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Skibbereen Heritage

Skibbereen Heritage Centre

Old Gas Works, Upper Bridge Street, Skibbereen, Co. Cork, Ireland.

Telephone:(353) 28 40900   Web:


History of Skibbereen

Prior to 1600 most of the land belonged to the native McCarthy tribe – today McCarthy remains the town’s most common surname.
The town charter dates back to 1657 and a copy can be seen in the town council Chambers.

In the early 1800’s an extensive trade in the manufacture of woollen and linen cloth as well as basic agricultural products formed the mainstay of the peoples’ livelihood. In the records of the Rev. H. Townsend (1815) the town is quoted as having ‘bolting mills, porter and beer breweries and an extensive distillery of whiskey’.

The town and its environs, however, were severely devastated by the Great Famine of the 1840’s. Thousands of its inhabitants starved to death due to the lack of nutrition brought about by failure of their staple diet – the potato crop – and the effects of cruel landlordism which saw to it that the native Irish were left to die for want of food and money.

Skibbereen’s famine victims were wheeled by the cartload into a communal grave in the Abbey Cemetery west of the town where today the visitor can see the Famine Plot.
Visit the Great Famine Commemoration Exhibition at the Skibbereen Heritage Centre for an insight into Famine times and how it affected the area.
The sufferings and hardship of that era seemed however to instil a passion and fire in the minds of local people and the area was to emerge to the forefront in all the great movements towards national freedom and separate identity for Ireland.

Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa founded the Phoenix Society in 1856 and for a decade the movement grew until suppressed by the authorities to the extent that its imprisoned members in Mountjoy gaol are said to have outnumbered those from any other town in Ireland.
The suppression also heralded the exodus of hundreds of notable aspirants to the national cause when they fled for safety to other lands.

The Gaelic League, founded in 1893 also enjoyed extensive support in the town and area in its efforts to foster the native Gaelic language.
This brought about a rejuvenation in the minds of people which led also to the establishment of local industries.
1889 saw the birth of the local newspaper the “Southern Star” which from its beginning stood for all things national and for decades to come stood to counteract the imperialistic stance of its forerunner the Skibbereen Eagle.
Both papers were the focus of attack and suppression on many occasions from opposing factions in the early 1900’s.
However the “Star” with which many famous national names such as Ernest Blythe, Michael Collins, Peadar Hourihane and Sean Hayes had direct involvement with, won the day and having taken over the Eagle in 1929 still survives today.

For a number of years in the late 19th century the rail link from Cork to Skibbereen added an undoubted importance to the town as a trading centre and the extensions of the line to Schull and Baltimore further enhanced business.
The preoccupation of the country as a whole towards attaining national independence in the earlier decades of the 1900’s and the Civil War which ensued spelt the death knell for industry and trade in Skibbereen and the entire area of West Cork.
The fight for freedom and the hardships of civil strife had dire effects but the town and its hinterland provided many men and women of heroic stature during those years – indeed it was a Skibbereen man, Gearoid O’Sullivan who raised the national flag over the GPO in Dublin in 1916.
Emigration, on a vast scale, during the30’s and 40’s saw the area drained of its lifeblood and it was not until the 50’s that a glimmer of hope shone through with the establishment of the West Cork Development Association.
Tourism took off during the 60’s and the town received a major industrial boost (in the mid 60’s) with the setting up of the Fastnet Foods processing factory, employing 300 at peak seasons and giving farmers of West Cork an opportunity of increased incomes through growing crops.

In recent yearstourism has become an important factor in the economic life of the area.
Festivals are held during summer months in surrounding towns and villages providing varying attractions and entertainment for the returning emigrant and tourist.