Terry Skillen




When I went to Ireland for the first time I inquired about the presence of the name Skillen in the communities I visited.  In the Republic of Ireland I was told that Skillen was not an Irish name.  I suppose the comment was based on a comparison of the name Skillen with the traditional Gaelic Irish names familiar to people in the south.  The Skillen surname is not familiar in the Republic because it occurs very infrequently.  A survey of Irish telephone directories undertaken in June 2006 found only one listing in each of five counties of the Republic.  If the name was Irish in origin we could ask how it came to be so rare in Ireland. The answer seems to be that indeed the name is not indigenous to Gaelic Ireland. The Skillen surname appears to be common only in a specific geographic area in the north of Ireland. Using the resources available in the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland I found that the name occurs most frequently in County Down.  While found in other counties of Ulster, for example Antrim, especially Belfast City, Skillen has been identified most strongly with the Mourne Mountains area in the south east of County Down. There is no reference to the name in ancient Irish history to suggest that Skillen might have been present in Ireland before written records were kept. I have relied on written records that go back no further than early in the 18th century.


 While authorities differ on the origin of the Skillen name, John OíHort author of the book entitled Irish Pedigrees prefers a Nordic or English source. The Vikings began a period of invasion and conquest late in the 8th century. They occupied much of the west of Europe from Russia in the east to Iceland in the west. Half of England was occupied by the Danes. Settlements were established in Scotland, Ireland and the islands to the north and west of Scotland. The land occupied by the Normans, known now as the province of Normandy in France, was conquered by the Vikings. The Vikings settled in the conquered lands and assimilated with the host populations. The Skillen name could have originated, perhaps even simultaneously, in several locations where Vikings had settled.


The expansion of the Viking population throughout Europe commenced long before they began to use surnames in the 11th century. It is therefore unlikely that Vikings in Ireland were using surnames before they were forced out of the country in 1052. It therefore seems reasonable to hypothesize that the name came to Ireland sometime after the Vikings left.


John OíHortís opinion that the name has an English origin may be supported by the fact that a short time after the Vikings were forced out of Ireland the Norse assimilated Normans conquered England in 1066. The host population of England included people of Viking origin. After 1066 there was added to the English population another Viking influence in the Norse Normans. The surname Skillen/Skilling could have emerged in either of these Nordic cultural groupings.


The Skillen name may have arrived in Ireland with a settler from England in the last half of the 16th century. At that time the English were making an effort to populate Ireland with Protestant settlers. During the 1550ís and the mid years of the reign of Elizabeth 1st several private plantations were attempted in counties Laois and Offaly on the western edge of the Pale; in Munster Province in the south west of Ireland; in the south of County Down at Newry; in the Ards peninsula in the north east of County Down where a settlement was attempted by Sir Thomas Smith in 1571 and in County Antrim where the Earl of Essex tried to establish a settlement.


A Skillen may have come to Ireland with the primarily Scottish settlements in County Down by Hamilton and Montgomery in 1605. Scottish and English settlers might have brought the name to the other counties of the Province of Ulster during the plantation period beginning in 1610.


The army of William 3rd may have included a Skillen. In 1690 William of Orange came to Ireland to challenge and help defeat the Irish/French army of the Catholic English King James 2nd. William defeated James and his army was rewarded with land in Ireland. A Skillen may have remained in Ireland as a settler.


A Presbyterian Church record confirms the presence of a Skillen in County Down in 1705 and her Presbyterian Church affiliation suggests that she and her deceased Skillen husbandís family probably originated in Scotland. Mrs. Skillenís social circumstances at the time suggest that she was resident in Ireland in the mid to late 17th century. Another piece of evidence, a headstone in County Down, verifies that a Skillen born in 1698 was buried in Saul parish cemetery in 1730 at age thirty two. There is no evidence that the man was born in Ireland in 1698. I have yet to find evidence of a Skillen presence in Ireland in the 16th century. The absence of a 16th century reference does not prove unequivocally that the name had not yet arrived in Ireland. However there is a possibility that the name first appeared during the 17th century settlements in County Down begun by Hamilton and Montgomery with Scottish farmers.


