Marian Barry (1871-1921): Trade Union activist and native of Skibbereen

May Day, also known as International Worker’s Day, is an appropriate time to remember Marian Barry who played an important role in the development and growth of the trade union movement in Britain and Ireland, but is today largely unknown in her native town of Skibbereen.

Marian was born on 1 October 1871, the third child of John Barry and Mary Ronan. John and Mary were married in Skibbereen in 1868 and their first two children were James, born in 1869, and Elizabeth, born in 1870. The family lived in the Windmill area of the town and both John and Mary worked in the tailoring trade. At the time Windmill Hill was among the poorest parts of the town, and the housing there was of a very low standard. In December 1871, just weeks after Marian’s birth, tragedy struck the family when her sister Elizabeth died of croup, aged just 21 months. In 1873 another child was born and, in a common practice of that time, she was named Elizabeth, after her departed sister. In 1874 the family suffered further grief when the eldest boy, James, died aged just 5 years.

The Windmill Hill area of Skibbereen circa 1900.

Sometime after the death of James in 1874 and 1878 the Barry family left Skibbereen and settled in the Whitechapel area of London, which was then a centre of the clothing industry. In London the Barrys found work at their trade and six more children were born between 1878 and 1887. Marian the, eldest surviving child, followed in her parent’s footsteps and found work as a tailoress. At that time the pay and working condition of those, particularly the women, employed in clothing factories, generally known as sweatshops, was very poor. To counter this Marian joined a trade union and started encouraging others to do likewise. Her organising abilities were quickly noticed. By 1895 she was a representative the East London Tailoresses, which later affiliated to the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) and in 1897 she was appointed  to the Technical Education Board of the London County Council. As a representative of the WTUL, she travelled throughout Britain enlisting workers, especially women in the clothing industry, into trade unions. One newspaper account in 1897 described her as a ‘busy bee’ who in one week in Cradley Heath had persuaded 200 to join the union and that she was then off to Bradford to continue her recruitment work in that city.

Pete Curran’s funeral cortege in 1910

In the course of her work Marian Barry met other trade union leaders, including Peter (Pete) Curran of the Gas Workers’ Union. Curran was the son of Irish emigrants and was one of the most prominent trade union leaders of the 1890s. As well as trade union activities, Marian and Pete also shared common believes in other causes. In a time when neither women nor working class men could vote, they were both advocates of universal suffrage. Both were anti-war in their outlook and they campaigned against the second Boer War. Sometime in the late 1890s, Marian and Pete married and afterwards Marian generally styled herself as ‘Mrs. Pete Curran’.

Marriage and a young family of her own did not stop Marian’s work for the trade union and labour movements. In 1906-7 she travelled widely in support of the Anti-Sweating League and she was involved in the Women’s Labour League. At the time she famously described the Labour Party as “the men’s party”. Despite this, in the 1906 General Election, when her husband Pete stood for the Labour Party in the constituency of Jarrow she worked tirelessly to get him elected. The issues she campaigned on in Jarrow included the high infant mortality rate, the need to provide school meals to children and the plight of women workers. Curran was not elected in 1906, but in a by-election in 1907 he won the seat. He was helped to this victory by Marian’s activism and the couple’s unequivocal support for female suffrage. In the 1910 General Election Pete narrowly lost his seat and shortly afterwards he died from liver failure – he had been a heavy drinker. His importance to the Labour Movement  and the esteem that he was held in was demonstrated by the huge numbers who attended his funeral and lined the streets as his coffin was taken to Leytonstone cemetery in London.

Marian with other delegates at the Labour-Socialist and Democratic Convention held in Leeds, 1917

In the years after Pete’s death Marian was less active. This was undoubtably due to the need to provide for her young family. For a period she worked as a secretary for the Board of Trade in London. In 1913 when that body tried first to constructively dismiss her and then offer her a job at a lower salary, ten members of the Board resigned in protest. By 1917 Marian had again returned to full time activism. In June 1917 a Labour-Socialist and Democratic Convention was held in Leeds, to support the February revolution in Russia and to promote pacifist sentiment. Marian was among the delegates to attend. In the following period most of Marian’s work was in her native Ireland.

