This photo of the West Cork Hotel beside the Ilen River, Skibbereen (courtesy of the NLI Lawrence Collection) captures a moment in time. It was taken in the very early 20th century – probably before 1910. Clearly seen are the hotel itself – opened in 1902 – the old iron road bridge which was superseded in 1964, and the railway bridge behind it carrying the line to Baltimore (which was opened in May 1893). That bridge still exists, of course, although the line closed in 1961. To the right of the photo is the Old Steam Mill, originally constructed as a flour mill by Thomas Marmion in the 1830s. This building stands on Steam Mill Quay.
The Irish name for this town, an Sciobairín, is said to mean a small inlet for docking boats. Steam Mill Quay is the first of five quays which served the town, suggesting a period when the river itself (tidal to just north of the town) was the life blood of the community:
. . . Skibbereen was a settlement served by water. The River Ilen is tidal and in the early 19th century boats of up to 200 tons could navigate to Oldcourt, within two miles of the town centre. From there goods were transferred into ‘lighters’ (unpowered barges) and then brought into the quays where there were warehouses and a Custom House. Now, sadly, Skibbereen’s waterfront is a bit neglected and its active past shipping history is no longer obvious. Five historic quays have been identified along the river: Steam Mill Quay, Long Quay, Levis Quay, Minihane’s Quay and Chapel Quay . . .Roaringwater Journal
Here is the Custom House – now a private residence on Townshend Street. The first edition of the OS map (above the photo) marks the location. It’s a fine building, clearly of some standing, with its decorative niches and curved fanlight. The existence of this building in the town emphasises the historic significance of importation and trading of commodities, probably primarily by water transport, to Skibbereen when it was operating. I was surprised to find that Hansard – the official record of the actions of the British Parliament – has one entry pertaining to the Skibbereen Custom House. From it we learn that its business was transferred to Bantry in 1890, and that this was a cause of concern to some of the townspeople and local fishermen:
. . . DR KENNY (Cork, S) I beg to ask the Secretary to the Treasury whether he is aware that owing to the transference of the Custom House from Skibbereen to Bantry very great inconvenience and injury are caused to the Baltimore fishing industry; whether, according to existing Customs arrangements in Skibbereen. the Deputy Officer of Customs in that town is unable to give permission for the discharge of cargoes of ice absolutely essential for the preservation of the fish caught by the Baltimore fishermen, and also that it is impossible for him to obtain permission by telegraph from Bantry to do so, and whether, in consequence, steamers for conveying the fish have to wait at Baltimore the arrival from Bantry, 24 miles distant, of the Superintendent of Customs; and whether he will take steps to have abated the inconvenience complained of, by restoring the Custom House to the Skibbereen district?Hansard record of Commons Sitting 08 May 1890 § 469
There is a further record giving the response by the then Secretary to the Treasury: it lacks sympathy!
. . . Mr. JACKSON (Leeds, N) I am informed that it is not the fact that very great inconvenience and injury have been caused to the Baltimore fishing industry through the transference of the principal Customs Offices for the Port of Skibbereen from Skibbereen to Bantry. The Board of Customs have ascertained that no delay has been caused by this change in the discharge of any vessels, nor need any delay or inconvenience be occasioned thereby, as the Officer of Customs still stationed at Skibbereen is now empowered to deal with any Customs business, there or at Baltimore, that may require attention, under exactly the same conditions as were in force previous to the change referred to. No occasion has, therefore, arisen for making any alterations in the. present arrangements . . .Hansard record of Commons Sitting 08 May 1890 § 470
Here’s a distant view of Skibbereen from the west, probably taken in the early 20th century (courtesy of the NLI Lawrence Collection). On the left, the roadway (today’s N71 going from the town towards Ballydehob) has the track of the Schull railway (or – more properly – ‘tramway’) on its verge. The old bridge into town and the West Cork Hotel are visible, as they are in the header picture. What is noticeable is that there is no sign of any navigation of the Ilen River. I have looked carefully through over 200 early photographs of the town and it is the case that none shows any river craft. Hence my title today (and I apologise for taking a long time to get to this) The Elusive Lighters. We have no detailed records of any boats that used the river, and the quays, except that they were shallow-drafted unpowered barges. The term ‘lighters’ usually refers to ‘dumb’ boats (unpowered) used to offload cargoes from ships and transfer these to quays further inland. How were the Ilen boats built, and what did they look like?
Here’s a guess – something I found in an old engraving (not from anywhere in West Cork). The boat is being ‘poled’ or swept along by a figure with a large oar, while a ‘steerer’ handles the helm. It would almost certainly have been built from timber. After a coaster, steamer or sailing ship arrived and moored at Oldcourt, the cargo would have been offloaded to the lighter, which would have to await a rising tide before setting out for Skibbereen. The return journey would have to be carried out when the tide was falling.
It would be great to find the remains of such a boat on the Ilen, but very little would survive of a working craft dating back over a century and a half. The wreck above is on the River Barrow Navigation at Lowtown. Here’s another old wooden boat which lay beside the tidal Ilen itself a few years ago: it may still be there!
While my nostalgic soul would like to think that some trace might remain of the old Ilen boats and the quays that they served, I know that is unlikely. River traffic on the tidal Ilen would have been in its hey-day in the early part of the 19th century and would have been affected by the sufferings of the Great Famine which heavily hit Skibbereen. After some recovery, the arrival of the railway line from Cork in 1877 ensured that river trade could no longer survive: it’s ironic, perhaps, that the first locomotive on the Skibbereen to Schull tramway was named Ilen.
This post is the latest of a series that studies the full length and history of the Ilen River. Previous posts can be found here: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4 : Sweet Ilen – Part 5 : Sweet Ilen – Part 6 : Sweet Ilen – Part 7. Volume 18 of the Skibbereen Historical Journal (2022) includes an article Sweet Ilen – the story of a river: Part 1 – Source to Tide penned by myself. This is to be joined by a second part in this year’s Journal. Look out for it!
Here’s a link to the ever fascinating Skibb Historical Society, while the Journals can be purchased through this link.
Swanton’s Store on Levis Quay, Skibbereen a few years ago. Many thanks to the Skibbereen Heritage Centre for this image