His childhood was a time of severe crisis for Ireland including the national disaster of the Great Famine during which, by death and emigration, the population declined by two million. John was orphaned when he was just 11 years old. They were buried in Street Joseph’s Cemetery, where thousands of famine victims also lie (many in unmarked graves) and where John himself rests today, having died just before the establishment of the Irish Free State in October 1921.
He lived with this family, and John would later employ his former master, Richard Martin.
Access to apprenticeships in trades was restricted in those days, and often one needed to be a blood relative to gain entry to a trade. Thus the Sisk family building tradition may go back to the 1750s, or earlier.
In 1859 John Sisk married Kate Burke, and in the same year, he also established his own business as an independent contractor. it was a tough time to start a business – the legacy of the Famine lingered still, there was no social security, no health service and no municipal housing. Ireland"s condition resembled that of many developing countries today.
Many similar commercial contracts went unrecorded.
While always Cork based, the firm ventured further afield in Munster, with periods of activity in north Tipperary, west Cork, north Kerry and Waterford. Thus while building the huge church at Nenagh, nearly 100 miles from Cork in 1896, John also took on a lesser contract of a small church in nearby Cloughjordan. To complete this job, John found and reopened a local stone quarry, recruited tradesmen from all over Munster and manufactured all the timber features on site, or in his own joinery shop in Cork.
“One can only imagine the difficulty of getting to places in those days and a lot of tradespeople would move to towns,” says his great-grandson and chairman of SiSk Group today, George Sisk, who saw such a project first hand while he was still at school.