The eventful journey of ‘Revenge for Skibbereen’

Posted on: 8th May, 2018

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: West Cork People

By Pauline Murphy

The National Famine Commemoration takes place at University College Cork on May 12. An Gorta Mór was a catastrophic event in Irish history and it left physical and mental scars on Cork, most notably in the west of the county where the haunting ballad of ‘Skibbereen’ has emerged as an anthem of those dark days.

The ballad plays out as a dialogue between a father and son, the older man speaks of bitterness when asked by his son why he left his home in West Cork. By the end of the ballad the son vows to right the wrongs done to those in Ireland and he sets out to get revenge for Skibbereen.

The ballad has a number of titles; many just simply call it ‘Skibbereen’ while others call it ‘Dear Old Skibbereen’, ‘Revenge for Skibbereen’ or ‘Farewell to Skibbereen’. It can be performed in a rebel rousing fashion or as a slow lament but no matter the title or performance, the content of the ballad does not change – it tells the tale of oppression and bitterness.

The ballad came from the pen of Skibbereen native Patrick Carpenter. Unfortunately not much is known about this man except that he emigrated across the Atlantic and was known to contribute poems to the Boston Pilot newspaper and the Irish World newspaper, a Fenian mouthpiece based in New York. It can also be considered that perhaps the name Patrick Carpenter was a pseudonym used by an Irishman who worked as a carpenter but had a flair for poetry. It was a common aspect of those times for authors of political and social pieces to hide their identity for fear of repercussions.

The earliest known appearance of ‘Skibbereen’ was in 1869 when it was published by Patrick Donahue in Boston as part of a collection of songs called ‘The Wearing of the Green Song Book’. In this publication we are informed that the ballad is sung to the air of ‘The Wearing of the Green’, an alien concept to those who sing the ballad these days!

The ballad next appears on a broadside ballad sheet in Glasgow in 1875 but it states that the author is unknown. It seems as though the ballad had an author in America but by the time it travelled back over the Atlantic Ocean, its authorship had been lost.

The ballad continued to be published in America; in 1880 it appeared in the Irish Singers Song Book, published in Boston. In 1889 English composer May Ostlere appropriated the ballad; in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News of June 15 1889, a report states, “on Friday next, Charles Colette will sing Miss May Ostlere’s new song Skibbereen”. It is unfortunate that the authorship of an anti-imperialist ballad was lost by the time it crossed back from the United States but it’s another thing entirely when the upper echelons of imperial London society then claim it!

The ballad appears in Ireland for the first time in 1915 in a collection published by Belfast man Herbert Hughes and in 1938, famed American folklorist John Lomax recorded Irish immigrants in Michigan singing it. The ballad was also recorded commercially by the likes of The Dubliners and The Wolfe Tones among many others.

The ballad is sung in many styles and heard in many venues but perhaps the haunting verse is best heard on the wind that whistles through the graveyard of Abbeystrewery, and all the other graves across Cork that hold the bones of those who “vow revenge for Skibbereen”.


(Original lyrics by Patrick Carpenter 1869)

Oh father dear I’ve often heard you speak of Erin’s isle,
It scenes how bright and beautiful, how rich and rare they smile,
You say it is a lovely land in which a prince might dwell,
Then why did you abandon it? The reason to me tell.

My son I’ve loved my native land with fervor and with pride,
Her peaceful groves , her mountains rude, her valleys green and wide,
And there I’ve roamed in manhoods prime and sported when a boy,
My shamrock and shillelagh sure my constant boast and joy.

But lo! A blight came o’er my crops, my sheep and cattle died,
The rack rent too alas was due, I could not have supplied,
The landlord drove me from the cot where born I had been,
And that my boy’s the reason why I left old Skibbereen.

Oh what a dreadful sight it was that dark November day,
The sheriff and the peelers came to send us all away,
They set the roof a-blazing with their demon smile of spleen,
And when it fell the crash was heard all over Skibbereen.

Your mother dear God rest her, fell upon the snowy ground,
She fainted in her anguish at the desolation round,
She never rose but passed away from life’s tumultuous scene,
And found a quiet grave of rest in poor old Skibbereen.

Ah sadly I recall that year of gloomy ‘48,
I rose in vengeance with the boys to battle against fate,
We were hunted thro’ the mountains wild as traitors to the queen,
And that my boy’s the reason why I left old Skibbereen.

You were only two years old and feeble was your frame,
I would not leave you with my friends, you bore your father’s name,
I wrapped you in my cathamore at dead of night unseen,
Then heaved a sigh and bade goodbye to poor old Skibbereen.

Oh father, father when the day for vengeance we will call,
When Irishmen o’er the field and fen shall rally one and all,
I’ll be the man to lead the van beneath the flag of green,While loud on high we’ll raise the cry, revenge for Skibbereen!


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