Scene at Skibbereen. By James Mahoney for The Illustrated London News, 1847.
Oh son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Till a blight came o’er the praties; my sheep, my cattle died,
My rent and taxes went unpaid, I could not them redeem
And that’s the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.
– Skibbereen, traditional song (Attributed to Patrick Carpenter 1880)
When blight struck successive potato harvests between 1845 and 1847, the resulting famine caused death and devastation all over Ireland, but the townland of Skibbereen suffered more than most.
Six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man.
– Letter from Nicholas Cummins to The Duke of Wellington (Published in The London Times, December 1846)
The prospects of any child entering Skibbereen workhouse was bleak, with hunger and disease killing more than half of them. That day in 1848, like too many before, the emaciated bodies were piled onto a cart and pulled to the mass grave at Abbeystrewry. As they were thrown into the burial pit, one small child was hit by a shovel and groaned.
Three-year-old Tom Guerin was alive!
They pulled him from the grave, but the shovel blow left him crippled for life. He grew up to scrape a living as a beggar, travelling the country during the summer months and returning to the workhouse for winter. Despite this, he remained a cheerful man and a well-known character in West Cork, trading on his celebrity as “the boy who rose from the dead”.
In later life, he applied to the guardians of the workhouse for a new pair of shoes, supporting his case with a poem:
I rose from the dead in the year ’48,
When a grave at the Abbey had near been my fate,
Since then for subsistence I have done all my best
Though one shoe points eastwards and the other points west.
I roam o’er the world admiring each scene,
And a tax on the ratepayers I have never been,
I only appeal to you now for a pair
Of brogues, and I’ll vanish again into air.
– Tom Guerin, date unknown
Tom got his shoes. He died at 65, an impressive age for someone who lived a hard life and was left for dead as a child.