West Cork Villages and Towns – Skibbereen

It was an ‘odd’ Olympic year – 2021. Firmly etched in my mind is the knowledge that years in which Olympic Games are held – like leap years – are divisible by 4! This one was different, because of Covid. But that didn’t prevent Ireland producing its heroes: gold for rowing and boxing, and bronze, also for rowing and boxing: a total of 8 sports heroes bringing medals home. If you will forgive the pun, the small country of Ireland punched well above its weight! All the rowers trained at the Skibbereen Rowing Club in West Cork, under the expert eye of their coach Dominic Casey. No surprise, then, that the town was in celebratory mood for weeks after the event, as you can see from many of my photographs, taken around the town at the end of August.

The town, from its situation in a wild, unenclosed 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 Bridgetown, 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 . . .

LEWIS TOPOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IRELAND 1837

It’s interesting that Lewis – in 1837 – describes the number of houses as just over a thousand. He also states elsewhere that there were 4,429 inhabitants in 1691: in the 2011 census the town recorded a population of 2,568.

The first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6″ map was produced around 1840, just after the Lewis Topographical Dictionary was published. From the extract above, the layout of the town we know today had been broadly established by then. Compare this to today’s OS map (below) and the annotated aerial view.

There are a few theories as to the earliest origins of the town. Oft quoted is the story of the survivors from the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates in 1631 having moved upriver to found, or expand, the settlement that is now Skibbereen. It is likely that there was already a community on this part of the river, which was tidal and probably easily navigable up to its sheltered reaches at this point: at one time there were no less than five quays, warehouses and a Customs House within the town – this post will tell you more.

Skibbereen today is defined by its river – as it always has been. The waterside deserves a bit more attention – and is being opened up a little in some of the new civic improvement schemes that have been enabled by major flood relief works in the town. There are many opportunities yet to be explored.

All towns evolve and, hopefully, move into the future: Skibbereen – we’ll be keeping an eye on you! But it’s a great town already: it has the busiest market in West Cork on a Saturday; lively shopping streets; easy (and free) parking – and a very healthy ‘pavement cafe’ culture that has grown up during the pandemic, and is likely to continue to flourish. Let’s walk the streets and see the town as its best in the late summer sunshine . . .

Here at Roaringwater Journal we will always sing the praises of this town, and it has been the subject of a good deal of our historical research and writing. Have a look at our posts on Agnes Clerke, Ireland’s first and foremost female astronomer;  Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, the famed nationalist and Fenian: Uillinn – one of Ireland’s most innovative art galleries – here, here and here. We also must not forget that Skibbereen was at one time an important part of Ireland’s railway network: you could travel to and from Cork and Baltimore, and it was a terminus for the narrow gauge railway that trundled off to Schull, and whose loss is now much mourned.

I hope my post inspires you to explore this prominent West Cork town, if you haven’t already done so. It has historic foundations – too numerous to list in this one, short article. Choose a sunny afternoon – or go there to shelter from the infrequent showers. Whatever the day, make the Skibbereen Heritage Centre your starting point: you will find a wealth of information which will help to guide you on your way. The building itself is a piece of history: it used to be Skibbereen’s gas works!

The town name was familiar to me long before I settled in Ireland a decade ago. I lived in the fishing village of Newlyn, Cornwall, for many years and got to know the history of the artists’ colony in West Penwith, centred on that town and St Ives. One artist – Stanhope Alexander Forbes – was known as ‘The Father of the Newlyn School of Artists’ – he was Irish born, and lived from 1857 to 1947. I vividly remember one of his works, displayed in the Penlee Gallery in Penzance. It shows fishermen leaving Newlyn to follow the shoals of herring and pilchards to the waters of Roaringwater Bay. The title of that picture? Goodbye – Off To Skibbereen!

Previous posts in this series:

Bantry

Schull

Ellen Hutchins: The Short and Remarkable Life of Ireland’s First Female Botanist

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original.

Ballylickey House, Home of Ellen Hutchins. Although the house burned down, it was rebuilt exactly as the original

In West Cork, we have been celebrating the short but extraordinary life of Ellen Hutchins who died 200 years ago this year. Acknowledged in her lifetime as one of the most knowledgeable and accomplished botanists in the British Isles, she contributed specimens and drawings to the great collections in Glasnevin and Kew and kept up a lively and learned correspondence with some of the leading botanical scientists of the day. When she died, aged only 29, her name had already been memorialised: several plant specimens bore the title hutchinsia.

Looks and character

It’s been a fantastic week of lectures, guided walks, exhibitions and demonstrations. Jointly organised by the Bantry Historical Society, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Hutchins family, the week has been a marvellous success, with all the events well attended and everyone eager to learn more about Ellen. For a program of what was available, take a look at the excellent Ellen Hutchins website and the Facebook page.

