The inaugural West Cork History Festival will take place in Skibbereen from 28th to 30th July 2017.

Activities will be based in and around Rosebank, the former Dower House of the Liss Ard estate, which is situated about a mile outside Skibbereen. Over the course of the weekend, there will be a programme of events which will run concurrently in two or three venues.

There’s a fantastic schedule of speakers lined up for what should be a most interesting weekend.

To see the full programme or to buy a ticket for the weekend see

David Fitzpatrick, formerly Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, Dublin, is among the top attractions. His most recent book is Descendancy: Irish Protestant Histories since 1795, which presents a detailed study of the revolutionary experience of Methodists in West Cork.

I’ve been reading quite a lot about emigration lately and the huge impact that it has had on Ireland. In many ways, it is the story of modern Ireland.  I’ve just re-read David Fitzpatrick’s book ‘Irish Emigration 1801-1921’, published first in 1984 as part of the Studies in Irish Economic and Social History series.

In his introduction David Fitzpatrick states that “Ireland under the Union was a land which most people wanted to leave. At least eight million men, women and children actually did emigrate between 1801 and 1921.” That’s an extraordinary statistic by any standards, exacerbated of course by the wave of emigration associated with the Great Irish Famine 1845-52. In the decade 1845-1855, some two million people emigrated from Ireland – about a quarter of the population in 1841 – in what was one of the largest population movements ever recorded. Fitzpatrick states that “No other country lost so large a proportion of its people during the century, or experienced such consistently heavy emigration over so long a period.”

Emigration from Ireland didn’t begin in the 19th century of course, but the numbers of people leaving these shores did increase dramatically. Some 10 million left Ireland since 1600.

People had been leaving Ireland in significant numbers from the 1820s and 30s, mostly bound for North America and Britain. But the wave of emigration precipitated by the Famine is without parallel. The mass exodus began in earnest after the second failure of the potato crop in August 1846 and for the first time emigrants made the hazardous Atlantic crossing in winter.

The fares to Canada were cheaper than to the US, mainly because the ships were poorly regulated and the conditions on board were atrocious. In 1847 alone, nearly a third of the 100,000 poor wretches who departed for Canada perished. Approximately one out of every twenty people who left Ireland or Liverpool for North America during the late 1840s died on board the ship.

The last glimpse of Erin.

By the 1920s a staggering 43 per cent of Irish-born men and women were living abroad. There can scarcely be a family in Ireland that hasn’t been touched by emigration. Where did all these Irish men and women go? Many went to North America, but many also ended up in Britain, mainland Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America and many other places besides.

In excess of 146,000 people emigrated from County Cork between 1851 and 1860. More Corkmen fought and more Corkmen died in the American Civil War than in any other conflict in history. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 people born on the island of Ireland took part in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Maybe up to one in five of the Union Army was born on the island of Ireland. That is mind-boggling!

I wonder how many people have emigrated from the greater Skibbereen area since 1800. And where did they end up? Where are their children, and their children’s children?

Skibbereen Heritage Centre, and particularly Margaret Murphy, does extraordinary work in helping people from all over the world to trace their West Cork roots. But should we be doing much more here from ‘home’ to reach out the global Irish and to encourage them to engage with their native place?

In Boston

Where are they all? Are there any descendants still alive of the 44 passengers from Skibbereen who arrived in Boston harbour on board the British ship ‘Albion’ on May 13 1848? The passenger record listed all of them, including women, as labourers and their children, with the exception of servant.

Having fled the ravages of famine and pestilence in the Skibbereen area, it is understandable that these passengers were not in the best of health. When the Superintendent of Alien Passengers for the port of Boston inspected the ‘Albion’ he found that several of the immigrants were too destitute or sick to support themselves with becoming public charges. The Superintendent demanded a bond of $1,000 for each of these immigrants from the ship’s captain Driscoll so that the state did not have to expend public money for their maintenance. Driscoll did not pay the bond so he was ordered to take six of the passengers back to Europe.

Sullivan family

I hope these poor wretches fared better than the Sullivan family “from midway between Schull and Skibbereen” who arrived in Newport, Monmouthshire, in Wales, in March 1847.

