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Skibbereen
(Roud 2312)
Tom Lenihan
Knockbrack, Miltown Malbay
Recorded in singer's home, July 1984

Carroll Mackenzie Collection

 

Tom Lenihan

Oh father dear, I often hear you speak of Erin’s Isle,
Its fertile land, its mountains grand, its valleys rude and wild.
They say it is a lovely land wherein a prince might dwell,
And why did you abandon it, the reason to me tell.

My son I loved my native land with energy and pride.
A blight came over all my crops, my sheep and cattle died.
Rent, rates and taxes were too high and paying they were not being,
So that’s a reason why me-boy, I left old Skibbereen.

‘Tis well I do remember that cold December day,
When the sheriff and the bailiff came to drive us all away.
They set the roof a-blazing with their savage English spleen,
And when it fell the crash was heard all over Skibbereen.

Your mother too, God rest her soul, lay on the stony ground.
She fainted in the anguish and the desolation round.
She said: ‘No more!’, but passed away to Godly eternity,
So that’s another reason why I left old Skibbereen.

My son, you were but two years old, and feeble was your frame.
I could not leave you to your friends, for you bore your father’s name,
I wrapped you in my overcoat, at the dead of night unseen,
I heaved a sigh and bid goodbye to dear old Skibbereen.

Oh father dear, the day is near when we will vengeance call,
And Irishmen from valley and glen will rally one and all.
I’ll be the man to lead the van beneath that flag of green,
And loud and high we’ll raise a cry – ‘Revenge for Skibbereen!’


“The first known appearance of this song was in a 19th-century publication, ‘The Wearing of the Green Song Book’ where it was attributed to Patrick Carpenter, a poet and native of Skibbereen. It was later published, in 1915, by Herbert Hughes who wrote that it had been collected in County Tyrone, and that it was a traditional song. Ireland’s Great Famine remains one of history’s worst cases of a natural disaster mismanaged; locked warehouses stuffed with supplies, enough food to feed the population being shipped out of Ireland by the boatload, and a man in charge of famine relief who believed the famine to be God’s punishment on the Irish. In a letter to Thomas Spring-Rice, Lord Mounteagle, Sir Charles Trevelyan described the famine as an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population’ as well as ‘the judgment of God’. From the 'Cork Examiner' of March 19th, 1847, reporting on a court case in which a man had been charged with stealing food:

‘In his defence he said that he was driven to it by what had happened to his wife. The Court was told: the starving woman lay in her hovel next to her dead three-year old son, waiting for her husband to return from begging food. When night fell and his failure to return led her to imagine him dead in a ditch, she lay there in the faint fire's dying embers, caressing with her eyes her dead son's face and tiny fists. With death searching her, and now with her own fists clenched, she made one last effort to stay alive. Crawling as far away from her son's face as she could, as if to preserve his personality, or at least her memory of it, she came to his bare feet and proceeded to eat them.’


The legacy of the famine remains a part of Irish history and folklore, particularly in its long and unbroken record of emigration. Kerry Traveller Mikeen McCarthy once said he met an old woman who had lived during the Famine and told him it was a mortal sin not to eat all your potatoes. We were told several times of the ‘Hungry Grass’, patches of land supposedly containing unmarked Famine graves; it was said that anybody who walks over them is stricken by hunger pains. One such piece of ground is said to be not far from The Hand Cross on the slopes of Mount Callan.”
Jim Carroll


See also
Skibbereen sung by Pat MacNamara

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