The Town Hall is one of those places that holds some memories for everyone who has lived in or near Skibbereen over the past one hundred and fifty years or more.
Since the late 1850s the Town Hall has been the most prominent building in the Town Square, the focal point of Skibbereen, right in the centre of the town.
The Becher family, who owned that part of the town, as far back as 1801 had mapped the ground on which the Town Hall stands for a Market House. In 1824 Becher established a thread market there.
The Market House was also used as the rent office for the Becher estate and people would have to go there to pay their dues and tolls.
In the early 1860s Sir Henry Becher erected a new building on the site. This ‘Town Hall’ replaced the old Market and Toll House which had been in a very dilapidated state. The new building comprised an extended marketplace on the ground floor and a large hall or theatre on the first floor.
Following the completion of the new building, there arose a controversy in Skibbereen over the Town Hall that was to dominate local politics for much of the decade.
Sir Henry Becher offered to sell the Town Hall to the Town Commissioners. On the face of it, it made sense for the commissioners to purchase the Hall to use as a headquarters for the Municipal Authority of the town. Up to that point the Commissioners held their meetings in the Courthouse or in the Land and Labour Hall in Bridge Street. However, the whole issue of purchasing the Hall was fraught with differences and competing interests.
One problem was that Becher refused to give the Town Hall without imposing the condition that it should not be used for any political or sectarian purpose that might tend to create disunion amongst the inhabitants of the town. That rather unusual clause caused division in the Town Commissioners and rankled particularly with nationalist members.
Another problem was that the Skibbereen United Trades Association was completely against the idea of buying the Becher Hall. They wanted the Town Commissioners to provide employment by building a new hall and, also, buying what was the Becher’s rent office was completely anathema for many tradesmen.
After years of debate the Hall was purchased by the Town Commissioners in 1866, but the controversy did not end there. Skibbereen had two patents and the town was, more or less, divided into two. In 1867 Henry R. Marmion, agent for the Townsend estate which owned the Bridgetown side of town, proposed that they would build a Town Hall of their own in Bridge Street. That did not happen, but the ongoing controversy was very slow to pass.
With a thriving market downstairs, the upstairs hall was also a busy place. Skibbereen has a great tradition of theatre going back to the mid-nineteenth century and travelling groups and musicians performed there regularly.
The town clock was presented in 1878 by The O’Donovan of Liss Ard and the clock tower was added to accommodate it.
Becher’s proviso that the Town Hall would not be used for political purposes did not take long to be overlooked and over the years many of the biggest names in Irish nationalism have addressed meetings in there.
Possibly the first was Charles Stewart Parnell who addressed a crowd in the square from the upstairs window of the Town Hall on 10 April 1880. Michael Davitt addressed a meeting in the Hall after he had attended the opening of the Baltimore Fishery Industrial School in August 1887.
Maud Gonne delivered a lecture in the Town Hall on St Patrick’s Day 1902. The famous Caheragh man Rocky Mountain O’Brien spoke a number of times in the Hall. Other national figures who addressed meetings there included Eamonn De Valera, Michael Collins, Terence MacSwiney and Mayy MacSwiney.
Denis O’Sullivan the famous singer, whose father was born in Skibbereen, was one of the many outstanding performers who graced the stage in the Town Hall over many years. O’Sullivan, who was born in San Francisco, visited Skibbereen on a number of occasions when touring Europe and gave concerts in the Town Hall to raise funds for the local St Vincent de Paul Society.
Another famous name to grace the stage in the Town Hall was Harold Pinter, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005. Pinter began his career as an actor and toured with the great actor-manager Anew McMaster’s Touring Company in 1951-1952. They played six consecutive nights in the Town Hall, September 25th to September 30th, inclusive, performing a different play each night.
McMaster included Skibbereen in his national tours on a few occasions and, significantly, he staged the last show in the old Town Hall. On the night of 13 August 1955 McMaster’s travelling theatre company put on a fine performance of the famous old Greek classic Oedipus Rex. Later that night, the Town Hall was extensively damaged by fire. The McMaster company’s sets and costumes were also destroyed in the fire.
A big stock of books and library equipment was also ruined as the Library Service in Skibbereen operated out of the Town Hall at that time.
That night, 13 August 1955 is one that everybody living in Skibbereen at the time would always remember. This historic building, the centre of commercial, social and cultural life in the town for over a century, had been destroyed.
In the early 1900s there was a big craze for roller-skating and the floor of the upstairs hall provided an ideal rink for enthusiasts. That craze lasted for quite a few years.
During the Troubles, the Town Hall was occupied by British soldiers for a time. One of the stories that survive is that the soldiers kept themselves warm by lighting fires with legal papers from the late Thomas Downes, solicitor, which had been stored there.
Another story, which may or may not be true, is that a local character, maybe a little inebriated, wandered into the Square after the curfew hour and politely asked the sentry at the door of the Hall for a match and, having got it, unceremoniously cracked it on the sentry’s helmet.
Within weeks of the fire a decision had been taken by Skibbereen Urban District Council that the Town Hall would be rebuilt on the same site. The Town Hall Improvements Committee was founded to supplement the efforts of the Urban District Council to raise funds for the development and appeals were made throughout Ireland and to the Skibbereen people domiciled in all parts of the world.
The fundraising efforts were successful, and a new, bigger Town Hall was built. The official opening and blessing of the new Town Hall took place on Tuesday 2 February 1960, and it was performed by Most Rev. Cornelius Lucey, DD, Bishop of Cork and Ross.
The new Town Hall continues to play a significant role in the social and cultural life of Skibbereen. In the 1960s it staged many local and touring theatrical productions. The Cathedral Players continued to stage plays and the annual Skibbereen pantomime, which was held first in 1963, became a great highlight for many years.
The new Hall also saw the holding of weekly dances in the 1960s and 1970s in the great showbands era that was an extraordinary phenomenon throughout Ireland.
The multi-award winning Skibbereen Theatre Society continues the magnificent tradition of theatre in Skibbereen and stage at least one production annually.
In the early 1990s the Town Hall ceased to be the headquarters for the Local Authority as the UDC moved to new offices over the Library in the Bishop Kelly Memorial Institute in North Street. Town Councils in Ireland were abolished in 2014.