Records from the 17th century onward identify both names, Skillen and Skilling, in County Down with Skillen being the most frequently reported version. It may be that the name was introduced to Ireland by the English and the Scots about the same time thereby accounting for the associations with both the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church. Those rare occurrences of the Skillen name in counties with large numbers of English settlers such as Wexford and Cork would be either due to migration from Ulster or migration directly from England.


The shortest distance between County Down, Ireland and Scotland is less than twenty miles across the Irish Sea. There was migration between the north east of Ireland and the lowlands of Scotland even before the Vikings began raiding Ireland in the late 8th century. Apparently the migration began with people crossing the Irish Sea to make use of the land in Scotland. About 500 AD a large emigration of Celts from Ulster came to Argyllshire, took possession of the land and mixed with the Celts they found there. The Ulster Celts were called Scots and they gave their name to the land which they called Scotland in the 12th century. The Ulster Celts also brought Christianity as well as the first King to Scotland.


An earlier incursion by the Irish Celts on English soil resulted in the capture of a boy who was enslaved in Ireland. After six years of captivity he escaped back to England. The young man became a priest and after being directed in a vision he returned to Ireland in 432 A.D. to help to convert the pagan population. While he was not the first Christian missionary in Ireland, he made the biggest impact before his death in 463 and his name continues to be revered as St. Patrick, the Patron of Ireland. 


The direction of migration changed with the first large influx of Scots into County Down about 1605 when two Scots, Hamilton and Montgomery were granted large tracts of land by King James of England. The Plantation of Ulster in 1609 brought another large number of Scots to the north of Ireland. Neither County Antrim nor Down were part of that plantation but they were settled around the same time by Scots and English.


If the first Skillen arrived in County Down in the late 17th or early 18th century the family would have been either Presbyterian from Scotland or Anglican from England. Those with the Skillen name in England before the Reformation would have been Christians of the Roman rite who would have become members of the Anglican Church when Henry the 8th proclaimed himself head of the church in England. In Ireland the English would have attended the Church of Ireland because it was affiliated with the Church of England. In Scotland the Protestant Reformation was most felt in the lowlands where the majority of the population became Presbyterians. The highlands were less influenced by the reformation and the Roman Catholic denomination survived. Since most of the Scottish who came to Ireland in the 17th century were lowlanders from the south west they were Presbyterians. The English Anglicans would have come to County Down from the north of England. It is unlikely that any of the Skillen immigrants to Ireland at the time of the Plantation of Ulster were Catholics.






One early reference to the Skillen name in County Down is found in an account of the Collections and Disbursements of the Congregation of Ballynahinch Presbyterian Church in Magheradrool Parish. ďWidowĒ Skillen is recorded as having received financial assistance of one shilling on 27 March, 1705. We can surmise from this womanís circumstances that she was either a young widow with dependent children or she was an elderly person without sufficient resources to support herself. If Widow Skillen was elderly at the time of her request from the local Presbyterian Church she might have been born before 1650 in Scotland or Ireland. It would suggest that the Skillen name was present in Ireland possibly from the middle of the 17th century.


When St. Patrick came to County Down he converted a local Celtic chief to Christianity. The chief gave Patrick land and a barn in Saul Parish. On that location was built a church that became after the reformation the property of the Church of Ireland. The site is the oldest associated with Christianity in Ireland.  In Saul cemetery of that church near the town of Downpatrick a tombstone records the interment of William Skillen who died on December 27th, 1730 aged 32. The tombstone may be the earliest grave marker of a Skillen in Ireland.  He is buried in Saul graveyard, a Church of Ireland cemetery but we cannot be certain that he was a member of that denomination. We know that he is not the first Skillen who died in Ireland since the husband of Widow Skillen died in 1705 or earlier. A visit to Saul Cemetery in March, 2005 found that the tombstones in the oldest part of the cemetery were almost invisible as the result of sinking into the earth. Only the top parts of the stones were visible.


