Skibbereen (population c. 2,000) is a vibrant market town serving a large hinterland. The town as we now know it owes its origins to a raid of Algerian Pirates on nearby Baltimore in 1631, when 100 people were taken as ‘white slaves’. A small number of survivors rowed up the river Ilen to establish the town where it is today. However, there was a much earlier settlement just east of the town, based around the castle of the overlords, the MacCarthys. This wealthy Gaelic family forfeited its estates during the turbulent 17th century. English Planters William Prigg and Samuel Hall were given Market Rights by a 1675 Patent. There was also a Cistercian Abbey on the banks of the Ilen from the 13th century. The name Skibbereen is thought to have derived from ‘skiff’, a type of boat used for crossing the river. Prigg and Hall renamed it New Stapleton; however, it soon reverted to ‘Dear Old Skibbereen’.
Skibbereen developed into a thriving market town, trading in linen, wool and agricultural products. However, it was devastated by the Great Famine of the 1840s. One million people died and at least another million and a half emigrated during this appalling period of Irish history. As one of the worst-affected areas in all of Ireland, Skibbereen is synonymous with this tragic time. Many of the buildings in the town have direct links to the Famine and there are numerous stories associated with each of these sites. Even today, the horror of this terrible time is palpable at these locations.
The infamous Famine Burial Pits at Abbeystrowry hold the remains of up to 10,000 unidentified victims.