The town of Skibbereen is built in the low-lying Ilen Valley and is mostly surround by hills. One of the best vantage points to view Skibbereen town is Windmill Rock, which rises behind North Street and slopes up from High Street.
This was obviously the site of a windmill at one time, but we have never seen any record or reference to it.
The land on which the town of Skibbereen is built was once owned by two families, the Bechers and the Townsends. The line of demarcation between the two was that point where the Caol Stream meets the Ilen River at the bridge right in the centre of the town. The Becher family owned Main Street, North Street and that area, while the Townsends owned the Bridgetown side.
Skibbereen was unusual in that it had two patents. This dated back to the mid-1600s when the town grew out of two settlements, New Stapletown and Bridgtown.
Fairs had been held on the Windmill probably from the time the patent had been granted to Sir Henry Becher. Fairs at Bridgetown were held since 1778 when Richard Townsend received a patent to hold fairs there.
In the nineteenth century Skibbereen had twelve annual fairs and until the mid-1850s the practice was to hold two on the street in Bridgetown and the rest on Windmill Hill. However, a decade later a dispute developed between the inhabitants of opposite sides of the town when the residents of Bridgetown arranged fairs to be held on the same days as the traditional Windmill fairs. Both fairs suffered as a consequence and the situation created quite a rumpus.
One of the problems with the fairs on the Windmill was access. One observer in 1853 described the situation quite succinctly: ‘The elevation of the Windmill Rock is about 150 feet from the level of the town. There are two narrow passages leading to this precipice. In wet weather a deluge of water runs through those passages, the people and cattle are actually wading through mud. In frosty or sleet weather they are impassable to man and beast, although a charge is made to the public’.
One of those narrow passages up to the ‘Rock’ was Windmill Lane, off North Street. The other was off High Street.
In 1865 a new road was cut to allow access to the top of the ‘Rock’. This road, at the top of North Street, known locally Bóthar Daoimhín, or the Idle Road, allowed access for horses and carts to the marketplace on top of the hill.
Skibbereen was also home to one of the largest butter markets in Munster in the 1860s and this was held in an alfresco marketplace behind the old Town Hall at the Square.
With the fairs in Skibbereen increasing in size and more and more livestock being bought and sold, the site at the Rock gradually went out of favour and most of the business gravitated to the Fairfield off Bridge Street.
However, the Rock did remain something of a focal point and was a popular gathering spot for demonstrations and outdoor meetings.
Two of these gatherings come to mind and both involve the fervent Irish nationalist Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
In March 1863 Rossa organised a mass demonstration in Skibbereen in solidarity with Polish nationalists who had staged an uprising against the Russian occupying forces. All demonstrations in Ireland at that time were illegal and a large force of police was brought into the town to prevent the rally.
Following a stand-off between the demonstrators and the police, a compromise was reached, and the crowd was allowed to walk through the town in a quiet and orderly manner. Following this, the protesters assembled on the Windmill Rock and Rossa read an address.
People living in Skibbereen will remember the brilliant reenactment of that demonstration at the opening of the Arts Festival in 2015.
Six years later, in November 1869, while enduring extreme mistreatment in Chatham Gaol in England, Rossa was nominated by nationalists to contest a by-election in Tipperary. In what was an extraordinary propaganda coup for nationalism in Ireland, Rossa was elected an MP.
When news reached Skibbereen of this incredible and most unlikely victory for Rossa, there was great celebrations in his honour. The Skibbereen Eagle of 27 November 1869 recorded that ‘when darkness became apparent the town presented a brilliant aspect, as from one end to the other the houses were beautifully illuminated. About half-past seven o’clock upwards of two thousand people, in an orderly and becoming manner, proceeded from Townshend Street. Juveniles, with lighted torches, headed the procession, after which was a tremendous flag with the harp, bearing the inscription “O’Donovan Rossa for ever – Gallant Tipperary – God Save Ireland.” The vast concourse of people then assembled on the Windmill hill, where they were addressed by Mr. Michael Cunningham, who, on coming forward, was received with loud and enthusiastic cheers.’
During the awful years of the Great Irish Famine (1845–1852), Skibbereen gained an unfortunate notoriety as one of the worst affected places in the country.
Windmill Lane is one of the areas that was often mentioned in contemporary accounts and, unfortunately, those reports are very dismal. Windmill Lane, like other lanes in the town, would have been densely populated in the 1840s.
The Cork Examiner of 16 December 1846 gave an account of some very distressing scenes in Windmill Lane:
‘The Rev. Mr Fitzpatrick visited, on Friday last, a man named Casey, living in Windmill-lane, and found himself, his wife, and three children in fever. There was not an individual in the house able to contain an ounce of food, and they remained stretched upon a pallet of dirty straw. Amongst the children lay a lifeless boy, who had been dead sometime previously, and whose body might have remained there until it would fall asunder, were it not for the assistance afforded by the Rev. Mr Fitzpatrick. The only article that covered the nakedness of this family, that screened them from the cold, was a piece of coarse packing stuff, which lay extended alike over the bodies of the living and the corpse of the dead – which served as the only defence of the dying, and the winding sheet of the dead’.
Another case was that of the Widow Lynch, who also lived in Windmill Lane
‘This poor woman came into town about four months ago, from a neighbouring village with four children depending on her, and located herself in a miserable little hut in this town. Some time after her arrival one of the children was attacked by fever, and died; another of
them was shortly after visited by the same disease, which was attended by a similar melancholy result; and hardly had the corpse of this infant been removed for interment, before the third of them was smitten in a like manner. While this poor child was labouring under its deadly influence, the mother was attacked by the same malady, and stretched upon the straw with her dying child. Impelled by the cries of her starving infant, and maddened with the reflection that she had no means of supplying its wants, she crawled from her sick bed when her disease was at its climax, and staggered town to the town, to supplicate the charity of the humane for her famishing offspring. She sacrificed her existence to the instincts of her maternal affection – she dropped on that day in the street; she was carried home, and she died on Friday last in her hovel, in twenty four hours after she had left it to seek subsistence for her children’.
‘I was told this day by the police that a man had been for days unburied in a house on the Windmill: there, one of the most revolting scenes I ever witnessed was before me. In a nook in this miserable cabin lay upon a wad of straw, a green and ghastly corps that had been for five days dead, and that was already emitting the intolerable exhalations of putrefaction. At the feet of this decomposing body lay a girl groaning with pain; and by its side was a boy frantic in fever. The wife of the deceased sat upon the filthy floor stupefied from want and affliction. I asked her in the name of Heaven why she did not get her husband buried, her answer was she “had no coffin”. I enquired why she did not go out and look for one; decency would not allow her, for she was naked; the few rags that she had after the fever had rotted off her, and she hoped that a coffin would be her next dress – the children have been removed to the Fever Hospital, and are now improving’.
Dr Donovan did not name the man in his account, but a report in the Cork Examiner a few days later identified him as Crowley.
In an article in the Southern Reporter newspaper on 2 January 1847, it stated: ‘On the Windmill Hill there are 23 small houses, and since the first of December, 18 deaths took place in them from here hunger’.