Widow Skillen of Magheradrool parish may have been related by marriage to William Skillen of Saul parish who was born in 1698. He might have been her brother in law or a nephew by marriage. They probably lived about two and a half hours apart by foot, he in Saul Townland in Inch parish about ten to twelve miles from her in Ballynahinch Townland. The two do not seem to share the same religious affiliation judging from Williamís burial in a Church of Ireland cemetery. However it is possible that William died a Presbyterian and he was buried in the Church of Ireland cemetery because there was not a Presbyterian cemetery.


Presbyterians at the end of the 16th century were under considerable pressure from the Irish government to conform to the practices of the Church of Ireland. For example, the Presbyterians were expected, as were the Catholics, to use the Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer. The Catholic Church was less affected because the English Protestant dominated parliament in Ireland refused to translate the Book of Common Prayer into the Irish language. The Catholics who could not speak English would be allowed to read the prayer book in Latin. Only the educated Catholics, for the most part the clergy, could read Latin so there was little reason to translate the Book of Common Prayer into Latin. The English speaking Presbyterians could not use language as an excuse to avoid use of the Established Churchís prayer book. Many Presbyterian ministers refused to use the prayer book and resigned in protest. Many others were forced to resign their ministries because they would not conform to the law. With respect to marriages and burials the Scot Presbyterian ministers were expected to conduct the marriage and burial services according to the rites of the Church of Ireland. If they did not have their own Meeting Hall or burial ground the facilities of the Church of Ireland were used. In some cases a Protestant congregation was not permitted to have its own graveyard and would use the Church of Irelandís burial place.


Other persons with the name Skillen were living in Ireland before William. Widow Skillenís husband who was dead in 1705 was probably resident in Ireland some time before William was born in 1698. William was probably a tenant farmer and a man with enough money set aside or with a family able to purchase a tombstone. Not many people, especially those with a modest holding of land and certainly not those without land, would have been wealthy enough to afford a tombstone. It is not likely that the husband of Widow Skillen was laid to rest with a headstone given the poor womanís circumstances in 1705. We are left to wonder about Williamís family of origin. Were his parentsí resident in Ireland or had he come alone as a settler? Perhaps members of Williamís family preceded him to Ireland and were buried in the same cemetery without a tombstone.


 It is also worthy to note the location of Williamís grave site near Downpatrick. It may have been in this area of County Down that the first Skillen family settled in Ireland. Saul graveyard is one of the oldest cemeteries in County Down. Again, we have to resolve the question of how the name first came to Ireland, through an English line or a Scottish line. Members of different Skillen Families may have come to Ireland and settled in different locations in County Down.


In Saul cemetery near the town of Downpatrick is found the burial site for Ellinor Skillen, a child who died at age four in 1753.  Perhaps she was a grandchild of William. Many years later in 1828 a John Skillen of Inch who died at age 58 is interred in Saul Parish graveyard. His wife Mary who died ten years later in 1838 at the age of 69 is buried in the same graveyard at Saul. Their son Matthew, born in 1800 died in 1887 at age 87. Less than a year later a Thomas Skillen died in 1888 at 80 years of age. The burials in Saul cemetery tell us that a Skillen family was resident in the Parishes of Inch and Saul, County Down from the beginning of the 18th century until late in the 19th century.


We know from census data that the surname Skillen occurs most frequently in the east half of County Down. It is possible that some of the first Skillen families lived in the Parish of Inch near Downpatrick where the oldest tombstones are found. In the religious census of 1766 for Inch Parish there is a William Skillen, Protestant, residing in Ballyrenan townland. Also in 1766 Samuel Skillen and D. Skillen, Protestants, are in Ballygauley townland, Parish of Inch. These persons may have been buried in Saul cemetery without tomb stones.


The Militia Lists for Finnebrogue Estate, 1793 located in Inch Parish identify two persons with the name John Skilling.  A William Skilling is enumerated in 1800 as part of the Maxwell family estate at Finnebrogue in Ballyrenan townland in Inch parish. In 1826 David Skilling and John Skilling are located in Ballyrenan townland in Inch parish.