In July 1917 Marian addressed  a meeting of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses in Dublin. In her speech she highlighted the fact that the Minimum Wages Act was being violated wholesale in Dublin. For the next fifteen months Marian worked primarily in Derry and the surrounding counties, chiefly organising women workers in the clothing industry. The issues she raised included low wages and the use of contract workers, who worked very long hours for very little pay. She also campaigned for workers in the clothing industry to be paid war time bonuses. Within weeks of her arrival in Ireland it was said that Marian had added 500 new members to the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses. At times her activities led to industrial strife and in October 1918, after a brief strike, Marian successfully negotiated a 25% pay increase for clothing factory workers in Omagh. While in Ireland Marian also supported the Irish Suffragette Movement and she was particularly critical of the resolution passed in 1917 by the Executive Committee of the General Council of County Councils, that asked for Ireland to be excluded from the provisions of any new franchise  bill.

In late 1918 Marian returned to England, where she continued to work as a trade union organiser. In a speech delivered at a May Day rally in 1920 she referred to the ongoing war in Ireland. She stated that of all the resolutions passed that day the one calling for the withdrawal of the British military from Ireland was the one most appealing to her. She went on to explain some of the injustices that Ireland suffered under British rule and speaking of the ongoing war she stated that: ‘They may crush a nation for a time, but they will never entirely repress the spirit of freedom once it has been born.’

Little is known of Marian’s activities in the early 1920s, though it is probable that she continued working as a trade union organiser.  She died on 8 September 1921 while on a visit to Brighton. She was just 49 years of age. A newspaper report at the time stated that ‘she had worked hard for Labour’ and that her death severed ‘another link with the early days of the British Socialist movement’. Marian was laid to rest with her husband Pete Curran in Leytonstone cemetery in London. Her name was never added to the headstone that marks the plot.

The Curran headstone in Leytonstone cemetery.

W. C.

Why Anew McMaster has a place in Skibbereen folk memory

I recently read Anne Enright’s stunningly beautiful book, Actress, which was published in 2020. It is essentially the story of Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell, as written by her daughter Norah. If you have not already read it, get a copy. It is highly recommended!

Although peripheral to the story, the remarkable actor-manager Anew McMaster features in the narrative on a number of occasions. McMaster was an English actor-manager whose grand old style touring company thrilled audiences in Great Britain, Ireland and Australia over a number of decades.

Anew McMaster.

McMaster is part of the folklore of Skibbereen because his was the last performance in the old Town Hall before it was burned to the ground in the early hours of Saturday 13 August 1955. The previous night, McMaster’s company had performed Oedipus, the story of the tragic hero in Greek mythology, as part of a seven-night run of shows. A few hours later, flames enveloped the hundred-year-old hall, situated with almost mathematical precision in the centre of the town, and many Skibbereen folk wept openly and unashamedly at the destruction caused.

McMaster played four nights in the Town Hall, Skibbereen, in June 1929.

McMaster’s was one of the better-known of the many touring theatrical companies in Ireland and Britain in early decades of the 20th century. His company would visit a town for a week and play five or six consecutive nights, with the same group of actors performing a different play each night. Mostly they played Shakespeare or the Greek tragedies.

I think McMaster’s first visit to Skibbereen was in 1929 when he played four consecutive nights in the Town Hall with the Dublin Shakespearean Festival Company.

Advert for Anew McMaster’s programme of plays for the Town Hall, Skibbereen, in September 1951.

Skibbereen was also to host McMaster on his tour of Ireland in 1951–52, when his company played six consecutive nights at the Town Hall from Tuesday 25 to Sunday 30 September 1951.