The following account from the ‘Cheltenham Chronicle and Gloucestershire Advertiser’ of April 7 1847 tells their story:

DEATH FROM STARVATION – On Monday evening last, an inquest was held at the London Inn, Charlton Kings, before Joseph Lovegrove, Esq. and an intelligent jury, on view of the body of Timothy Sullivan, an infant aged three months, who came by his death on the evening of Friday under the following deplorable circumstances.

“Jeremiah Sullivan, the father of the deceased child, was first examined. He appeared to be about 35 years of age, and presented a most emaciated and mummy-like appearance. Such was his weak state of body that he was almost unable to stand while giving his evidence, and his mind seemed to be equally shattered, for his answers to the questions put to him by the coroner, were incoherent in the extreme. He frequently complained during the enquiry that his head felt as though it was ‘splitting in two’. The following is the substance of his heartrending narrative: – He said he was a native of the county of Cork, Ireland, and that he came from a place situate about half way between Schull and Skibbereen, where it is well known that the famine has been carrying off its victims by hundreds. He was the holder of a small tract of land on which he grew potatoes to feed himself and his family, consisting of a wife and five children, the eldest of whom was only eight years old. He usually grew a little corn, which, however, always went to the landlord as payment for the rent. Owing to the failure last season of his only means of subsistence, the potatoes, he was reduced at Christmas to sell his only livestock, a horse and cow, for £3, and on this sum the family continued to prolong life by eating one meal per day, until about a month since, when their fund was reduced to 8s. and the prospect of food or work became less and less cheering, besides they were ejected from their cabin. They saw hundreds dying around them of famine and pestilence, both young and old, lying on the road side unburied, and famishing dogs gnawing whatever flesh still remained on their bones; and before this became their fate they determined to get to England, where they had hopes they would not be allowed to starve. They were more induced to come to England from the fact that Sullivan had an aunt residing somewhere in Rosemary Lane, London, who had some months before written to them to come over. They embarked at Cork with a great number of other starving creatures, and after being two days and two nights on the water, they were landed penniless at Newport, Monmouthshire. The 8s. was paid as fare for the family, 1s. afterwards returned in biscuits to keep the poor wretches from dying on the ship. Since then they have been wandering  as they could towards London, subsisting on the produce of a gown, a cloak, and a shawl, which the poor woman sold, and such casual charity as was offered them on their journey. The source of nourishment for the deceased infant, the mother’s breast, became dried up through want of food, and the only thing the child had as a substitute was a little sugar and water, whenever the poor unfortunate parent could get a halfpenny with which to purchase the sugar. On Friday they arrived in Cheltenham, and appear to have crawled, for walk they could not, as far as a shed on the London road, about a quarter of a mile beyond the London Inn, and there resigned themselves to die. The infant did die about four o’clock, and the wretched creatures being shortly afterwards discovered, information was conveyed to the police, when medical aid was obtained, but too late to be of any assistance to the deceased. The wretched parents and the four remaining children were then taken to the lodging house in Grove Street, where some food was given them. Since that evening, however, they stated they had neither been attended by a medical man, nor received any other food than dry bread, in order to eat which they were obliged to soak it in warm water.

“The coroner and the jury expressed their surprise and indignation that nothing more suitable than bread and water had been given to this starving family, reduced to the last stage of debility for want of nourishment. Mr. Lovegrove remarked that if any one of the family died in consequence of this neglect, he should feel it to be his duty to hold an inquest on the body, and in his opinion a grave responsibility would rest with the parish officers for such neglect. The police constable Samuel Fowler, who took the party down from Charlton to the lodging house by order of the overseer of that parish, stated that the person who had charge of the house in Grove Street refused to admit the family for more than half an hour, keeping them outside shivering with the cold, until some other petty official brought an order from the workhouse for their admission. – The Jury, after a few minutes’ deliberation, returned it as their verdict, ‘that the deceased died from want of common necessaries of life.’ The police constable was desired to make known to the parish officers the sentiments of the jury respecting their treatment of the wretched family. The coroner said he contemplated leaving a few shillings for the use of the family, but certainly with no view to relieve the parish of its responsibility to provide for them.”

Many, many of our emigrants of course have a different story to tell – stories of happiness and success from countries all over the world. But whatever the fate of those tens of thousands of men, women and children who have left the greater Skibbereen area, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to tell their stories, or give them the opportunity themselves to tell their own stories? Where are they? Who are they? Have they still a connection here at ‘home’?


Emigration – The Story of Ireland