One source of information for the family researcher is the Tithe Applotment valuation begun in the 1820ís and the Griffiths Valuation undertaken in the 1860ís. These surveys were undertaken to determine the possession and value of a personís property. The property value determined the amount of the tithe to be paid to the Church of Ireland. The valuation survey included only those who possessed property. It was not a census of the entire population of Ireland. Not everyone who came to Ireland from Scotland and England was a tenant farmer. Many came as labourers. Therefore it is important to bear in mind that more persons with the name Skillen were living in Ireland than reported in the Valuation Surveys. The same will apply to tombstones. Most people probably could not afford a stone grave marker. Access to church records is therefore important. Unfortunately many of these records have been destroyed and even where extant are very difficult to read.


The Tithe Applotment records for 1827 identify a William Skillen in Ballytrim townland in Killyleigh Parish, County Down. Also in that parish are another William Skillen in Corporation townland and a John Skillen in Tullyveary townland.


In 1829 the Tithe Applotment valuation for Kilmood Parish finds Andrew Skillen in Ballybunden townland, David Skillen in Ballykeigle townland and John Skillen in Ballygrotn townland. Another Andrew Skillen is residing in Tullymurray townland in Donaghmore Parish. Robert Skilling is living in Moyad townland in Kilcoo parish. Andrew Skillan is found in Cargoachbawn townland in Donaghmore Parish.


The tithe Applotment valuation for 1830 lists eight persons in Kilkeel Parish including John Skillen Sr. and John Jr. in Ballyveaghmore townland and another John in Ballymageough townland. William Skillen is located in Dunavin townland. Andrew Sr. and Andrew Jr. are in Glenloughan townland as is James Skillen. John is living in Moneydarraghmore townland in Kilkeel Parish in 1830.


In 1833 Thomas Skillen held land in Ballygott townland in the Parish of Bangor which is located at the upper end of the Ards Peninsula between Belfast to the west and Donaghadee to the south east. Alexander Skillen resided in Donaghadee a village on the Irish Sea. In the town of Groomsport a few miles from Bangor, Hanna Skillen had a leased house with another person and a separate property for a garden. Sam Skillen and John Skillen leased land near Comber on the west side of Strangford Lough. William Skillen was located in Carrickmanon townland in Killinchy Parish south of the town of Comber. Thomas Skillen lived in Seaforde a short distance from Downpatrick.


In 1834 The Tithe Applotment valuation find Samuel Skillen and John Skillen with land in Ballyraer townland in Donaghadee Parish, a few miles south of Bangor on the Irish Sea. William Skillen is found in Magherascrouse townland in Comber Parish, County Down. John Skillen Jr. is enumerated in Tonaghmore townland in Magherally Parish.


In the centre of County Down toward the border with County Armagh is located the town of Banbridge where a James Skillen in 1833 was residing in the Parish of Tullylish. Another James Skillen was living in Donaghmore located a few miles north of Newry. A Robert Skillen was a tenant of Isaac and Jane Corry in Coscreaghy Parish in the Union of Newry where he leased a house and land.


South of the Ardes Peninsula along the Irish Sea is found Newcastle in the Parish of Kilcoo where the impressive Mourne Mountains overlook the town. A member of the original Irish Magennis family built a castle at the mouth of the Shimna River about 1433. The Magennis family owned the land around Tollymore and Castlewellan. They had an estate at Tollymore. The land was inherited by Ellen Magennis who married William Hamilton of the family that was granted the land in County Down by King James. The land then came into the possession of the Hamilton family. In 1719 James Hamilton became Viscount Limerick and in 1728, the first Earl of Clanbrassill. He built a mansion house, large barn and two deer parks at Tollymore. The estate was initially intended to be a hunting lodge. The second Earl of Clanbrassill had no children and the estate was inherited by his sister who had married the 1st Earl of Roden in 1752. There were seven subsequent Earls of Roden who made Tollymore their estate home. The property was sold to the government, lot in the 1930ís and the remainder in the 1940ís.The property has been retained as a public forest park. In that park is a large, old tree with the name William Skillen, 1872 carved in the trunk.