Included among the company of actors for this tour was a young actor from London, Harold Pinter. The Londoner was one of the few actors who made the successful transition from acting to writing and he became one of the world’s best-known playwrights, screenwriter, theatre directors and poets. Harold Pinter won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.

Advert for Anew McMaster’s programme for the Town Hall, Skibbereen, in August 1955. It was in the early hours of Saturday morning 13 August, following a production of ‘Oedipus’ the night before, that the Town Hall was destroyed by fire.

McMaster’s next visit to Skibbereen was in 1955, when, owing to the fateful fire in the early hours of Saturday 13 August, he became part of the folk legend of the town.

McMaster’s tour included Clonakilty, where they played seven consecutive nights in Lowney’s Hall, from Monday 22 August. The company had lost scenery and costumes from several of their productions in the fire in Skibbereen and so had to improvise heavily for some of the Clonakilty shows.

Harold Pinter.

P. O’R.

Remembering Dr David Hadden, Skibbereen

This year is an important one in the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland. The period 1921–1923 was a particularly complex one in our history and it is important that it would be remembered appropriately, proportionately, respectfully and with sensitivity.

The year 2022 is a significant one for commemorations for another reason. It is the 175th anniversary of 1847. Black ’47 was the worst year of the Great Irish Famine 1845–52. It was the year when Skibbereen made the headlines in newspapers all over the world. Reports of the appalling conditions from this area featured prominently in newspapers in Ireland, Britain, America and many other countries.

The Irish poet Eavan Boland, who died in April 2020, said: ‘The Famine was one of the twofold trials of the Irish people – once in the happening and once in the remembering’. Skibbereen Heritage Centre does very important work in commemorating the Famine and we’re sure it will have an extensive programme of events this year to mark the 175th anniversary of 1847.

Dr David Hadden, Skibbereen 1817-1878, painting which hangs in the Masonic Lodge, Skibbereen.

One of those who featured in the literature of the Famine in Skibbereen in 1847 was Dr David Hadden, who was Physician to the Castletownshend Dispensary. Dr Hadden was one of a group of doctors, ministers, priests and others who wrote letters to various newspapers, and who helped to focus world attention on Skibbereen. One such letter was written by Dr Hadden on 20 January 1847 and appeared in the Cork Constitution on 23 January. It is published below.

Dr David Hadden was born on 30 June 1817 in Abbeyleix, the son of Reverend John Hadden, a Wesleyan minister. David Hadden came to live in Skibbereen in 1840, the same year he was admitted a member of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. He graduated in Medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1846. His first appointment was as Physician to the Dispensary in Castletownshend where he served the community with great energy and devotion during the Famine. Like many others who gave such unselfish devotion to the care of the afflicted, Dr Hadden became very ill himself at one time, but he recovered and resumed his duties.  Dr Hadden was appointed Physician to the Drimoleague Dispensary in 1852 and he served there until his death on 17 February 1878.

The Hadden family headstone at Abbeymahon Graveyard, Skibbereen.

Dr Hadden is buried in Abbeymahon Graveyard in Skibbereen. At the funereal, his coffin was borne through the streets of the town on the shoulders of coastguards and policemen. Incredibly, the cortege went via Bridge Street, around Ballyhilty and down North Street on the way to Abbeymahon. Dr Hadden was survived by his wife Ellen and six sons John, George, David, Robert, Samuel and Edward. John, David and Robert followed their father into the medical profession. Robert Hadden served as a doctor in Skibbereen for many years. Members of at least four generations of the Hadden family were to go on and give distinguished service to the medical profession in Ireland and abroad. Ellen Hadden died at the home of her son Robert, North Street, on 8 February 1898.

Plaque in Abbeystrewry church dedicated to the memory of Dr David Hadden.

