A Skibbereen colossus who suffered great personal tragedy


The beautiful old graveyard at Caheragh is one of the burial grounds which has been surveyed in recent years by Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

A short video about Caheragh Old Graveyard, which was made by Skibbereen Heritage Centre, was published recently and generated quite an amount of interest.


Among the graves highlighted in the video is the vault of Timothy McCarthy Downing and his family.

The vault of Timothy McCarthy Downing and his family at Caheragh Old Graveyard.

Possibly two of the biggest funeral corteges ever to wend their way to that distinctly charming old burial ground in Caheragh were to the same family vault. Timothy McCarthy Downing died in January 1879, his daughter Jane died four years earlier, in November 1875, and both funerals were reported to be of enormous proportions.

McCarthy Downing was a member of the Relief Committee in Skibbereen during the Great Irish Famine (1845–1852) and features prominently in the literature of that time.

McCarthy Downing, a native of Kenmare, after qualifying as a solicitor, moved to Skibbereen in 1836 where he carried out his practice, one of the largest in south Munster. He accumulated a great deal of money and became an extensive landlord. McCarthy Downing built Prospect House at the top of North Street where he lived and carried out his legal practice. On McCarthy Downing’s death, Prospect House was bequeathed to the Church and became the Bishop’s Palace, the residence of the Bishop of Ross. It is now the residence of the two Catholic priests in Skibbereen.

McCarthy Downing also had an active political career. He was a friend of Daniel O’Connell and was one of the organisers of O’Connell’s monster meeting at Curragh, Skibbereen, on 22 June 1843.

Prospect House, Skibbereen, built by Timothy McCarthy and bequeathed to the Church on his death in 1879.

In 1861 he was instrumental in establishing Skibbereen Town Commissioners and served as chairman for a record eighteen years until his death. McCarthy Downing was pretty much all-powerful in these parts and in 1876 he even tried to change the name of the town from Skibbereen to Ilenmore or Ilentown. Thankfully, that nonsense was put paid to, mainly thanks to the efforts of another Skibbereen man, John Francis Levis, who was one of the few people in the town brave enough to stand up to the local colossus.

The pinnacle of McCarthy Downing’s political career came with his election as an MP for Cork in 1868 and he sat until his death in January 1879.

Timothy McCarthy Downing, whose funeral cortege from Skibbereen to Caheragh in January 1879 was reported to be four miles long.

Despite his wealth and his exceptional achievements, McCarthy Downing endured great personal tragedy during his life. In 1837 he married Jane McCarthy and they had four sons and three daughters. However, he was predeceased by Jane and all but one of his children. His eldest son, Eugene, was the only one of his family to survive him and he died within twelve months of his father. Eugene was not married.

McCarthy Downing had one granddaughter, Mary Louisa Bernadette, who was the only child of his daughter Jane and her husband Florence Daniel MacCarthy. Jane was the only one of McCarthy Downing’s children to marry.

It would seem that the marriage of Jane McCarthy Downing and Florence Daniel MacCarthy was an ideal match. Florence MacCarthy was a most suitable husband for Jane. He was a son of Daniel MacCarthy, a very wealthy and prominent Catholic landowner who established a brewery in North Street, Skibbereen, in 1809. Daniel McCarthy lived in Lough Hyne House and later built Glencurragh House as a direct replica.

Jane and Daniel came from similar backgrounds, wealthy Catholic families, would have been well educated and had many things in common. Following their marriage, they made Glencurragh House their home. Florence and Jane had one daughter, Mary Louisa Bernadette, who was born in Lourdes.

However, both families were blighted with bad luck.

In March 1875 Daniel MacCarthy’s twin, and only, brother died.

On 8 November 1875, aged just twenty-four years and having been married for only two years, Jane died suddenly. She and her infant daughter, Mary Louisa Bernadette, had gone to Cobh to spend the winter while Glencurragh House was being enlarged and remodelled. She became ill and died while away from her home in Skibbereen.

Jane’s death at such a young age caused great shock and sadness in Skibbereen and beyond. Immediately following Requiem Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the coffin was borne the short distance to Prospect House, her father’s home, and placed in the hall where relations and friends of the deceased paid their respects.

The funeral procession then set off through the town, led by the Most Rev. Dr O’Hea, Bishop of Ross, and attending clergy. Then followed the coffin bourne on men’s shoulders as far as Glencurragh House, where there was a pause and the coffin placed in the hearse. The cortege then made its way to the old graveyard at Caheragh.

A report in the Cork Examiner said that ‘It may be true to say that within the memory of any one living no such imposing funeral procession ever passed out of Skibbereen’.

Tragedy continued to stalk the families and just four years later, in 1879, Florence MacCarthy and his father-in-law Timothy McCarthy Downing both died.

When he died McCarthy Downing’s remains lay in state in St Patrick’s Cathedral where Dr William Fitzgerald, Bishop of Ross, was chief celebrant at Requiem Mass which was solemnised by thirty-six priests. His funeral cortege to Caheragh was reported to be four miles long.

Daniel MacCarthy died in July 1879, aged only 32 years, and the Skibbereen Eagle described his death as a ‘public calamity’. With the passing of Florence, Mary Louisa Bernadette was left an orphan as a young girl.

Glencurragh House, Skibbereen. It was badly damaged by fire on the night of 9 August 1922.

Mary Louisa, or Miss May, as she was affectionately known in Skibbereen, took over the running of the house and estate at Glencurragh when she came of age. Miss May was remembered in Skibbereen as being a gentle, quiet, reserved lady who kept very much to herself. For many years, she was accorded the extraordinary privilege of having her own kneeler inside the altar rails at St Patrick’s Cathedral, where she attended Mass regularly.

Miss May became a somewhat reclusive figure in Skibbereen, and the house and grounds were allowed to go into a state of disrepair. She later moved to Kenmare to live with cousins of her mother’s.

The adversity that afflicted the family had not yet run its full course, however. On the night of Wednesday 9 August 1922, during the Irish Civil War, the house was set alight by Republican forces and the house and most of the contents were destroyed.

The shell of the mansion remained and the grounds in a dilapidated state until after Miss May died in June 1929. The Land Commission then took over the estate and it passed into the control of the local council for public purposes.

In February 1934 the foundation stone for a new scheme of houses was laid at Glencurragh.

The road that runs through Glencurragh is known as ‘The Avenue’, having once been the actual avenue to Glencurragh House.

Pictured at the laying of the foundation stone for a scheme of twenty council houses on the former lands of Glencurragh House in February 1934. Back, from left, unknown, Florence O’Shea, UDC, B. O’Flynn, Architect and Town Engineer (Cork), Thomas A. Hayes, Town Clerk, and J. Duggan, UDC. Front, from left, Timothy Sheehy, UDC, Patrick Sheehy, UDC, William Wood-Wolfe, UDC, and Patrick Barry, Building Contractor.
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