BY BRIAN MOORE
A CHANCE discovery of a memorial on a wall in Skibbereen has led a student to a fascinating piece of local history.
Monica Stephens noticed a plaque on a wall when she was studying at UCC for her Diploma in Local and Regional Studies.
‘There is a plaque built into the wall on the right-hand side as you go into Field’s car park from Townshend Street recording the fact that it was the site of a Temperance Hall,’ Monica said.
‘The hall was originally built in 1843 by the Skibbereen Total Abstinence Society, which was founded in 1817 and is acknowledged as the first such organisation in Europe.’
As Monica continued her research, she discovered that the Skibbereen Total Abstinence Society was in many respects very different from other such organisations that were developing across the country at the time.
‘There had been temperance movements since the 1700s but there were two major differences between them and the Skibbereen Society,’ Monica continued. In this context, temperance promotes moderation, whereas abstinence requires total rejection of any alcohol other than prescribed by a doctor.
‘The second difference is that, whereas the temperance movement was often driven by the clergy or by the gentry, the Skibbereen group was initiated by a common nailer (a maker of nails) called Geoffrey Sedwards from Bridge Street.’
This was indeed unusual for a local tradesman to organise such a movement in a town and especially, as Monica explains, given Geoffrey’s trade and position in life.
‘Nailers had a reputation for being particularly hard-working, hard-drinking, rebellious men so this was quite a remarkable move on the part of these tradesmen,’ Monica said. ‘Soon the meetings were open to the general public and various activities were held and rallies organised to provide alternative socialising away from the pubs.
‘At this period most crime was caused by excessive drinking and, once the Abstinence Society was well established locally, the records show that the crime rate dropped to almost nothing.’
As 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Skibbereen Total Abstinence Society, Monica would like to see this event marked in some way.
‘I would like to think that someone locally will take an interest and make some event out of it. Maybe our local History Group or the Heritage Centre will run with it,’ Monica said.
‘I suppose it’s yet another facet of the area which up until now has been rather overlooked. People know about Skibbereen and its significance in the famine era and also would perhaps be aware of certain famous people with connections to the area, but I guarantee very few, if any, have heard of Geoffrey Sedwards.’