Three of the most imposing buildings on Ilen Street are the Steam Mill, the West Cork Hotel and the offices of the Southern Star newspaper, all very important to the story and history of Skibbereen.
Also on Ilen Street we have two bridges that span the Ilen River, the Kennedy Bridge and the old Railway Bridge.
If the walls of the Steam Mill could talk, what a story they would tell! Built in the early 1840s, the mill is synonymous with the Great Famine in Skibbereen. It was built by Thomas H. Marmion who was an agent for the Castletownshend Estate.
In the autumn of 1846, following the second failure of the potato crop and as Ireland was sinking deeper and deeper into a catastrophe, a group of local men set up a Soup Committee in Skibbereen to provide gratuitous relief, which was not allowed under any of the Government relief schemes. Thomas Marmion was chairman of that group and he gave the use of the Steam Mill for a soup kitchen, one of the first of its kind in the country.
A few years later, Marmion’s Store was listed as one of a number of Auxiliary Workhouses which had opened in Skibbereen to accommodate some of the thousands of destitute paupers who crowded into the town seeking relief.
Marmion was one of the more conscientious land agents in this area during the Famine and he did live up to his own maxim ‘that property has it duties as well as its rights’.
After the Famine, two brothers George Henry and John Joseph Wolfe leased the premises from Marmion and ran the mill. Some years later, probably in the 1880s, the mill passed into ownership of Thomas Roycroft who married Nell Wolfe of Ilen House. The Roycroft family ran a business in the Steam Mill until 2017, with Richard, a grandson of Thomas, operating his bicycle shop there in latter years.
West Cork Hotel
Since it opened for business in 1902, the West Cork Hotel has been a landmark in Skibbereen and has contributed enormously to the business and social life of the area.
In the nineteenth century on the site of the West Cork Hotel there was once an osiery or twig plantation which supplied the basket makers of Skibbereen.
John Murphy, who built the hotel, was a very progressive and successful businessman and carried on an extensive trade before building the West Cork Hotel. Among John Murphy’s enterprises were a meal store and a bottling plant and mineral water business, both on Ilen Street.
John Murphy chose the strategic location for his new hotel because of its proximity to the Railway Station. The original hotel had eleven bedrooms and early on the proprietors converted a downstairs billiard room into three bedrooms to bring the total up to fourteen. John’s wife, Annie Fitzgerald from the Abbey, Skibbereen, ran the hotel business for many years.
In 1959 John Murphy, grandson of the original proprietor, took over the hotel. That was also the year he married Betty O’Driscoll of Carrigillihy, Union Hall, and for the next almost forty years John and Betty ran the business.
Through their hard work and excellent business acumen, John and Betty built up a remarkable trade and made the West Cork Hotel one of the finest and best-known establishments in the south of Ireland.
In 1960, John and Betty added seven bedrooms. When the railway line from Skibbereen to Baltimore closed in 1961, they bought more land behind the existing hotel and in 1965 they added a substantial extension, which included a function room and an extra seven bedrooms. In 1972 they carried out a further expansion to bring it up to a 41-bedroom hotel.
In the late 1990s John and Betty Murphy retired from the business and it was taken over by the fourth generation of the Murphy family, John Jnr., who managed the hotel until 2005 when it was purchased by Tim and Marion Looney.
The Southern Star
The Southern Star, founded in 1889, was for the first forty years or so of its existence based in Townshend Street. In the early 1930s the publishing company purchased a new Cossar printing press and moved their headquarters to newly-built premises at Ilen Street. That site in Ilen Street was formerly owned by Walter Charles Kindred, who had a Saw Mill there for many years.
The Kindred name will be remembered in these parts because in June 1927 Walter inaugurated the first Motor Bus service between Skibbereen and Cork City. The Carbery Motor Bus Service was a vast improvement from the old primitive stage coaches and the Bianconi Coach which had serviced Skibbereen since the early nineteenth century.
In the early 1980s the original Star offices in Ilen Street were demolished and replaced by a new, modern two storey building.
For some one hundred and thirty years the Southern Star newspaper has been an invaluable resource and has served the community in West Cork very well. It is one of the best provincial newspapers in the country, and is, we believe, one of the very few such enterprises that is still family owned. At a time when our senses are assailed with information and what purports to be ‘news’ coming at us from multiple sources, a strong, independent local newspaper with content that is considered and reliable is more important now than it has ever been. Here’s hoping that the Star will continue to shine in Skibbereen and West Cork for many years to come!
If taking a stroll over Ilen Street, it may be worth your while to take a little time to look at the two bridges that span the river there.
Kennedy Bridge, named in honour of John F. Kennedy, late President of the USA, was officially opened on Monday 15 June 1964 by then Minister for Local Government, Mr Neil Blaney TD. Among the large attendance at the official opening was Mr Robert P. Chalker, Charge d’Affairs of the United States Embassy in Dublin.
Kennedy Bridge consists of a centre span of seventy feet and two shore spans of twenty-seven feet each. The bridge is thirty-five feet wide overall.
In 1953 it was decided that the old metal bridge which crossed the Ilen at that spot was not safe to carry the increasingly heavy traffic to which it was being subjected. Loads were limited to three tons and all heavy traffic was detoured over New Bridge, about a mile west of the town.
Work on the erection of the new bridge and removal of the old metal structure started in April 1963. For over twelve months motor traffic was diverted via the New Bridge and the old Railway Bridge was opened to accommodate pedestrian traffic.
And a tidbit that you may not find in the history books is that the first vehicle to cross Kennedy Bridge followings its official opening was a horse and cart driven by Richard Burchill of Tragumna.
Kennedy Bridge replaced the old metal bridge which had been built in 1877 under the old Grand Jury system. That old metal bridge replaced an original bridge that had been built across the Ilen in 1829. That bridge was built by private individuals entirely. It was referred to locally as Townsend Bridge because that portion of the town was owned by the Townsend family. That was the first bridge built in the town that spanned the Ilen River. That original bridge served its purpose but in 1876 it was found to be completely unsafe.
The New Bridge, or the Abbey Bridge as it was formerly called, was built in 1822.
The single span, lattice-girder Railway Bridge was built to enable the extension of the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway onwards to Baltimore. The first train ran from Skibbereen to Baltimore on 2 May 1893.
Work began on the Railway Bridge in 1891 and in February 1892 the two huge iron girders which were bolted between parallel shafts, were put in place. The Railway Bridge was in use until Good Friday 1961 when the last train ran from Cork to Baltimore.