There is a minor connection between members of Skillen families in County Down and the Earls of Roden of Tollymore Park. In the 1830ís Thomas Skillen and partners leased land from the Earl of Roden. Some of the partners may have been Thomas, Mark and John Skillen who also resided in Kilcoo Parish in which the estate is located. The land may have been used for farming but it also may have been used for cutting timber and logging. In the late 1800ís the 5th Earl of Tollymore sold fifteen acres of land to William Skillen, the father of two sons who had recently left school at age 14. The land was located between Tollymore and the Mourne Mountains on the edge of the estate. The Earl wanted to hire the boys but their father reasoned that the distance between his home and Tollymore was too far for his sons to walk twice daily. The Earl offered to sell the fifteen acres to Mr. Skillen if he would agree to have the boys work on the estate.  Mr. William (Willy) Skillen the grandson of the William who purchased the property now owns the fifteen acres. He grew up in the cottage built by his grandfather. Willy Skillen worked in Tollymore Park for 35 years after it had been sold by the 8th Earl of Roden to the government. Willy a staunch Presbyterian is a sheep farmer. In 2005 at age 69 he was semi retired and had handed responsibility for the farm over to his two sons who retrain a Skillen presence in Bryansford and Newcastle, County Down. Willy recalled that another Skillen family lived near Bryansford until they moved to Canada in the 1950ís. Thomas Skillen was the head of the household and the family worshipped in the Church of Ireland.


South of Newcastle in Kilkeel parish in the Barony of Mourne a number of the Skillen family became tenants of the Earl of Roden. John Skillen Sr. and John Jr. held land in tenancy in the townland of Guineways as did Robert Skillen. Elizabeth Skillen is also recorded as leasing a house and land from a John Keown in the townland of Guineways. John Sr. and John Jr. were tenants of property owned by a John S. Moore in Dunnamon townland. In Clonachullion townland in the Parish of Kilkeel James Skillen Jr. was a tenant of the Earl of Roden as was William Skillen. Hugh Skillen was a tenant of Francis R. Chesney in the townland of Ballyveagh Beg.


The Tithe Applotment valuation does not list persons with the surname Skillen in the town of Downpatrick. However, the Griffithís Valuation of 1864 lists ten persons with the name Skillen as tenants of properties in Downpatrick. The Tithe Applotment valuation was not a complete survey of all land holders. It is possible that some persons with the name Skillen were tenants or owners of land in the late 1820ís and early 1830ís in Downpatrick. Perhaps there was migration into the town of Downpatrick by family members around the time of the famine in the 1840ís. Whatever the reason, the increase in the number of Skillen residents in Downpatrick is significant. Five persons, John, Robert, William, Edward and Thomas Skillen were living in houses on Bridge Street. Bernard Skillen had a house on Saul Street as did David Skillen. Matthew and Thomas Skillen had an office on Scotch Street. Thomas had leased land and an office on another property on Portland Street. In 1857 P. Skillen was living in Russellís quarter in Down Parish. There is some significance to the fact that so many persons with the same surname are residing in the town. While ten names are listed as property holders we can assume that wives and children were attached to many of these men. The total number of Skillen in Downpatrick in the 1860ís would have been quite significant given the small size of the town at the time. We know from the records for Saul graveyard that a Skillen family resided a few miles from the town of Downpatrick and it may be that some of these people moved into the town. It is also possible that individuals from several Skillen families had over time made their way to Downpatrick.


Whatever might have been the circumstances of other Downpatrick Skillen families, Isabella (Bell) Skillen, of Down Parish, was not doing well at all. On two occasions, for a short period in March 1868 and again between 4 February and 23 June, 1869 she was admitted to the Workhouse in Downpatrick. ďBellĒ Skillen was a single 53 year old servant. She was a member of the Church of Ireland. She was poorly clad when she presented at the workhouse. People were admitted to the Work House if they were poor and unable to provide for themselves or their family was not able to provide care. It is evident that she was getting older and perhaps her health did not permit her to undertake the physical responsibilities expected of a servant. It is interesting to note that a number of Skillen families were resident in Downpatrick but Bell does not seem to have had any family attachment strong enough to prevent her admission to the work house. The Work houses also cared for mentally disturbed and intellectually impaired persons. It is possible that Isabella had a mental health condition that could not be cared for by her family.


