On 10th January 1847 Athy resident Michael Carey wrote in his letter book: ‘The post teems with deaths and our Poorhouse is daily sending out its dead and the poor in the country are bringing their dead coffins through the streets on their little ass carts. It is equal to the time of the cholera when the deep wailing of the living for the dead woke us from our midnight slumbers. How awful are the wailings now.’ Michael Carey’s is the only contemporary reference I have found to the awful effects of the Great Famine on the local people of Athy and district. He was not to know when referring to the cholera outbreak of 1834 that cholera would again revisit the town of Athy in October 1849 just as the worst effects of the Famine were receding.
The first cholera case of the 1849 outbreak was recorded in Belfast on 2nd December 1848 involving a man who had arrived from Edinburgh where there had been an outbreak the previous October. On 25th June 1849 the first cholera case was noted in Athy and by 29th December 27 cases were recorded and 11 local cholera victims had died. A temporary cholera hospital was opened in the town and funds intended for the relief of Famine had to be diverted to deal with the cholera epidemic which remained a threat to public health until the following year.
Cholera, which thrived in the unhealthy overcrowded conditions to be found in the narrow lanes and courts of the town, had previously arrived in Athy in 1834. At that time the Treasury had advanced the sum of £20 to the select vestry of the local Church of England which had responsibility under the Vestry Act of 1772 for public health in the town. The cholera break of 1849 was more serious than the previous occurrence adding fear to the distress of the local people already weakened by years of Famine.
In the 1851 census details of deaths in hospitals in the period June 1841 to March 1851 were detailed. For Athy the opening of the Workhouse in January 1844 marks the effective commencement date for the census figures giving a period which, apart from the initial one and a half years, largely coincided with the Famine years. During that time a total of 1205 men, women and children died in Athy Workhouse and in the adjoining Fever Hospital.
The town’s population, which in 1841 numbered 4,698, had fallen to 3,873 in 1851, which latter figure excludes the inmates of the local Workhouse. Between 1831 and 1841 the town’s population had increased by 4.5% and if one assumes even a similar increase for the ten years to 1851 the town population should have reached 4,909 at the end of that period. The Famine can therefore be seen to have caused a possible fall in the town’s population of upwards of 1,036 persons. Of course not all of this loss can be related to Famine deaths or disease as undoubtedly emigration to America or England or migration to Dublin city accounted for some of the population decrease.
The decline in the town’s population and the rise in the Workhouse numbers such as to necessitate the opening of two auxiliary workhouses in the town, coupled with the huge numbers fed at the local soup kitchen in Athy, all point to widespread distress in South Kildare during the Famine years. That there was a Workhouse in place in Athy before the potato blight struck undoubtedly enabled the authorities to respond to the emergency in a manner which helped reduce the number of deaths from disease and starvation in this area. Despite this we know that 1,205 persons died in the Workhouse and many hundreds of the townspeople died from disease and/or starvation.
Some weeks ago I referred to the sad sorry state of St. Mary’s Cemetery where the Famine dead from the Workhouse are buried. That sacred ground was then neglected, overgrown and littered with debris. Its condition reflected poorly on all of us living here in Athy as St. Mary’s Cemetery represents a bridge to our ancestors who suffered so much during the Great Famine. To overlook St. Mary’s Cemetery as we have done in the past is to cast aside the memory of those unnamed men, women and children who once walked the streets and laneways of our town.
Thanks to Denis Ryan and the members and friends of Gouleyduff Meggar Club, St. Mary’s has recently been reclaimed from the neglect of the past and today presents as a tranquil and respectable place of repose for our Famine dead.
On Sunday 27th September at 3.00 p.m. St. Mary’s will be the focus of a Famine Commemoration Service as part of the National Famine Commemoration Day ceremonies. Do attend if you can to show that we have not forgotten those terrible years of the Great Famine or the men, women and children of our town and district who were consigned under terrible conditions to an early grave.