Dr Hadden is remembered in Skibbereen. In Abbeystrewry church there is a plaque and a memorial window dedicated to his memory. The memorial window, directly behind the altar was installed in 1887 and was made at the famous glass factory in Leith, Edinburgh. The triptych, which is of beautifully stained glass, is composed of three panels, each of which has been designed to be representative of some scriptural subject. In the central panel, the Good Samaritan is depicted doing a deed of Christianity. The right panel illustrates the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and the left side of the window forms a depiction of the raising of the widow’s son. The dedication at the bottom reads: ‘To the Glory of God ­– In Memory of David Hadden M.D. / Born June 30th 1817; Died February 17th 1878’.

The beautiful triptych stained glass window dedicated to the memory of Dr David Hadden at Abbeystrewry Church.

There is a fine painting of Dr David Hadden in the Masonic Lodge in Skibbereen. The painting was unveiled at a ceremony in the Lodge in June 1878, at which George Robinson delivered an eloquent tribute to Dr Hadden.

George Robinson was related to the Carson family which resided in Coronea House for many years. He was a grandson of Rev William Robinson, who was rector of Abbeystrewry before there was a church on the present site in Bridge Street. The church was then on what locals will know as the Long Quay.

P. O’R.

Dedication to the memory of Dr David Hadden.

Cork Constitution, January 23, 1847


Castletownshend Dispensary, January 20th, 1847

Sir – I feel that I should not have discharged my duty to the suffering creatures amongst whom I am labouring, did I not make some allusion through your columns to the misery which to so fearful an extent prevails in parts of the parish of Castlehaven, but as your kindness has already been too much trespassed on by tales of misery, I shall do so as briefly as possible.

Within the last ten days I have been called on to visit about 130 cases of fever, independent of numerous applications at the Dispensary from persons labouring under other diseases, consequent on insufficient and improper food.

In a group of houses in a remote part of the district I saw 30, and in an adjoining group of about 40 cases of fever, combined with, or perhaps I should rather say caused by, the most extreme destitution. In the majority of cases whole families are prostrated by it, and crowded together on the same handful of straw, in a corner of their miserable cabin, from which every vestige of furniture has disappeared, having been sold to procure food or used as firewood. I saw a family who had just recovered from fever exerting their feeble strength in breaking up for firing the dresser, which in better days had been the pride of the cottage.

I will mention a few cases from which a faint idea of the exciting state of things may be obtained. About a week since I saw a man named Collins with his four children on the same bed in which I had seen his wife dying a few days before. Their only nourishment was water, and their only attendant a child six years old. The poor fellow in the delirium of fever went out and was found at night wandering naked amongst the rocks, and half dead with cold. In the adjoining house a poor woman named Carty was breathing her last. A little further on a man asked me to look at his only remaining child, three others having died within the last few days; and another poor fellow asked some assistance to bury the second of his children which had died since the previous Sunday. A few days ago, a poor famine-stricken creature called on me to visit her two brothers and sisters who were ill, saying that her mother and eldest brother had died the week before. On paying a second visit in three days after, I found the poor creatures who had summoned me lying dead, and since that, two other brothers and a sister have died, making six adults who had been taken from one family, and I fear that by the time this reaches you the remaining one will be no more. I saw a poor fellow named Wholly in a cabin not five feet high; he said that one of his children had just been buried, and in less than a week he and his two other children were in their graves. A poor man named Crowley with his child lay unburied for five days in the midst of his family, (who were then and still are in fever) owing to the fear of contagion which exists to such a degree as to render it difficult to procure a person, even for payment, who would venture either to remove the dead or minister to the wants of the living.

I could give a lengthened catalogue of such cases, but will only say that I know South Reen and have been through almost every cabin in Skibbereen, in both of which places misery in the extreme exists, but I grieve to say that I could point out places in the parish of Castlehaven which would bear comparison with either.

Noble efforts have been made by the resident gentry here towards the alleviation of the distress, but anything which can be done by private benevolence must be but as a drop in the bucket. – I remain, Sir, your very obedient servant. DAVID HADDEN, M.D.

‘A Different World: An English Vicar in West Cork’, by Hilary Wakeman

Hilary Wakeman.