About the same time that ďBellĒ Skillen was in and out of the Work House another Skillen was busy doing the business of the Orange Fraternity and not suffering the economic and emotional stress experienced by ďBellĒ. The Down Recorder of 10 December, 1870 reported that a soiree in the Orange Hall in Downpatrick heard Matthew Skillen the leading County Down Orangeman denounce the errors and dogma of Rome. He asked rhetorically how many masses it would take to get a soul out of purgatory. ďJust as many as it would take snow balls to heat a bakerís oven.Ē He reminded his listeners that Orangemen existed to protect the Protestant community against the errors he had just parodied. It may have been this same Matthew Skillen from Downpatrick who submitted a poem to the Down Recorder in 1870 to honour the memory of the son of the third Earl of Roden. Again in 1872 Matthew Skillen wrote a poem to honour Rev. Charles Boyd of Magheradrool on 5 October, 1872. Eliza Skillen had married a James Boyd and in 1871 Eliza gave birth to a son William. Perhaps the Rev. Boyd was a relative of James and Matthew was a relative of Eliza. Whatever the occasion for oration, Matthew Skillen had a way with words.


The Skillen name is found frequently in Belfast, County Antrim and very infrequently in other counties of Ulster. Samuel Skillen is listed in the Freehold records as having property in Upper Orior, County Armagh in the early 1820ís. Over the years there was a migration of the name to Belfast. John Skillen born in Belfast about 1804 married Janet Blakely in Belfast about 1824. William Skillen, born in Belfast in 1825 later became the Deputy Governor of the Belfast Jail. William Skillen is listed as a Freeholder of properties at Thomas Court and Thomas Street in Belfast in the 1830ís. There is one Andrew Skillen listed as a porter living in New Road, Ballymackarret, County Antrim near Belfast in 1852.


A few occurrences of the Skillen name are found in the south of Ireland. The minutes of the Cork Artistís Guild identifies a Thomas Skillen. He was an artist born in Cork who resided there with his two sisters who ran a haberdashery. An Irish Canadian family tree posted on the internet refers to a Mary Betty Skillen, born 1833 in County Wexford who married a Patrick Sommers born in 1825. The couple immigrated to the USA in 1855. A Mary Anne Skillen is identified as resident in Cork, Holy Cross Parish in the 1860ís. In County Clare in the 1860ís a Skillen resided in Kilmurry Parish.


Historically the Skillen name has been strongly associated with County Down in the northern province of Ulster. The name has been particularly evident in the Ards and in the areas near Downpatrick, the Mourne and especially Kilkeel Parish. The name is strongly associated with Scotland and the Presbyterian Church. These Skillen members of the Presbyterian Church would probably identify themselves today as Ulster Scots.


Church records and Irish census data from the late 17th century indicate that persons with the Skillen surname were also members of the Church of Ireland. The Church of Ireland Skillen family members may have come from England to County Antrim before the Scots. In County Down they may have been Presbyterians who under pressure from the English government converted to the Church of Ireland. Over time identification with several Protestant denominations has occurred. In the 20th century the name Skillen can be identified with Catholics as well as Protestants.


The occurrence of the name in other counties of Ulster, such as Armagh and Antrim may have been due to later internal migration. Occurrences of the Skillen name in the south of Ireland are very infrequent. The name may have occurred in Wexford in the south east, Cork in the south west and Clare in the west due to migration from Ulster in the north or as the result of direct migration from England.


A search undertaken in June 2006 for the name Skillen in the Northern Ireland telephone directory found 70 listings. Included in the seventy listings were 36 for Belfast alone. The number of listings for Skillen in the telephone directories of the Irish Republic is small indeed with one each in County Cork, Donegal, Galway, Kildare and Wexford.     


The Skillen name is found in English speaking countries around the globe. In 2006 there are listings of the Skillen name in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa and the USA. There are 60 listings for Skillen in the directories of the Province of Ontario, Canada and 95 listings for the Country of Canada. In all of the USA the Skillen name is listed 151 times and there are 33 non published listings for a total of 184. I found over 100 Skillen listings in the on line telephone directory for England, 35 listings in Australia, 34 listings in Scotland, 2 in New Zealand and 2 in South Africa.



                                                                                   Revised: 24 July 2006