Friday, February 24, 1995

Athy Workhouse and the Great Famine

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the onset of the Great Famine which ravaged our country over a four year period. As school children all of us learned of the hardships and casualties suffered by the Irish people as a result of the failure of the potato crop and what we understood was the inadequate response of the Government of the day.

The history books made no reference to the effects of the famine in Co. Kildare and this might lead us to believe that the famine was centred in the West and South of Ireland only. This was not so as evidenced from the limited contemporary records which are still available to us. The Workhouse in Athy which opened on the 9th of January, 1844 was built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children. By the 7th of October, 1845 the inmates totalled 390 men, women and children and within two months as the potato famine worsened that number had increased to 615. It was always believed that Athy was spared the worst excesses of the famine but a local constabulary report of 18th of September, 1846 noted that "the inhabitants of Athy have pawned everything and cannot bear it much longer."

On the 26th of December, 1846 the number of Workhouse inmates in Athy totalled 732 of which 65 persons were in the Infirmary and 482 were children under 15 years of age. The Workhouse returns for the four months to the 1st of May, 1847 show that 174 inmates had died in the Workhouse in that period. Local tradition relates that "priseach" which grew in the fields in the present Ashville area provided a source of nourishment for the hungry townspeople during the famine. The Irish Relief Association provided a boiler for a soup kitchen operated in the town by the Local Church of Ireland Curate Rev. Thomas Jameson. Indian meal was imported from America through Cork Harbour and food depots were established throughout the country in areas accessible by Canal. Athy was the location of one such depot which was opened on 1 June, 1847.

Meal was supplied to individuals in 2lb. bags consisting of a mix of one quarter oatmeal and three quarters Indian meal. The local relief committee was not allowed to give out meal free of charge unless the Workhouse was full in keeping with the provisions of the Poor Relief Act. This Act dictated that relief was available only for inmates of the Workhouses.

Despite the availability of the Soup Kitchen in Athy and the reluctance of local men and women to enter the Workhouse the number of Workhouse inmates showed a substantial increase in the final year of the famine period. In the first week of 1849 the number of registered inmates was 1,399 and during that week 13 poor people died in the Workhouse.

The overcrowding in the Poorhouse which was built to accommodate 600 persons was alleviated by the opening of two auxiliary workhouses in Athy. One was located in Barrack Street occupying a row of five terraced houses immediately adjoining the former residence of the local Catholic Curate. A store belonging to the Grand Canal Company was used as the second auxiliary Workhouse.

A substantial number of the Workhouse children under fifteen years of age were orphans or abandoned by parents who could no longer feed them. As they were an unwelcome expense on the rate payers of South Kildare the Board of Guardians which who controlled the Athy Workhouse welcomed the Orphan Emigration Scheme launched in March 1848. This Scheme provided for the free transportation to Australia of girls between the ages of 14 and 18 years who were inmates of Irish Workhouses.

We have an account of 20 young girls who were sent out from the Athy Workhouse to Australia in February 1849 as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme. A meeting was held in Narraghmore School prior to the girls being transported to Australia where it was explained by a member of the Athy Board of Guardians that a number of families from the Narraghmore area were inmates in Athy Workhouse for the previous two or three years. The terms of the Orphan Emigration Scheme were outlined as a result of which it was agreed to finance the operation of the scheme in relation to the Narraghmore inmates.

History is silent as to what happened to those local girls when they arrived in Australia nearly 150 years ago.

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