Come to My Town: Everyone is welcome in lovely Skibbereen

As we continue our series visiting Cork towns to see what is on offer, MARTINA O’DONOGHUE pays a visit to Skibbereen in West Cork and chats to local Cian O’Mahony to find out about the town’s gems
Come to My Town: Everyone is welcome in lovely Skibbereen

The town hall, Skibbereen, Co. Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

CIAN O’Mahony, my unofficial ‘tour guide’ this week, is well versed in what to see and do in his home town, seeing as he has been manager of Skibbereen Tourist Office for the past seven years.

“The best job in town,” he acknowledges.

Cian’s also an administrator of the Skibbereen-home Facebook page, although most locals will probably remember him from back when he stood behind his own bar counter at Cain O’Mahony’s. And no, whoever painted the sign over the door didn’t incorrectly spell his first name, but rather it has morphed over the years (his great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle were Cain, whereas he and his son are Cian).

Incidentally, he sold the pub 24 years ago and it still operates to this day, now as The Horse and Hound.

You’ll wonder if he is pulling your leg when he declares, “I was born at the side of the street”, but truthfully he was born in the house in which he grew up on Townshend Street.

“The old mart was our playground when there was no mart on. That’s where we played, inside the pens,” he recalls.

The mart has since moved out of its central location to Marsh Road, leaving its original site to become a car park, but much about the town remains the same.

“It’s an exceptionally friendly town and it has retained its lovely market town feel,” says Cian.

Skibbereen walking trails will keep you active, with three outlined in a brochure from Skibbereen Tidy Towns. There’s the Abbey Loop, the Compass Loop and the Rock Loop walks, all departing from Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

Skibbereen Heritage Centre.
Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

The walks will bring you to some of the town’s historic sites and up the surrounding hills for panoramic views of the Ilen river estuary.

And Cian’s favourite route?

“I go out Milland. People who lived up there used to call it ‘The Old Road’. 

"It takes you to the back of Russagh Mill. There’s a stream down behind the mill. It’s a linear walk; just a gorgeous walk.”

There are more spots for recreation in the town too.

“We’ve a lovely playground on Cork Road; there’s a basketball court there as well,” says Cian. He also directs me to Skibbereen Sport and Fitness Centre, a community-owned facility overseen by a voluntary Board of Directors, where there are three outdoor tennis courts available for hire, as well as gym facilities.

If you’d like your visit to Skibbereen to be less active, however, he suggests O’Donovan Rossa Memorial Park, where a commemorative sculpture was unveiled by President Michael D. Higgins in 2015.

“It’s a small park just on the edge of town; a ten minute walk from the tourist office. It’s very peaceful over there,” he says.

Cian O’Mahony, Skibbereen
Cian O’Mahony, Skibbereen

For further history, Skibbereen Heritage Centre is one of the town’s most popular spots. Housed in the Old Gasworks Building on Upper Bridge Street, it hosts two permanent exhibitions: one on the Great Famine and another on Lough Hyne.

You may find yourself back out walking again after your visit because the Famine Story app is available to be downloaded at the centre. That will add another dimension to your walk around Skibbereen, as local actors (including Jeremy Irons) lend their voices to descriptions of what was experienced locally during the potato famine, all while you meander through sites that are directly linked.

When visiting Skibbereen, a visit to Lough Hyne is highly recommended and is one of the top queries Cian receives at the tourist office.

Around 5km from the town, it is Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve and unique sea-water lake, offering diving and water sports opportunities. A huge variety of marine plants and animals live in the lake, including 72 species of fish. While it is splendid during the day, Atlantic Sea Kayaking offers a night kayaking experience from dusk into darkness, where you’ll witness the astonishing bioluminescence of the lake.

If you’re there during the day though, take a hike up the adjacent Knockomagh Woods. It’s strenuous enough over uneven ground but the rewarding view at the top makes it all worthwhile.

Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre is a must-see spot for the creatively minded visitor. The centre’s members’ and friends’ annual exhibition is running until July 15, showcasing work by artists from across West Cork and beyond. You won’t have to go far for refreshment either, as the Coffee shop at Uillinn is providing tasty food and beverages in its sunny, sheltered courtyard. There’s a newly added wine-list to check out as well.

If you plan your trip for August, you will have the added treat of being able to see West Cork Creates at the O’Driscoll Building on Levis Quay, in what will be their first physical exhibition since 2019.

Running from August 7-28, the show, called Home Ground, will feature works from a group of artists, craftspeople, photographers and designers based in the region.

There’s another artistic spectacle nearby which Cian has witnessed for himself.

“The Sky Garden out at Lissard is by a world famous sculptor, James Turrell. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. It’s certainly not what you’d expect to find in a quiet corner of West Cork.”

Going out specifically to see it is discouraged, however, as it is a priority for guests of Lissard Estate, so maybe book in for lunch, dinner or afternoon tea there first, and then take a ramble to the Sky Garden.

Unfortunately, our hopes for the return of indoor dining have been dashed for the moment, but there are a number of takeaway or outdoor dining options from the likes of The Riverside Café, Kalbo’s Apple Betty’s and The Church Restaurant, while the West Cork Hotel offers a quirky experience, as you will be dining on the iconic former railway bridge.

A visit to Annie May’s, meanwhile, should probably be added to the heritage map, as last week the bar and restaurant marked the opening of its doors for the 14,600th time, with lady of the house Angela celebrating an amazing 40 years in business.

From the oldest to the newest, a recent addition to Skibbereen’s food outlets is The Spice House on Bridge Street, open for takeaway curries since May.

Get to town early on a Saturday morning and avail of the farmers’ market in the old fair field, right in the centre. And by the way, if you haven’t been in a while, you might get caught out by the unexpected one-way system as you come into North Street. That’s been in place since June 21 for a trial period until early September.

Next week: Martina visits Kanturk.

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