My song today is ‘Skibbereen’. This is a good old rebel song which is also sometimes known as ‘Dear Old Skibbereen’ or ‘Farewell to Skibbereen’ or ‘Revenge for Skibbereen’. This Irish folk song is in the form of a dialogue wherein a father tells his son about the Irish famine, and being evicted from their home, and the need to flee as a result of the ‘Young Irish Rebellion of 1848’.
The first known publication of the song was in a 19th-century publication, “The Irish Singers’ Own Book” (Noonan, Boston, 1880), where the song was attributed to Patrick Carpenter, a poet and native of Skibbereen. It was published in 1915 by Herbert Hughes who wrote that it had been collected in County Tyrone and that it was a traditional ballad of the famine. It was recorded by John Avery Lomax from Irish immigrants in Michigan in the 1930s.
The son in the song asks his father why he left the village of Skibbereen, in West Cork, Ireland, to live in another country, to which the father tells him of the hardship he faced in his homeland. It ends on a vengeful note expressed by the son.
I have been to Skibbereen a few times during past holidays to Ireland when I visited County Cork and given the opportunity of Sheila and I travelling around Ireland again, we will certainly make Skibbereen one of our stopover places. Located on the N71 national secondary road, Skibbereen (‘An Sciobairín’ in Irish, and sometimes shortened to ‘Skibb’ by local dwellers), the name Sibberdeen means ‘little boat harbour’. The River llen (Irish Gaelic: An Aighlinn) runs through the town. It reaches the sea about 12 kilometres away, at the seaside village of Baltimore.
I was born in the heart of Irish rebel country, in County Waterford in 1942 and the place of my birth is steeped in history of the Irish uprising. I was born in my grandparent’s house, Willie and Mary Fanning, in William Street, Portlaw. To be precise I was born in the front room of 14, William Street. There was no conventional bed base; merely one mattress piled upon an older one. I was born on the fifth mattress.
At the time, my father who lived in Kilkenny was a footballer who played for the Irish soccer squad. Soon after my birth, dad would give up his football career and go across the Irish Sea to West Yorkshire and take me with him; leaving my mother and my two younger sisters, Mary and Eileen at my grandparent’s house until he had established himself.
At first, dad and I lived with Aunt Eva in Bradford until my father got alternative accommodation and could send for my mum and two sisters to cross the Irish Sea and join us. Dad got a job as a miner, and along with his job came a small tied dwelling. Shortly after, he sent for mum and my two sisters to join him.
It is strange how our memories of childhood are invariably recalled through rose-coloured spectacles. The few things which I remember about our first home was the lack of furniture and the five of us sitting around the family table, which was an old tea-chest. I recall our first home as being a little cottage with lots of land around it, filled with hens and chickens. In truth, I later discovered that the entire dwelling had one bedroom and one living room; both of which fitted into the size of a 12x6 foot garage. I know this because when I took my first two sons, James and Adam, back to see it once, the dwelling had been demolished, and in its place stood a 12x6 foot garage! As for our expansive land surrounding our cottage, it comprised of four fields owned by a local farmer. What did remain factual, however, was the dozen hens that roamed the fields and whose eggs I daily collected from the surrounding fields, and an outside chemical loo.
My earliest memories of Portlaw in Ireland are ones of my grandmother baking soda bread and simultaneously smoking woodbines all day long while my grandfather worked in his back-yard shed mending the villages bicycles. My grandmother could see him at work through her kitchen window. There was a wire attached that ran through the kitchen window, across the back yard to my grandfather’s shed, and whenever my grandmother wanted to draw his attention, she would simply pull on the wire and a bell would ring!
My birthplace of Waterford was steeped in rebel history and Irish martyrs to the cause. My grandfather had reportedly been ‘on the run’ with the IRA as a young man. Both he and my grandmother would travel 100 miles to Dublin to vote for Eamon de Valera of Fianna Fail. I think they went to Dublin to make a celebratory outing out of their political affiliations.
Eamon de Valera emerged as a force in Irish politics shortly after the Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916. Born in New York in October 1882, he died in Blackrock, Ireland in August 1975 (almost 93 years of age). In his lifetime, Eamon de Valera (his actual Christian name was Edward) would the most prominent statesman and political leader in 20th-century Ireland. His political career spanned over half a century, from 1917 to 1973; he served several terms as head of government and head of state. Between 1959-73 he served as the President of Ireland. He also led the introduction of the Constitution of Ireland.
Whenever I think of the house in which I was born in Portlaw, my first and last image is of my grandparent’s narrow hallway. Along both walls of the hallway were framed photographs of Irish rebels who had been imprisoned and hanged. In the most prominent wall space was Kevin Barry, along with an inscription beneath the framed photograph: ‘On November 1, 1920, 18-year-old medical student Kevin Barry was hanged in Mountjoy Prison. He had been caught during an IRA raid in North Street, Dublin a few weeks before. Barry was sentenced to death because a young British soldier was killed in the ambush. Michael Collins tried to break him out of Mountjoy Prison but was unsuccessful.’
During my father’s life in England, despite this country having provided him and his family of seven children with accommodation, education, employment and a much more prosperous way of life than dad could ever have provided for us in Ireland (note, even footballers who played for their country received no wages, only expenses), green blood flowed through my father’s veins until the day he died. My mother, on the other hand, was a pragmatic woman (perhaps pragmatism is a womanly trait)? She would constantly tell my father, “Paddy Forde. How can you forget that England has given us everything we have ever had?“ My mother loved Ireland every bit as much as my father and would take her three oldest children on holiday there (out of unpaid rent money and other unpaid bills) a number of times over the years as we grew up. She loved Ireland and would not bite the land which gave her birth, but neither would she bite the hand that gave her a much more prosperous life in West Yorkshire, England!
When I was first married, being of Irish birth, I would be the one who threw house parties on ‘St Patrick’s Day’ for my friends and their wives. I suppose when push comes to the shove, had I been a young man in 1916, I would have probably been found in the Dublin Post Office where the Irish Uprising started, with a gun in my hands, firing at British soldiers. However, by my own adulthood, I held my mother’s view on these matters and automatically condemned all the bombings by the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland and on the English mainland.
It is also true to say, however, that in ‘real-time’ I am inherently inclined to the nationalism of any country in the world seeking self-rule. Had I been born in Wales, I could have never voted for any other party than ‘Plaid Cymru’ and had I been born in Scotland, I would have naturally been a member of the ‘Scottish National Party’. And while I have lived in England for 73 years out of my 77 years so far, I have never sought to become a naturalised citizen (even during the Brexit era when non-naturalised residents risked being sent back to the country of their birth). I can truthfully say that I have become a believer in the English way of life.
Love and peace Bill xxx