I was lucky enough to get some very nice books in my Christmas stocking in 2021. One was a beautiful memoir by Hilary Wakeman of part of her time as Rector of the Kilmoe Union in the Mizen peninsula.

Kilmoe comprises a broad stretch of rural West Cork which begins just west of Ballydehob and includes Schull and Crookhaven. There are three churches in the Kilmoe Union, Holy Trinity in Schull, Teampol na mBocht in Altar, and St Brendan’s in Crookhaven.

A Different World: An English Vicar in West Cork, by Hilary Wakeman, a beautiful, personal observation and will definitely strike a chord with many people.

Hilary was one of the first women ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1994. She had been working in the Church as a deaconess and then deacon for nine years prior to that. She was one of the first women to take charge of a parish while still a deacon and was a member of the General Synod, the Church of England’s governing body, from 1990 to 1995. In 1994 Hilary was made an Honorary Canon of Norwich Cathedral.

Hilary Wakeman was one of the first women ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1994.

The Church of Ireland began ordaining women as priests in 1990 and Reverend Canon Hilary Wakeman was the first female priest to take over a parish in West Cork when she was appointed Rector of Kilmoe in 1996.

In the spring of 1995 Hilary and her husband John spent a week’s holiday in Ireland. That was the catalyst that led to them moving to Ireland full-time in 1996 when, in March, Hilary was appointed Rector of Kilmoe. Hilary knew that moving from Norwich to rural West Cork was going to represent great changes for her, her husband John and daughter Rosie, and so in the Spring of 1996 she began keeping a diary.

Canon Hilary Wakeman was the first female priest to take over a parish in West Cork when she was appointed Rector of Kilmoe in 1996.

This beautiful book, A Different World: An English Vicar in West Cork, is a memoir based on those diary entries from April 1996 to June 1997. On 10 May 1996 Hilary was instituted as Rector of Kilmoe, and the great adventure began. For some of us, 1996 seems very recent indeed, but reading this memoir we realise that West Cork was a very different place just a quarter of a century ago.

This is not Hilary’s first book. She is an accomplished writer and editor. Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs was published in 2003 and in it Hilary argues that if ‘moderate Christianity is to survive, we need to find new ways of expressing old truths’.

Hilary also edited a number of books, including Women Priests: The First Years, published in 1996, and Circles of Stillness: Thoughts on Contemplative Prayer from the Julian Meetings, published in 2002. Hilary was also a regular contributor to the ‘Rite and Reason’ column in the Irish Times and was an occasional contributor to the Southern Star.

Hilary and John at their cottage in Skeagh, at the foot of Mount Gabriel, where THE SHOp poetry magazine was produced.

Hilary’s husband John Wakeman was a poet, editor, and a noted scholar. In 1999 John started a poetry magazine THE SHOp, and Hilary joined him as co-editor when she retired in 2001. THE SHOp was a very welcome and significant addition to the collection of Irish poetry publications.

THE SHOp was produced entirely from John and Hilary’s old stone cottage at Skeagh, at the foot of Mount Gabriel to which the couple had retired. Three issues of THE SHOp were published each year until the final double issue, Number 46­-47, was published in the Autumn of 2014. Because of John’s deteriorating health, the couple returned to Norwich in 2017, and John died in 2018.

Hilary and John Wakeman at their cottage in Skeagh.

THE SHOp was a publication of great beauty and was widely acclaimed in poetry and literature circles in Ireland and abroad. Bernard O’Donoghue called it ‘unquestionably the most beautiful poetry magazine now in existence’, and Seamus Heaney described himself as a ‘confirmed SHOp-lifter’.

I had the pleasure of meeting Hilary and John at their cottage in Skeagh on a number of occasions. Their hospitality was generous and their company engaging and easy. Hilary’s memoir A Different World is a joyful reflection on the first year of the couple’s great adventure in West Cork. It is a beautiful, personal observation and will definitely strike a chord with many people.

