In Slater’s Director of 1846, Skibbereen is listed as having two hotels, both of them in North Street.
The Becher Arms Hotel was run by Mary Hegarty, and the Mountjoy Hotel was run by Tomas Mountjoy.
The Becher Arms Hotel opened in January 1838 at North Street, with Mrs Mary Hegarty as proprietor, and traded as a hotel until the late 1880s.
Mary Hegarty’s Becher Arms Hotel features a few times in the literature of Skibbereen in the 1840s.
It was given an interesting mention by the famous English author and travel writer William Makepeace Thackeray in this book The Irish Sketch Book, which was published in 1842.
In 1842 Thackeray took a three-month tour of the country and Skibbereen was among the places he visited. Thackeray’s view of pre-Famine Ireland, particularly his descriptions of the devastating poverty, offer us a great insight into conditions in Ireland at the time.
Thackeray wasn’t overly impressed on being guided to the ‘hotel’ in Skibbereen by a ‘tall handsome old man that I would swear was a dragoon on half-pay. He had a little cap, a Taglioni coat, a pair of beautiful spaniels, and a pair of knee-breeches which showed a very handsome old leg; and his object seemed to be to invite everyone to dinner as they got off the coach’.
Thackeray wrote that, having entered the Becher Arms Hotel: ‘There is a dirty coffee-room, with a strong smell of whisky … Dirty as the place was this was no reason why it should not produce an exuberant dinner of trouts and Kerry mutton; after which Dan the waiter, holding up a dingy decanter, asks how much whisky I’d have’.
Dufferin and Boyle
In February 1847, right at the height of the Famine, two young students from Oxford, Lord Dufferin and G.F. Boyle, stayed overnight at the Becher Arms Hotel. The two you men had come to Skibbereen with £50 which had been raised by the Oxford Students’ Union. Having been advised that Skibbereen was the worst affected place in the country, Dufferin and Boyle came to the town to spend their £50 in the most appropriate way.
Following their visit, Dufferin and Boyle published a pamphlet, Narrative of a Journey From Oxford to Skibbereen during the year of the Irish Famine, which they sold in order to raise funds to send back to the relief committee in Skibbereen. In it, they describe a particularly distressing scene they witnessed as they prepared to leave the town.
‘After a delay of three or four hours, we succeeded in hiring an outside jaunting car, to which an extra horse was attached. While this was being prepared, we sent out for an immense basket-full of loaves, intending to distribute them to the occasional starving beings we were sure to meet with by the way; but some of the people of the town had learnt our intentions, and collected in a great crowd under the window to the number of 100 or 200, mostly women. It was a frightful sight to see those pale eager faces staring up at us, uttering all manner of entreaties. Of course, there was no hope of carrying off the bread, indeed it would have been cruel to have made the attempt; the only question was, how to divide it. At first we sent it down to the door, but the rush was so great, that the scheme became impracticable; and it only remained to throw it out of the window. One can never forget what followed; the fighting, the screaming, the swaying to and fro of the human mass, as it rushed in the direction of some morsel, the entreaties and gestures by which each one sought to attract our attention to herself, and above all the insatiable expression of the crowd as it remained unsatisfied and undiminished at the exhaustion of our loaves – for what were they among so many’!
The proprietor of the Becher Arms, Mary Hegarty, died on 21 December 1861.
Mrs Agnes Hickey then took over the lease of the property and kept the hotel open. The hotel was offered for sale in 1865, but no sale took place and Mrs Hickey took out a fresh lease.
The hotel was described as containing ‘a large Coffee Room, two comfortable Sitting Rooms, Parlour, Bar, eight Bedrooms (making up twelve beds), Kitchen, with range, Pantries, Scullery, Servants’ apartments, Laundry, large Yard, Stabling for twelve horses, Coach House, Hay and Straw Lofts, Granary, and other useful offices’.
There was also ‘a well-established Wine and Spirit Business attached, which is patronised by the principal residents of the neighbourhood’.
Mrs Hickey renovated part of the building and added a further six bedrooms to bring the number up to fourteen.
On 30 March 1881 the Ballydehob branch of the Ladies Land League held a meeting in Ballydehob and Anna Parnell, was guest speaker. In promoting the Ladies Land League, which had been founded in America in 1880, Anna, sister of Charles Stewart Parnell, spoke at many locations around Ireland in 1881.
Following the meeting in Ballydehob, Anna Parnell was brought back to Skibbereen and she stayed that night in the Becher Arms Hotel.
By the mid-1880s the business in the hotel had declined to the point that by May 1866 Mrs Hickey had gone bankrupt.
In January 1889 the Becher Arms was again offered for letting before it final ceased to trade as a hotel.