – Donal O’Driscoll.”
The widow had to admit that the dress
she wore to court was the wedding dress. There was much confusion as to who had
bought drink and who drank drink on the day of the ‘sinnings’.
The defendant, O’Driscoll, was sure he was drunk on the day and that was why he
was not proceeding with the marriage. He also felt that she had lied about her
age and he had since heard that she had given her first husband a hard time. All
his efforts were in vain and the accounts of his witnesses were in sharp
contrast to those of the Widow O’Donovan.
When the final decision of the court was handed down, O’Driscoll still had his
farm and his five or six cows, but now he had less money in the bank or
The Widow O’Donovan had won her ‘breach of promise’ case, she had a new dress
and she was £50 better off.
©: Patrick Cleary, Skibbereen, joint
author (with Philip O’Regan) of the famine history
Dear Old Skibbereen.
The Green Dragon No 7,Summer, 1998.