Sunday, 12th May is the Great Famine National Commemoration Day and Athy, which once housed the Workhouse serving the Poor Law Union area stretching to Castledermot, Monasterevin and into County Laois, will remember its famine dead with an ecumenical service in St. Mary’s Cemetery at 3.00 p.m.
Part of the Athy Workhouse is still visible today from the Stradbally Road, fronted by boundary walls which long before our time were reduced from the forbidden heights which were there during the Famine years. Todays entrance to St. Vincent’s Hospital is unrecognisable from the gated entrance which separated the inmates from the outside world of 168 years ago.
The Workhouse, which opened on 9th January 1844, was an impenetrable prison like premises where married couples, young and old, were separated and children were taken from their parents. All lived apart within the same institution, men from their womenfolk, children from their parents. The misery and helplessness experienced by an already dispirited and hungry people can only be imagined.
The loss of the potato crop in 1845 brought hunger and despair seldom before experienced by a people weakened by deprivation and want. The miserable cottages of the poor held no homely comforts but yet the journey to the Workhouse was one taken with considerable pain and regret.
For many that journey, always made on foot, was not without hope that the Workhouse would give relief from the pangs of hunger and that the return journey could be made with life intact. Not always so however, for even as their hunger was relieved by the Workhouse rations, disease attacked the weakened bodies of the young and old, bringing many to an early grave.
Workhouse records disclose that 1205 Workhouse inmates died during the years of the Great Famine in Athy’s Workhouse. It is not known how this figure was distributed as between the main Workhouse and the two supplementary Workhouses open in Barrack Street and in the Grand Canal Stores. All those who died were, I believe, buried in the small cemetery on the far side of the Grand Canal which we now know as St. Mary’s.
The Workhouse, built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children, had to cater for 1,399 inmates each day during the worst of the Famine years. Even the operation of a soup kitchen in the town of Athy did little to relieve pressure on the local Workhouse. Poverty and hunger stalked the streets of the market town of Athy as it did every other town and village in Ireland of the 1840s.
The Great Famine is today remembered by a generation long removed from the miseries of those times. Those fortunate individuals who survived the famine learned not to talk of what had happened and so a great part of our history was lost to folk memory. It took several generations to regain that history, starting with the writing of a former curate of St. Michael’s Parish in Athy, Fr. John O’Rourke. It was Fr. O’Rourke, by then P.P. of Maynooth, who wrote one of the earliest accounts of the Great Famine with the publication in 1874 of his book, ‘History of the Great Irish Famine of 1847’. Since then many publications have dealt with this dark period of our history and in recent years successive Irish governments have commemorated the dead of the Great Famine with a national commemoration day.
This year it takes place on Sunday, 12th May and Kilrush, County Clare will be the location for the national commemoration event. Here in Athy we will commemorate our famine dead with an ecumenical service in St. Mary’s Cemetery on Sunday, 12th May at 3.00 p.m. At the same time we will remember the local people who survived the Great Famine, and especially the young girls from this area who were sent out from Athy Workhouse between 1849 and 1850 under an Orphan Emigration Scheme to start a new life in Australia.
They were the legacy of the Great Famine for the most part orphaned or abandoned by parents who could no longer care for them. Their names are recorded here so that we can remember them:-