The Provincial Bank & the Great Famine


This building was once the site of the Provincial Bank of Ireland and its manager in the 1840s, JW Clerke, was very active in Famine relief as was his father before him, Dr St John Clerke, a medical doctor during the 1822 famine in Skibbereen.

A banknote from the Provincial Bank, signed by its manager JW Clerke.

JW Clerke was a the treasurer of the Skibbereen Committee of Gratuitous Relief, a group of men who came together to help the starving of Skibbereen during that tragic time. This Committee made many efforts to provide relief during the Famine time including opening one of the first large-scale soup kitchens in Ireland in what was then ‘Marmion’s Store’, now known as the Steam Mill building.

From this building, the Skibbereen Committee of Gratuitous Relief dispensed up to 8,400 pints of soup daily to the destitute of the area.

Like many others involved in relief work, JW contracted ‘Famine fever’ and a temporary manager was appointed while he recovered. This man arrived in March 1847 and wrote a letter describing the conditions of the town at that time:

‘This place is in a deplorable state; there is scarcely a house in the town that does not have fever in it … the whole town is in a lamentable state, resulting from famine and pestilence. The deaths in the workhouse and town average about 25 per day; the majority of the bodies are buried without coffins, by a party hired for the purpose, at so much per head.’

The infamous ‘dead cart’ which roamed the streets of Skibbereen collecting bodies for burial.

‘At the moment that I write, the bank door is surrounded by a crowd of starving creatures, craving assistance, and having all the appearance of disease …  one cannot walk through the street without being besieged by them.’

In a follow on letter dated 12 June 1847, the temporary manager is seeking permission to extend a loan to one of its customers as ‘from the present state of the country, several of his tenants have emigrated’ and the landowner required the loan ‘for purchasing implements and stocking’ (with thanks to William Casey)

Fortunately JW Clerke did recover from his illness and his daughters went on to become famous authors and astronomers. His daughter, Agnes Mary Clerke, has a moon crater named in her honour.

The celebrated astronomer, Agnes Mary Clarke, was born in Skibbereen in 1842.  The ‘Clarke Crater’ on the moon is named in her honour.

The town of Skibbereen owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Clerke family.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha 

Abbeymahon graveyard in Skibbereen, where the Clerke family tomb is situated.

(With many thanks to William Casey who recently donated a letter by this same man to our collection, prompting this post.)

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