On May 28th 1584, Stephen Skiddy, a Cork wine merchant, made his will in which he left a bequest for the establishment of an almshouse in the city, leaving provision that out of certain rents, the Vintners of the City of London would annually pay the sum of £24 to be distributed among the property’s residents, who could either Catholic or Protestant: this payment began (and has continued ever since) following the death of Skiddy’s death in 1606. Initially, the almshouse occupied a site close to the city’s North Gate Bridge, but at the beginning of the 18th century a decision was taken to move to higher ground, the old location being considered ‘too narrow & incommodious for want of good air.’ This move was probably encouraged by a further bequest made in 1717 by one Roger Bettridge. Work began in 1718 and was completed the following year.
The site chosen for the new development of Skiddy’s Almshouses was one of a number of religious and charitable foundations in this part of the city and was constructed immediately adjacent to the Green Coat Hospital School, so-called because that was the colour of the pupils’ uniform. Founded in 1715, the school was primarily the brainchild of the Rev Henry Maule, then rector of the adjacent St Anne’s church (he would subsequently rise through the ranks of the Church of Ireland, eventually becoming Bishop of Meath). A charity school, it was intended to provide forty poor children – 20 boys and 20 girls between the ages of seven and 12 – with an elementary education of reading, writing and arithmetic combined with appropriate vocational training in areas such as spinning and weaving. As the print above shows, the building was U-shaped with two three-bay wings coming forward to create a courtyard, closed with gates: the statue of a boy stood on top of one gatepost, of a girl on the other. Popularly known as ‘Bob’ and ‘Joan’, both were made of lead and clad in green coats: these figures are today kept in the tower of St Anne’s. The school operated over the next two centuries, and when Samuel Lewis published his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland in 1837, a parliamentary grant meant the number of pupils had increased to 40 boys and 28 girls. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Green Coat School was amalgamated with other parochial schools by the City of Cork Church School Board but continued to function as a primary school for girls, as well as location for a Sunday school. Unfortunately the building was demolished in 1955. A budget hostel now occupies the site.
Skiddy’s Almshouse was constructed directly to the rear of the Green Coat School and might have suffered the same fate as that building. In 1963 the charity’s trustees opened new accommodation on the southern outskirts of the city, and sold the old almshouses to the nearby North Infirmary Hospital, then run by an order of nuns. The hospital proposed to demolish the old property and erect a block for nurses’ accommodation on the site. This caused sufficient outrage that a new organisation, the Cork Preservation Society, was established to fight for the survival of Skiddy’s Almshouses. The campaign was sufficiently successful that the CPS was able to embark on a restoration of the building, overseen by architect Frank Murphy and completed in 1975: in that year, it won the RIAI National Award for Architecture and a Europa Nostra Medal. In 2000, the CPS sold the almshouses to a charity, the Social Housing Development Company which embarked on a second restoration, converting the building into 14 social housing units, six with two bedrooms and eight with one bedroom. This continues to the present. Today Skiddy’s Almshouses is Cork city’s oldest inhabited building, and proof that there is absolutely no need to demolish old housing stock, which can be refurbished to meet present day requirements. Incidentally, the North Infirmary Hospital, which in the 1960s wanted to demolish the almshouses, was closed twenty years later and that building, after lying vacant for some time, is now an hotel.