It’s a quote I have used before but its use again is justified when announcing the holding of Athy’s annual Famine Commemoration Day to take place on Sunday 25th September at 3.00 p.m. in St. Mary’s Cemetery near to the former workhouse, now St. Vincent’s Hospital. Athy’s Literary Magazine in its edition of March 1838, just seven years before the start of the Great Famine, printed a letter from an Athy resident in which he claimed:
‘there is not a town in Ireland so completely neglected. 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.’
Three years after that letter was published the census recorded Athy’s population as 4,698, with 1,005 families living in 790 houses. 147 of those houses were unfit one roomed mud walled cabins, while another 318 houses consisted of two roomed mud walled cabins which were undoubtedly unfit for family use.
Following the passing of the Poor Relief Act a workhouse was opened in Athy on the 9th of January 1844. It was appropriate recognition of the squalid poverty to be found in Athy and district of that time. However, even that workhouse which was built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children could not accommodate the large number of starving people requiring assistance. As the Great Famine progressed through 1846, 1847, 1848 and 1849 workhouse additional accommodation had to be found in the town to meet the needs of 1,528 adults and children. They represented the most helpless members of the local community, while at the same time outside the workhouse system 2,807 persons were in receipt of outdoor relief during the summer of 1848.
The town gaol, opened on the Carlow road in 1830, held almost 100 prisoners as famine ravaged the countryside. 16 of those prisoners were awaiting transportation to Van Diemen’s land. Their lot was in all probability better than many of those unfortunate local persons availing of outdoor relief, or even the inmates of the workhouse. John Butler, Justice of the Peace, a native of Athy, obviously concerned by the activity of the Young Irelanders, wrote on 2nd April 1848 to the Lord Lieutenant: ‘As the only resident Magistrate in this town I beg leave to state to your Excellency that a few days ago the troops quartered here were withdrawn and the town left to the protection of a few police ….. I don’t want my native town in these alarming times to be left to protection of ten or a dozen policemen.’ Butler had no justifiable grounds for expressing concern as the local population were so hungry, demoralised and down trodden to do anything other than to live from day to day courtesy of the food kitchens and the workhouse.
To add to the distress of the local families, just as the worst excesses of that time were being played out, an outbreak of cholera killed many more of the hungry and diseased population of south Kildare and the adjoining counties. A total of 1,205 deaths were recorded in Athy workhouse between 1844 and 1851. At the same time the town population fell by 825 persons and if one calculates an increase in population for the years to 1851 similar to that which occurred in the previous 10 years the notational drop in the town’s population was over 1,000 persons.
These are startling statistics for a town with a relatively small population. Regretfully the names of those who died in Athy workhouse during the Great Famine are not known. They were buried in the nearby cemetery of St. Mary’s which continued to be used to receive the unclaimed dead of the County Home up to recent years. Sadly St. Mary’s Cemetery, the last resting place of so many from this community, tends to be overlooked in much the same way as the Great Famine was for decades after it occurred.
Next Sunday at 3.00 p.m. St. Mary’s will host a gathering of local people who aware of their past and the importance of remembering those who have gone before us, will commemorate the Famine dead of Athy and the local workhouse. At the same time they will remember those men and women who left this area to emigrate overseas in an attempt to escape the disease and poverty which marked the Famine years in Athy.
We should never forget our Famine dead.