Dublin Botanic Gardens

While many of Ellen’s specimens ended up in Kew Gardens, some went to what has become the Dublin Botanical Gardens

The website contains biographical data about Ellen, her accomplishments, her family and her place in the scientific community, and a links and resources section leading to much more information. Ellen Hutchins was born in Ballylickey, near Bantry, in 1785 and spent most of her life there. During schooldays in Dublin she lived with family friend Dr Whitley Stokes who introduced her to the discipline of botanizing. She became an avid and scholarly collector of plants and seaweed, annotating, sorting and cataloguing as she went, and an expert illustrator of marine and terrestrial specimens.

Ellen identified new species of seaweeds on the shores around Bantry Bay

She roamed freely around the shores of Bantry Bay and took her family’s boat out to Whiddy Island. She also climbed (we’re not sure how) to the top of Knockboy, the highest mountain in Cork at 700m, identifying new species of plants right at the top. We followed her footsteps last weekend, led by Wildlife Officer Clare Heardman of Glengarriff Nature Reserve, botanist Rory Hodd, writer Kevin Corcoran, and Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece of Ellen, who has been uncovering all kinds of new material on her ancestor.

group botany

What a day we had! It was warm and dry until we got to the top, where we were subjected to a hailstorm for form’s sake before the sun re-emerged. It was an insight into what gets botanists excited – tiny plants, apparently, with subtle variations from other tiny plants.

We were in awe of the knowledge on display, and the boundless enthusiasm of all the plant experts in the group. The highlights for them were finding some of the species that bore Ellen’s name, although Rory and Clare were particularly pleased to find a dwarf willow at the summit that had originally been identified by Ellen over 200 years ago. Along the way, we also learned a lot about the characteristics of that kind of high mountain environment, with its burden of boggy moss and highly acidic environment.

Kevin Corcoran demonstrated the properties of sphagnum moss, and showed us how soft the bog underneath us was, by probing with his staff

Knockboy descent

We felt on top of the world on Knockboy. We drove up to Priest’s Leap and only climbed the final 300m.  But how did Ellen get up there, with her long skirts and her intermittent poor health?

In Bantry House we viewed Ellen’s drawings, beautifully framed and presented and on loan from their permanent homes in Kew Gardens, Trinity College, Dublin and elsewhere. Her drawings were used by other botanists to illustrate books and were considered to be superior in their exactitude.

The Bantry Library hosted an exhibition about her life. This was curated by Madeline Hutchins and here we came closer to appreciating the woman herself, of whom no portrait exists. We learned, through her letters, of the struggles of a home life dominated by an ailing mother, a disabled younger brother and two bitterly feuding older brothers. She suffered from intermittent ill health, which often prevented her from collecting, but when she was strong her delight in her outdoors pursuits was palpable. One of her greatest pleasures was her correspondence with fellow botanists, among whom she earned true respect, especially Dawson Turner.

Dawson Turner

Dawson Turner: Although they never met, he thought of Ellen as a beloved sister and was devastated when she died

Although we were not able to join the group tour of the Ardnagashel Arboretum, we ventured down there on our own and were shown around the east section by the gracious Arethusa Greacen, herself a Hutchins on her mother’s side. The arboretum was started by Ellen’s brother and was maintained and added to by succeeding generations of Hutchins – the botany gene was obviously strongly embedded in the family!

Myrtle Woods Path

Ardnagashel colourMyrtle groves and colour at Ardnagashel

The enormous contribution made by Ellen Hutchins to science has languished in obscurity for two centuries, known only to a few experts in the field (a bit like that other West Cork woman of science, Agnes Clerke of Skibbereen). All that changed last week. West Cork, and Bantry/Ballylickey in particular, has celebrated and honoured Ellen Hutchins in style. There is talk of future events, perhaps even a summer school.

Ellen Plaque

A new plaque has been erected on the wall of the old ruined church in Garryvurcha graveyard, final resting place of Ellen Hutchins

Well done to the hardworking organisers of this exceptional festival! Thank you to them for illuminating the life of this remarkable woman and to helping us appreciate, in the most hands-on and interesting way, her enormous contributions to science.

Madeline Clare Angela

The team behind the Ellen Hutchins Two Hundred Year Celebration: Madeline Hutchins, great great grandniece and biographer of Ellen; Clare Heardman of the National Parks and Wildlife Service; Angela O’Donovan of the Bantry Historical Society. This photo was taken from the Ellen Hutchins 200 Years Facebook Page, with appreciation

Don’t forget to check out the website Ellen Hutchins: Ireland’s First Female Botanist for so much more detail than I could give you in a blog post.