Skibbereen: The Breach of Promise

When Donal O‘Driscoll and a matchmaker named Collins called on the Widow O’Donovan in October 1913, they surely, not even for a second, felt that their visit would eventually lead to a trip to the County Court in Cork City. Such are the ways of true love.
Hannah O’Donovan had only recently buried her husband of thirty years. She had married at the age of seventeen and was the mother of two sons and two daughters. The daughters had emigrated, one to Canada and the other to London where she worked as a waitress in White’s Club. The two sons lived locally. Hannah now lived on her own and tried to make ends meet by working whenever she could.
Daniel O’Driscoll was a widower who lived on the other side of town. His powers of recollection seemed to be very poor in some areas. He claimed that he was sixty years old, sometimes he claimed to be sixty five, but when he stood in the witness-box he admitted to being seventy four.
Neither did he seem to be too sure about the number of love letters which he had written to the love of his life, Hannah. His memory also seemed to have failed him when he was asked to recall how much drink he had taken on the day on which the economics of the marriage had been settled. O’Driscoll was not sure whether he had five or six cows. He did however have fifteen acres of land and had 100 in the bank or “somewhere”.
After the initial meeting in October, marriage negotiations got under way. They continued through November, December and January. The widow had two very definite ideas. She would not marry until her husband was a year dead and she felt that O’Driscoll’s farm should be hers on his death.
O’Driscoll reluctantly agreed to the first condition. Negotiations on the second proposal were carried out in the snugs and back rooms of various Skibbereen pubs throughout the long winter months. The matchmaker, Collins, attended all sessions and many were the glasses of porter and port consumed.
O’Driscoll’s opening offer was a settlement of 100. This was refused and the Widow O’Donovan walked out. All was not lost however and at a later meeting O’Driscoll upped his offer. He was now willing to sign over half his farm and she was willing to accept. The agreement was signed. However, when the local solicitor, P. J. Collins, was consulted, it was discovered that the Land Commission would not agree to a sub-division of the lands. The lovers, the matchmaker and their respective followers were at this stage celebrating the forthcoming marriage and the whiskey had been produced. When an amended agreement giving the whole farm to the widow was brought from the solicitor’s office and placed before O’Driscoll he signed it readily. Furthermore, he went into O’Shea’s drapery shop and bought the makings of a wedding dress for his loved one and he also treated himself to a wedding coat.
He soon began to have regrets and so the matter came before the County Court in Cork. It was a real ‘kiss and tell’ affair. The love letters were read out to the court. They were pure white hot passion:

“Meet me in town, fair day Tuesday, in Tobin’s. Hope you are well. – Donal O’Driscoll.”

The next letter was even more passionate:

“Town, Saturday. Will be there. Hope you are well. – Donal O’Driscoll.”

The widow had to admit that the dress she wore to court was the wedding dress. There was much confusion as to who had bought drink and who drank drink on the day of the ‘sinnings’.
The defendant, O’Driscoll, was sure he was drunk on the day and that was why he was not proceeding with the marriage. He also felt that she had lied about her age and he had since heard that she had given her first husband a hard time. All his efforts were in vain and the accounts of his witnesses were in sharp contrast to those of the Widow O’Donovan.
When the final decision of the court was handed down, O’Driscoll still had his farm and his five or six cows, but now he had less money in the bank or “somewhere”.
The Widow O’Donovan had won her ‘breach of promise’ case, she had a new dress and she was 50 better off.

: Patrick Cleary, Skibbereen, joint author (with Philip O’Regan) of the famine history Dear Old Skibbereen.

Published in The Green Dragon No 7,Summer, 1998.