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

Ilen’s End (Sweet Ilen – Part 5)

It rises on a remote mountain-top in the wilds of Mullaghmesha townland and falls 500 metres from there to the Atlantic, over a length of 34 kilometres. I think it’s time to establish exactly where the river ends, and the ocean begins. As you can see from the photo above, the lower reaches are wide and shallow, and the estuarial waters are dotted with islands and islets, some of which are only revealed at the ebb of the tide.

Below Skibbereen, the river is fully tidal – and its character is constantly changing. The history of the waterway has also seen an evolution, from a busy highway carrying lighters filled with cargoes to the wharves in the town (in the 19th century there were five of them – and a Customs House), to the present day where it is a tranquil scene, only busy – in normal times – with the skiffs and light craft based at the Rowing Club (above): that establishment has produced some celebrated champions!

Oldcourt (above) was the transhipment point where laden ships from distant shores would leave their loads into the shallow draft barges that would take them upstream into the town. Today it is still a busy hub where vessels are stored, built and repaired – and also left to decay. The disorder of the place has a picturesque informality, and there is medieval history also: a rickety tower house stump stands guard over the apparent chaos. We have written about the boatyard (and the castle – and a ketch named Ilen) in a previous post.

You can cross a bywater of the Ilen by bridges at Inishbeg (above) and Ringarogy. Exploration of those two islands will reveal a number of view points over the main channel of the river to the north. The marked aerial map below shows the lie of the land, while the photos following show the wide views of the river in both directions from Inishbeg.

(Upper) looking upstream from Inishbeg, and (lower) a close view of The Glebe Burial Ground, also seen from across the main river at Inishbeg.

Downstream from Inishbeg: at the east end of the island we found an unusual large rock which appears to have a worked surface and a possible cup-mark. Below that rock is the lonely ruin of a structure which must have had a remarkable aspect over the whole width of the river. It would be easy to suppose that this ruin could have been part of a defence system, but there is no mention in the archaeological records of this, or of the rock. For now, they remain enigmas – but perhaps there is an alert reader out there who can shed some light?

Ringarogy has fewer accessible viewpoints than Inishbeg, but the long causeway and some prospects from high land indicate how the lower course of the river is punctuated with small, barren landfalls (above).

I have made up my mind that the Ilen proper must ‘end’ at Turk Head – the pier, above, is looking towards the main channel of the river. It is also a small but substantially built harbour – partly hewn out of the low cliffs – which can shelter a few light fishing craft.

But the reality of the downstream ‘end’ of the river seems to be defined on the 6″ OS map above, which dates from the early 19th century and shows the townland names and boundaries as they were recognised at that time. There, a clear line is drawn between the island of Inishleigh to the north, and Spanish Island to the south. To the east of that line, apparently, is the Ilen, while to the west is the edge of Roaringwater bay, which leads into the ocean, but first skirting a myriad of rocks and small islands, only some of which have names.

There may be traditions – unknown to me – that define where the river mouth lies. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. If you are a seafarer carrying goods bound for Skibbereen you will have to negotiate your way safely through a fairly convoluted channel before entering a contrasting world of wide, calm water and rich, smooth meadowlands: Sweet Ilen.

Previous episodes in this series: Sweet Ilen : Sweet Ilen – Part 2 : Sweet Ilen – Part 3 : Sweet Ilen – Part 4

Gary, Paul, and Nana’s Soup

Rowers Return

Two local lads, from Lisheen down the road, have stolen the hearts of everyone in West Cork. Everyone in Ireland, actually, and beyond.

On the stand

Gary and Paul rode the open-topped bus into Skibbereen on Monday night and then spoke from the stage at Fairfield

Gary and Paul O’Donovan won a silver medal in Rio in their rowing pairs class. They row for the Skibbereen Rowing Club, a local club that punches way above its weight in national and international competitions. The coach credited with that is the brilliant, but mono-syllabic, Dominic Casey. Taking Gary and Paul under his wing, he turned them into the hard-working athletes they are.

MUM AND NANA

In  the window on the left, the boys’ mother, Trish O’Donovan, and their grandmother (Nana), Mary Doab

Their parents’ devotion was sterling. Eoghan Harris’s Independent interview with their Mother, Trish, is perhaps one of the most revealing pieces of journalism about the O’Donovan Brothers phenomenon and what it takes to support an Olympian.

Waiting for the Open-Topped Bus

Gary and Paul are also dream interviewees – every sentence is a sound bite, delivered in pure West Cork accents, with artless but articulate insouciance. Their interviews are now the stuff of legend – but if you haven’t already seen them, take a look at this one done before the final race. What shines through, and makes them so endearing, is that they take their training, but not themselves, seriously.

Pub Window

Above: Left, Stella and Hugh sporting their ‘occasion wear’; Right, this young man let me take his photo in his Shteak and Spuds shirt. Below: Many of the Skibbereen merchants had decorated their windows

The classic quotes have already been immortalised and the T-shirts have been selling like hot cakes in Skibbereen. The night of their homecoming it seemed like the whole of West Cork turned up to welcome them, including us! It was great fun to be there, in the streets, waiting for the open-topped bus, and then to see them on the stage, with Dominic Casey, so obviously having the time of their lives.

Replay

We, thousands of us, re-lived their big moment on an enormous screen in the Skibbereen Fairfield

Someone who came in for special praise in one of their interviews was the boys’ grandmother – their Nana (the first of the interviews on this page). Coming in cold and hungry from rowing, they gratefully wolfed down her home-made soup and ‘brown cake.’ Here in West Cork when we talk about a ‘cake of bread’ – what we mean is that solid round mass of white or brown home-made soda bread that is one of the staples of our diets, and that tourists have come to love.

Following the Bus

It  seemed like the whole of West Cork turned out to greet them

In honour of Gary and Paul and their Nana, and using only locally grown and organic vegetables purchased at Levis’s of Ballydehob Wednesday Farmers’ Market, here is my recipe for Nana’s Soup. It’s vegetarian and gluten-free – and totally delicious! Serve with a wedge of brown bread if gluten is OK for you. (I’ve become more sensitised to gluten issues recently as a dear little niece has been diagnosed with coeliac disease.) 

Levis market

Local growers sell their fresh vegetables at Levis’s pub in Ballydehob on Wednesday mornings

NANA’S SOUP: THE RECIPE

Vegetables: I used kabocha squash, onions, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and green beans, but you can use any robust vegetables that are in season.

Other ingredients: 1 can organic tomatoes, tapioca starch, vegetable stock (I used Marigold Swiss Veg Bouillon, but Knorr Veg Stock Pot is also gluten-free)), fresh or dried herbs.

Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds and roast in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. Leave to cool. Once cool, scoop out the flesh of the squash and chop roughly.

Peel and roughly chop the onions, potatoes, carrots and parsnips. Top and tail the green beans and cut in half or thirds. Chop the herbs (I used parsley sage, oregano and fennel from my garden, but any combination that suits you is fine).

Sweat the onions over medium heat in butter or olive oil until translucent. Over the onions, scatter about 2tbs of tapioca starch (this make it gluten-free, but if gluten is not a problem, just use flour) and stir until well mixed and starting to thicken. Pour in a can of organic tomatoes, the herbs, and a cup or two of vegetable stock. Stir until well mixed, then add all the vegetables. Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for at least an hour, preferably two or even three.

Soup and brown cake

After a bowl of this, you too can Pull Like a Dog!

Gary and Paul aren’t intimidated by a ‘bit of wind’. This is why – Skibbereen Rowing Club is on the beautiful , and breezy, Ilen River