In June 1849 even as the awful affects of the Great Famine had lessened, there were still 1,528 men, women and children living in the Workhouse in Athy. Opened on the 9th of January 1844 the Workhouse was built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children. In the intervening 5 years extra accommodation had been provided in fever sheds erected in the grounds of the Workhouse and in two auxiliary workhouses opened in Barrack Street and nearby Canal Side. Athy, like so many other Irish towns of the first half of the 19th century, was a place where sickness and starvation visited alike the able bodied and the aged poor. It was a town which an unidentified letter writer to the Athy Literary Magazine of March 1838 described as ‘neglected’. He wrote:- ‘Visit us throughout our work days and ramble through our deserted streets and see the able bodied labourers at our corners, hoards of beggars at our doors, disease and famine in the hovels of the poor.’ Such was the description of Athy just seven years before the Great Famine began.
The building of the Great Southern and Western railway line to Carlow brought much needed jobs to South Kildare but those jobs finished as the first train arrived into the newly constructed Athy railway station on 4th August 1846. The clamour for work was such that as the railway line progressed from Kildare to Athy the railway company had to seek additional policemen to police the Athy area. Clearly the impoverished locals were desperate and as the Great Famine took hold their conditions worsened.
In my research into the Great Famine in this area I was astonished to find no reference in the minute books of Athy Town Commissioners during the famine years to the obvious sufferings of the local people. Even when the soup kitchens were providing minimum sustenance for so many in the Athy Poor Law Union area the Town Commissioner records made no mention of the fact. In the local electoral area of Athy and its hinterland with a population of 13,828 over 3,000 persons were in receipt of help at the local soup kitchens. In the Athy Poor Law Union area which included parts of County Laois 16,365 persons or 34% of the population were at one time dependent on local soup kitchens. The Ballyadams area was apparently the worst affected as almost 100% of the local population relied on the local soup kitchen for daily nourishment.
In the first two years of the Famine deaths in the Athy Workhouse averaged two or three a week, but by 1847 the weekly death rate had risen to ten. By the end of the Great Famine 1,205 persons had died in the local Workhouse and in the adjoining Fever Hospital. Townspeople who died during the Famine are believed to have exceeded 1,000 leaving the post famine population of Athy at 3,873. Those who died in the Workhouse or the Fever Hospital were buried in the small cemetery across the bridge over the Grand Canal which we now know as St. Mary’s.
Local communities within Irish society generally display deeply embedded respect for the dead. A recent visit to St. Mary’s Cemetery showed however that the Famine dead of this area have not been respected as one might expect. St. Mary’s Cemetery, the last resting place of the poorhouse victims of the Great Famine, was on my visit overgrown and litter strewn. Sad to think that such sacred ground should be so neglected as we near the National Great Famine Commemoration Day which takes place on Saturday, 26th September 2015.
Steps however are now being taken to clean up St. Mary’s Cemetery and thanks must go to Denis Ryan and the members of Gouleyduff Meggars Club who in the spirit of community volunteerism are undertaking the work.
Remembrance services for the famine dead of Athy and district will take place in St. Mary’s Cemetery on Sunday 27th September at 3.00 p.m. It will be an opportunity for the present generation to pay respect to the memory of those men, women and children who succumbed to illness and/or starvation during one of the most trying periods in our country’s history.
The names of the famine dead are not retrievable after decades of neglect. There only remains for us an opportunity to honour a past generation whose lives shortened by deprivation, starvation and illness were ended within the grim bare walls of Athy’s workhouse.