Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Great Famine Commemmoration 2018

On Sunday 13th May at 3.00 p.m. the annual Great Famine Commemoration Service will take place in Athy’s former workhouse cemetary. The once neglected cemetary of St. Mary’s located just over the canal bridge on the road leading to Ballintubbert has in recent years been reclaimed and restored to reflect its importance as the last resting place of the more than twelve hundred men, women and children who died in the workhouse and the nearby fever hospital during the years of the Great Famine. The Great Famine of the 1840’s, so called to distinguish it from the all too frequent famines which over the centuries caused so much distress and hardship in Ireland, was a cataclysm unequalled in Irish history. More than one million Irish men, women and children died during the period 1845 to 1849 while another one million or so fled overseas to escape starvation, disease and death. While growing up in Athy in the 1950’s and attending school in the town, I was aware of the Great Famine as it affected towns and villages on Ireland’s western seaboard. There was, however, no reference by the teachers in our local school to the effects of the Great Famine on the people living in the short grass County of Kildare. Undoubtedly, the greater loss of life resulting from starvation and disease was witnessed in the poor regions of Counties Cork, Kerry and Mayo but what prompted the absence of any collective memory here in Athy of the unfortunates who died in the local workhouse? After all the Great Famine brought about a substantial fall in the population in County Kildare. Between 1841 and 1851, the County’s population fell by almost 16.5 per cent and population decline in the County continued thereafter until the first population increase was noted in 1946. Athy’s population which in 1841 totalled 4698 had fallen to 3873 in 1851 which figure excluded the inmates of the local workhouse. This represented an actual loss of 825 persons or a 17.5 per cent decrease. Between 1831 and 1841, the town’s population had increased by 4.5 per cent and given a similar likely increase in the ten years to 1851, the town population would have reached 4909 at the end of that period. The famine can therefore be seen to have caused a possible fall in Athy’s population of upwards of 1036 persons. Of course, not all of that loss is likely to have resulted from starvation or disease as perhaps some families left the town of Athy to make a new life overseas. Adding to the misery of the time was a cholera outbreak which reached Athy in June 1849. A temporary cholera hospital was opened in the town to cater for those affected by the outbreak. Cholera was particularly rampant amongst the poor people who lived in the unsanitary overcrowded conditions to be found in narrow lanes and courts of Athy town. The census figures for deaths in the local workhouse, the adjoining fever hospital and the temporary cholera hospital during the years of the Great Famine show that 1,205 deaths were recorded. With the reduction already noted in the town’s population, the possibility of approximately 2,000 deaths in Athy from starvation and/or disease during the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 can be suggested. Next Sunday we can remember those unfortunate men, women and children from our town and district who died during a catastrophic period in our history. The ecumenical service will start at 3.00 p.m. in the former workhouse cemetery of St. Mary’s. The announcement of the closure of Athy’s Coca Cola plant brought gloom and dismay to our town which was already struggling to regain the commercial success of past years. The announcement came the day before the official opening of Athy’s new library and represented a setback for those working on the regeneration plan for the town. However, as explained by the C.E.O. of Kildare County Council, Peter Carey, the library opening was another positive implementation step for the towns regeneration and will be followed in the short to medium term by the Southern Distributor Road, the town square improvement scheme and the improved extension for the new Heritage Centre/Shackleton Museum. Minister Michael Ring when opening the library spoke of the Government’s commitment to the growth of industry in Athy which will be hugely facilitated by the new by-pass road. The jobs to be lost in Coca Cola must be replaced quickly but we are fortunate that the current town regeneration plan gives us a unique opportunity to achieve this aim.

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