Skelton, Philip (1707–87) clergyman, was born in February 1707 on a farm in Derriaghy, Co. Antrim, son of Richard Skelton, who was a gunsmith and tanner before his marriage to Arabella Cathcart, whose family had been the farm's tenants. They had six sons and four daughters; three sons became clergymen, though after the father's death, when Philip was 11, the family was in greatly reduced circumstances, and sacrifices for their education were made by the mother and siblings. Philip was educated by Dr Clarke in Lisburn, and entered TCD as a sizar in June 1724. His tutor, Patrick Delany (qv), remained a lifelong friend, though Skelton must have required occasional discipline; he was noted for his physical prowess, and won a cudgels match at Donnybrook fair. He incurred debts, and had to hide from bailiffs; for years after his ordination he had to make annual repayments of money lent to him by Delany. A quarrel with a fellow student almost ended in a duel on St Stephen's Green; this had serious consequences for Skelton, because his adversary was related to the provost Richard Baldwin (qv), who made the remainder of his college career as difficult as possible. Despite Baldwin's opposition, Skelton won a scholarship (1726). He only managed to proceed to graduation (1728) by pretending to the provost that he wanted to remain in college. In vacations in Derriaghy he was noted for running up turf stacks like a cat, and as a player of the local sport of long bullets (a form of road bowling); he sustained a serious head injury when hit by one of the stone bullets. For a time he helped his brother John in the endowed school at Dundalk, then was ordained deacon (1729); the required test of ability involved speaking only Latin for a week. He was curate of Drummully, Co. Fermanagh, and accepted a job as tutor in the household of his vicar, Samuel Madden (qv), near Newtownbutler, Co. Fermanagh. The work was demanding, and his relations with Mrs Madden difficult; he found her stingy, vulgar, and interfering.
Skelton here began the charity and self-denial that were to become his lifelong characteristics; half his salary was given to the poor, and once he tore up the shirt he was wearing to make bandages for a burnt child. Skelton managed to preserve the anonymity of his authorship of a pamphlet commending Madden's premium scheme, though Madden, wishing to thank the author, made diligent inquiries. In 1732 he became curate at Monaghan on a salary of £40; here again he lived so frugally that he could help the poor. He also studied medicine so as to give free medical advice, and later in his career, in Fintona, paid £40 annually as compensation to the local doctor, who had lost business because of Skelton's charity; he also educated the doctor's children after the latter's death. He helped educate others, including William Knox (qv), and rode from Monaghan to Dublin to speak before the privy council to gain a pardon for a man about to be hanged. He rode back without delay to prevent the execution. His physical strength and forceful personality impressed even the hardened backsliders in his parishes; he successfully inculcated basic religious beliefs which no one had ever taught them before.
Despite Skelton's merits, Bishop John Sterne (qv) of Clogher refused to promote him to a better living, and at least once Skelton felt that the bishop had cheated him out of a living that had been promised to him. In 1742 he became tutor to James Caulfeild (qv), 4th Viscount Charlemont and later 1st earl of Charlemont, but gave up the post after a short time. Not until 1750 was there any improvement in his circumstances, and when he did become rector and vicar of Templecarn (Co. Donegal and Co. Fermanagh) he had to work among parishioners whose conditions of life were little above barbarism. To examine his congregation's religious knowledge, he had to surprise them in church and lock the doors. During a near famine in the area in 1757, he and a servant regulated Pettigo market with cudgels, and when scarcity increased, he saw no option but to sell all his books for £80, with which he bought food for the poor. A subscription of £50 sent by two ladies to enable him to buy his books again was dedicated to the same purpose. In 1759 he became prebendary of Devenish in Clogher diocese, and was able to live in more comfort in Enniskillen, though he once gave an acquaintance a shilling, saying he had paid that sum in Dublin to see a camel, but that an honest man in Fermanagh was a greater rarity. He was prebendary of Donacavey, in Fintona, Co. Tyrone, from 1766; here again he had to sell the books that he had managed to buy back from his Dublin bookseller, as well as his gold buttons and his horse, in order to supply food in times of scarcity (1773, 1778).
He published several sermons and a number of pamphlets against Socinian beliefs, and an ironical Some proposals for the revival of Christianity (1736), which was at first attributed to Swift; in 1748 he went to London to publish Ophiomaches, or deism revealed, which was well spoken of by the philosopher Hume, and reached two editions. He also wrote hymns, published in Lyra Hibernica sacra, a description of Lough Derg in 1759, an essay on inoculation, and in 1786 miscellaneous works he called Senilia. In 1741 he wrote The necessity of tillage and granaries, which contains useful information on current costs and prices of commodities; Skelton's local knowledge, and his lifelong struggle against poverty, equipped him to write authoritatively. In 1770 he published his collected works for the benefit of the Magdalen charity in Dublin, and was able to donate £500. The rigours and loneliness of his life contributed to depression, but many stories of his wit and resourcefulness, as well as of his charities, survived to the end of the nineteenth century; the revealing and racy biography by Samuel Burdy (qv), published in 1792, preserves insights into his character as well as into the times and places in which he lived. He retired to Dublin in 1780, where Burdy became his friend, though fifty years Skelton's junior. He refused the degree of DD from TCD in 1781. On 4 May 1787 Skelton died, unmarried, and was buried in St Peter's churchyard in Dublin after an unusually long delay; he had been afraid of being buried alive.