This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the first year of the Irish Famine which is acknowledged was the greatest social catastrophe in Irish history.
The blight which affected the potato crop of 1845 was not widespread. The area around Athy where there was a less dependency on the potato than in other areas appears to have escaped the worst excesses of that first year of what later became known as The Great Famine.
The Workhouse which had opened in Athy in January of the previous year did not show any marked increase in inmate numbers in the first year of the Famine. As the Workhouse was the only place where people in need could receive assistance it is clear that the destitution in Athy and district as a result of the partial potato failure of 1845 was perhaps no worse than in other years.
Not so the affects of the potato blight on the crops in the following year. Early reports from the Athy area confirmed that the disease had appeared in crops in all parts of the Poor Law Union, an area which included Monasterevin, Kildangan, Ballytore, Athy and parts of County Laois. The loss of the crop in 1846 had a devastating affect on the people throughout the island of Ireland, especially those living in the west of Ireland. Even in Athy and South Kildare families unable to feed themselves overcame their reluctance to enter the Workhouse. Daily the numbers coming to the Workhouse door increased so that by December 1846 there were more than 700 inmates.
On entering the Workhouse the men were separated from the women, the women separated from their children. Their clothes were taken from them and they were given rough Workhouse uniforms before being segregated into separate dormitories for men, women and children. At mealtimes they took up their rations which they ate in silence. During the day the men were put to work breaking stones or picking oakum.
Many died from fever and malnutrition. In the week ended 9th January 1847, 17 poor inmates of Athy Workhouse died. Two weeks later 19 more people were recorded as having died in the space of one week. At the end of the famine period 1,205 men, women and children had died in Athy Workhouse and the adjoining Fever Hospital. As in life their deaths were not marked by any ceremony. Their emaciated bodies were hurriedly brought by handcart across the Stradbally road and over the Canal bridge to be buried without the benefit of clergy in graves which would remain unmarked.
Two auxiliary Workhouses were opened in the town at Barrack Street and in a Canal store at Nelson Street in 1847 to cater for the large number of people crowding into the Workhouse. A Soup Kitchen operated by a local Relief Committee was opened in Athy on the 6th of June 1847. On one day 3,088 people from Athy and the surrounding countryside got rations at the food kitchen. It closed on the 15th of August when the Board of Guardians who operated the Workhouse were allowed for the first time to give help to the starving people in their own homes. In the Athy Workhouse area an average of 3,410 persons received assistance each day from the Board of Guardians. Oral tradition relates that some hungry people survived by eating Praiseach which grew in abundance in fields where the Ashville houses are now located.
The failure of the 1848 potato crop led to further hardship such that at one stage almost 1,300 people were living in the local Workhouses. We don't know how many local people died during the Famine. We only know of the 1,205 who died in the Workhouse and the Fever Hospital in the town. How many more died in their own homes or on the side of the road we cannot now say.
The Great Famine had a devastating effect on our country. It shattered the confidence of the Irish people and accelerated the flow of families from our island. The horror of that period is beyond imagination but in this the 150th Anniversary year we have an opportunity of remembering those who suffered and died during the Great Famine while understanding and helping those who today similarly suffer in Rowanda and other famine areas of the world. For how can we ever again ignore scenes such as those recorded by Canon O'Rourke, Parish Priest of Maynooth who in his history of the Famine described people wandering through the Irish countryside in search of food, people dying of hunger in their cabins and people refused admission to the Workhouses who lay down on the road outside to die of hunger and fever.
We must never forget these people and as the inheritors of a legacy of famine we should never turn our back on the victims of hunger.