Play recording: Skibbereen

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  • Teideal (Title): Skibbereen.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 781508.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): 2312.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): song.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): Esther Warkov.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 24/02/1978.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): day class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

Now the ‘daddy’ – one of the daddies – of all emigration songs is called ‘Skibbereen.’ Now this song was composed in South Boston. And the reason for the song was a young boy once climbed up on his father’s knee, and he asked his father, ‘Oh father, dear, I often hear you speak of Erin’s isle / Her lofty scenes, her valleys green, her mountains rude and wild / They say it is a lovely land, wherein a prince might dwell. / Oh why did you abandon it? The reason to me tell.’ The father answered him – this is how the father started answering the son after that:

My son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Till the blight came over all my crops, my sheep and cattle died
My rent and taxes were so high, I could not them redeem
That’s the cruel reason I left old Skibereen.

It is well I do remember the year of ’98
When I arose a Fenian to battle against our fate
We were hunted through the mountains as traitors to the Queen
That’s another reason I left old Skibereen.

It is well I do remember the cold November’s day
When the landlord and the sheriff came to drive us all away
They set our roof ablaze afire, with their demon yellow spleen
That’s another reason I left old Skibereen.

Your mother, too, God rest her soul, fell on the snowy ground
She fainted in her anguish, seeing the desolation round
She never rose but passed away from life to mortal dream
She found a grave and place of rest in dear old Skibbereen.

You were only two months old, and feeble was your frame
I could not leave you with my friends, you bore your father’s name
I wrapped you in my cóta mór1 at the dead of night unseen
We heaved a sigh and bid goodbye to dear old Skibbereen.

Oh Father dear, the day will come when on vengeance we will call –
When Irishmen both stout and stern will rally one and all!
I’ll be the man to lead the van beneath the flag of green,
And loud and high we’ll raise the cry, ‘Revenge for Skibbereen!’


1. Greatcoat.

Unlike his commercial recordings of Skibbereen, most of the public performances recorded in the Joe Heaney Collection begin this way, with the first stanza of the song recited as part of the introduction to the song. While Joe refers to it as ‘the ‘daddy’ of all emigration songs,’ folklorist and musician Mick Moloney calls it ‘the granddaddy of all Irish famine songs’ (Far from the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song, 2002, p. 10). Indeed, with its reference to the United Irishmen’s uprising of 1798 (or should that be the Fenian uprising of 1848?) as well as to the ravages of the famine of 1845-50, Skibbereen powerfully depicts the fierce resentment felt by Irish people forced to flee their homeland throughout the nineteenth century. Joe doesn’t say how he knows that the song was composed in South Boston specifically; but it may well have been composed somewhere in the United States. Skibbereen is a town in west Cork which, according to Moloney, lost eighty percent of its population to the famine.

In his comprehensive review of the the double CD The Road from Conamara, the late Tom Munnelly takes Fred McCormick (who wrote the introduction and many of the notes) to task for assuming that Joe must have picked up Skibbereen from one of the many showbands and ballad groups among whom it was popular. Munnelly writes: ‘Sorry Fred, I’m afraid your prejudice is showing. OK, so it is a piece of bathos, and I agree that it is a bloody nuisance when the peasants sing the songs they like instead of the fine traditional songs that we in our wisdom know are far better for them. Skibbereen is definitely popular with the showbands (or whatever they are called nowadays), but it is also extremely widespread in the field and I have recorded it from Irish rural singers in every corner of the country.’

This song was recorded while Joe was Artist in Residence at University of Washington.