Over the centuries Ireland has experienced many famines but it was the potato blight first noticed in September 1845 which led to the worst national disaster ever visited on this island. The scale of the loss of lives during the period of the resulting famine gave rise to the name ‘the Great Famine’ to distinguish it from the other famines which have marked Irish history. Unlike the Great War during which millions of men and women across many nations died, the Great Famine was an Irish disaster which affected the consciousness and the destiny of generations of Irish people.
Next Sunday, 17th May, is National Famine Memorial Day and the principal commemoration ceremony will take place in Skibbereen, Co. Cork. Athy will hold a commemorative ceremony in St. Mary’s Cemetery located on the Rockfield Road just over the Canal Bridge opposite St. Vincent’s Hospital on Sunday at 3.00 p.m. to honour the memory of the local persons who died in the Great Famine. St. Mary’s Cemetery holds the remains of those who died in the Workhouse during and after the Great Famine.
In the first half of the 19th century a large part of the population of Ireland relied on the potato as a staple diet. It proved to be a more reliable crop than grain and offered a well balanced diet when combined with milk and vegetables. Here in County Kildare only 8.2% of the arable land was given over to the potato crop, compared to 28.5% in Cork and 27.5% in County Waterford. Indeed County Kildare had the smallest area of arable land devoted to potato production of all the Irish counties. It would be reasonable to assume on the basis of those statistics that potatoes provided less of the dietary requirements of the local population than in other parts of Ireland. The consequences of the potato blight must therefore have been somewhat less severe in this area than in the counties on the western sea board.
Nevertheless the Great Famine impacted on Athy and the South Kildare area even if its affects were not documented by writers on the famine. Canon John O’Rourke, a one-time curate of Castledermot, who wrote ‘The History of the Great Famine of 1847’ thirty years after the event, gave us no information concerning the famine in this county, proof it might be assumed that the shortgrass county escaped the worst effects of the Great Famine. However, research carried out in connection with the publication of a booklet on the famine in Kildare titled ‘Lest We Forget’ to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the famine provides some evidence that County Kildare, even though less severely affected than other Irish counties, nevertheless experienced hardship and suffering on a scale never before or since experienced.
At the height of the famine the Workhouse in Athy which had opened on 9th January 1844 with accommodation for 360 adults and 240 children, had 1,528 inmates on its rolls. The numbers receiving indoor relief necessitated the provision of additional accommodation in buildings on Barrack Street and Canal Side. This was at a time when 1,102 local persons were also receiving outdoor relief.
Perhaps the saddest indication of how difficult the famine years were for the majority of the people in South Kildare is to be found in the soup kitchen statistics. The Athy Poor Law Area included Athy, Ballyadams, Ballybrack, Castledermot, Davidstown, Dysertnos, Kilberry, Kilabbin, Monasterevin, Moone, Moyanna, Narraghmore, Stradbally and Tullamoy. Soup kitchens were opened in 12 of these 14 electoral areas, with Monasterevin and Narraghmore opened on 26th April 1847, Castledermot, Moone and Ballyadams on 9th May and Athy on 6th June. The soup kitchens were administered by local relief committees and they were required to give food free of charge to destitute helpless persons and to destitute able bodied persons having little or no land. Those who did not fit these criteria were charged for any food provided. The food dispensed from the local soup kitchens consisted of bread or meal with one quart of soup thickened with a portion of meal. Children under 9 years of age received half the adult rations.
During the period to 15th August 1847 when all the soup kitchens in the Athy Poor Law area were finally closed the highest number of persons receiving food on any one day was 16,365. This represented just over one third of the population of the Athy union area. Within that area the highest percentage dependency on soup kitchen rations was in the Ballyadams area where it was almost 100%. In the Athy electoral area with a population of 13,828 the highest number to receive help at the local soup kitchen on any one day was 3,058 persons, just over one fifth of the population.
Following the closure of the soup kitchens the authorities decided to grant outdoor relief for the first time. Up to then, apart from the soup kitchens, relief could only be obtained if one entered the workhouse. To do so was to acknowledge the hopelessness of one’s situation. In the workhouse children were separated from parents, husbands separated from wives and the able bodied were required to work, usually breaking stones for use on roadworks. The stigma of being a workhouse workmate was not lightly assumed by the locals, and only the most desperate need for food and shelter brought them to the door of the dreaded workhouse.
The Great Famine had the greatest effect on families with young children. The majority of the workhouse inmates in Athy were children who were either orphaned or abandoned by parents who could no longer feed them. In March 1848 the government established an Orphan Emigration Scheme to reduce the number of children in Irish workhouses because their maintenance in the workhouses had to be funded by local landlords. Athy Board of Guardians, who managed the workhouse, initially selected 20 young girls from Athy Workhouse to join the Emigration Scheme and they were shipped to Plymouth from where they travelled by boat to Australia. A further 17 young girls were later despatched from Athy Workhouse to Australia under the Orphan Emigration Scheme before the Scheme finished in April 1850. The numbers sent overseas made little or no impact on the overall numbers in the Athy Workhouse and children under 15 years of age were to comprise an overwhelming majority in the workhouse until the introduction of a Boarding Out Scheme for children in 1862.
Adding to the problems of the local people during the famine years was an outbreak of cholera which occurred in Athy in June 1849. The numbers affected necessitated the opening of a temporary cholera hospital in the town. During the period of the Great Famine 1,205 men, women and children died in Athy Workhouse. In addition I have estimated that the town’s population, excluding the workhouse inmates, decreased by upwards of 1,036 persons over the period of the Great Famine.
The workhouse dead are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery and next Sunday at 3 p.m. a short service will be held in that lonely, neglected cemetery to remember those who died in the Great Famine. It would be an act of charity to come to St. Mary’s next Sunday and remember the many local men, women and children who suffered so much during the Great Famine and whose memory for so long was overlooked by those who came after them.