The Great Famine Exhibition continues in the local Town Hall, showing a number of interesting artefacts relating to that terrible time in our history. The mock-up Soup Kitchen has a huge famine pot, which I understand is on loan from the Lullymore Heritage Centre, and is a direct link with the famine of 150 years ago. It prompted me to question my own knowledge and understanding of the hardships endured by the Irish following the arrival of the potato blight from North America in 1845.
Living today in the rich heartland of County Kildare, it is difficult to appreciate the suffering and deprivation endured by those unfortunate people whose main source of food was the potato. One searches in vain through the history books for any reference to famine in Athy and South Kildare. When I attended the local Christian Brothers School my knowledge of the Great Famine was confined to the dreadful happenings in Skibbereen, Schull and West Cork and in the region of Bangor Erris, Co. Mayo. Thousands of men, women and children died of starvation, disease or fever in the West of Ireland and our history books recounted in a detached but factual way the awful tragedies which visited those far-flung corners of our island.
The famine details and descriptions I read in my school days failed to arouse any deep-seated response largely because they related to people who were so far removed from my own area. My reaction, or lack or it, was no doubt typical of what occurs today when one reads of famine on another Continent. The horror of the moment eludes us and prompts no more than a temporary blimp on our conscience.
What a surprise therefore awaited me when I was asked to write a piece for a forthcoming publication on the Great Famine in County Kildare. My research produced results which prompted an immediate re-assessment of the effects of the Famine of 150 years ago on Athy and the surrounding countryside.
I was previously aware, as we all had been, of the opening of a Workhouse in the town of Athy in 1844. It has always been presumed that the Workhouse had met the demands of the poor and hungry of the locality, thereby minimising local distress and hardship during the famine. Nothing had come down to us in folk memory which would give us any idea of the nature and extent of the famine relief measures in South Kildare.
To find that 1,205 poor persons died in the local Workhouse during the Famine years and another 1,250 or so either died or left Athy in the same period, was unwelcome confirmation that our townspeople had suffered great hardships during the famine. However, the loss of life was considerably less in South Kildare than in the rural areas on the Western seaboard where there was a greater dependency on the potato crop.
Another famine fact gleaned from my research, showed that in the Athy Electoral Area, over 3,000 people received food each day from the local Soup Kitchen. The television images of Famine Relief work in Rwanda and elsewhere can help us to visualise the scenes on the streets of Athy as people gathered for the daily ration of bread and soup. How sad it is to relate that in the Ballyadams area, almost 100% of the population had recourse to the local Soup Kitchen for their daily sustenance.
Why had so much local hardship endured during the years of the Great Famine escaped our notice when we studied that period of Irish history? Why did we not know that the inmates in the local Workhouse increased at such a rate that two auxiliary Workhouses had to be opened in Barrack Street and Canal Side to accommodate the starving, helpless poor of the area? Why did we not know of the young girls from our area sent from Athy Workhouse to Australia in 1849 in a futile attempt to reduce the number of children in the local Workhouse?
The Great Famine is part of our troubled past as much as it is of those towns in the west of Ireland, where the human losses were numerically far greater than ours. The legacy of the Famine was overlooked and pushed from the collective memory in South Kildare, almost as if there was a hurried rush to bury an unpleasant experience. The full facts surrounding those dreadful times may never be fully known, but we have a responsibility to acknowledge our past, no matter how unpleasant it may be.
Perhaps it is now time for us to remember those who faced into the famine of 1845 and the succeeding years without hope, and who succumbed before the dreaded potato blight had departed. It would be an appropriate act of remembrance to commemorate in stone our famine dead with a suitable memorial in the graveyard attached to the former Workhouse. I wonder if the Eastern Health Board and the Town Council might take up the suggestion so that our once hidden past may not be entirely forgotten.