THE SHOp, issue 42, Summer 2013. The artwork is Rishabadeva by Janet Mullarney (Aluminium, 2010). The 46 issues of THE SHOp were beautifully produced and often adorned with beautiful images.
Autumn 2014, double issue No 46 and 47 and the last edition of THE SHOp poetry magazine.

P. O’R.

Memories of pantomime in Skibbereen

For many Skibbereen people, at home or living abroad, thoughts at this time of year will, at some stage, invariably turn to the days of the great pantomimes in the Town Hall. The annual pantomime was such an integral part of the Christmas-New Year period for many years.

The cover of the programme for the first pantomime in Skibbereen, Robinson Crusoe, which was staged in 1963.

Organised by the De La Salle Past Pupils’ Union, the first pantomime in Skibbereen was in 1963. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ started on Sunday night 6 January and ran for eight consecutive nights.

Those extraordinarily ambitions productions played to appreciative audiences for eight or ten consecutive nights, and also included two matinees on Sunday afternoons. Some of those shows had a cast of over one hundred, including men’s and women’s chorus, tiny tots, dancers, as well as the main characters. Scene changes were plentiful, and costumes were often spectacular. As well as being highly entertaining performances, the whole business of staging the annual pantomime was some feat of organisation.

We remember here some of those people who were part of the great pantomime tradition in Skibbereen and who sadly died in 2021.

Brother and sister Liam O’Donovan and Nancy Casey who played the leading roles in some of the pantomimes in the 1960s.

Nancy Casey died on 12 September 2021. Nancy played the character of Marguerite in ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in the first panto in 1963. She was a noted operatic singer and was well known in musical circles throughout the county, having appeared in several Cork operettas. Nancy’s brother, Liam O’Donovan, tenor of countless performances in Skibbereen, played the lead part opposite her on a number of occasions and their duets would draw favourable comparison with any in musicals or pantomime anywhere. In the 1960s, people travelled from all over the county to see and hear Nancy and Liam perform.

The late Nancy Casey.

Nancy spent all her working life teaching at St Patrick’s Boys’ NS, Skibbereen, and will be fondly remembered by past pupils. Nancy was also a member of the choir at St Patrick’s Cathedral for many years. Nancy married Fachtna Casey from Rosscarbery in March 1964, and Fachtna too became part of the tradition of pantomime in Skibbereen with some great performances .

Anna McCarthy died on 6 December 2021. Though she didn’t appear on stage, Anna was an integral part of pantomime and indeed of the Cathedral Players and Skibbereen Theatre Society for many years. We remember Anna, with the late Margaret Ryan and others, backstage doing make-up, sorting costumes, and generally keeping a lid on things in often frenetic situations. Anna’s husband Frank was a member of the Past Pupils Union which began the pantomime and as well as taking to the stage on many occasions, he was also secretary of the organisation for a long period.

The late Anna McCarthy.

Anna, a native of county Roscommon, served the community of Skibbereen for many years in her capacity as a nurse in the practice of the late Dr Micheal O’Sullivan and later at the Medical Centre in Market Street. Anna was also a great worker in the community and contributed very generously to many organisations, most especially the Skibbereen Geriatric Society.

Some members of the ladies chorus in the Skibbereen De La Salle PPU’s 1982 production of Aladdin. From left, Mary White, Sandra Dempsey, Josephine O’Driscoll, Margaret O’Neill Rosellen Walsh and Imelda Whooley.

Margaret O’Neill, originally from Myross and lately of Glandore Road, Leap, died on 24 December 2021. Margaret sang in the chorus on a few occasions in the 1980s and her sparkling personality and fine voice were ideally suited to the lustre of pantomime.

There are others, we are sure, who it would be appropriate to mention, but we remember Nancy, Anna and Margaret in particular with great fondness.

P. O’R.

The list of those involved in Robinson Crusoe, the first pantomime staged by Skibbereen De La Salle PPU, which ran for eight nights starting on 6 January 1963.