Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Great Famine and Athy

In one day in August 1847 soup kitchens set up to alleviate starvation in the Athy Poor Law Union area during the Great Famine supplied food to over 16,000 persons.  This represented slightly more than one third of the population of the area.  The highest dependency on the soup kitchens was in the Ballyadams electoral area where almost 100% of the local population were in receipt of the daily rations which consisted of either bread or meal or one quart of soup, with six ounces of bread.  In the Athy electoral area more than 3,000 hungry individuals representing 22% of the population received food at the town’s soup kitchen.  These figures are a shocking reminder of the poverty and deprivation which was prevalent during the Great Famine in this part of a county which was generally believed to have avoided the worst excesses of that awful time.

Another part of the Famine story insofar as it relates to the town of Athy and the surrounding countryside is to be found in the history of Athy Workhouse.  Athy for so long a frontier town on the borders of the Pale was fortunate to be chosen as the location for one of the 130 workhouses which were built throughout Ireland following the passing of the Irish Poor Relief Act of 1838.  The Act established Poor Law Guardians who were empowered to provide pauper relief in Workhouses.  Athy’s Workhouse, which was built to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children, was opened on 9th January 1844.

Potato blight made its appearance in September of the following year and this soon led to a gradual but rapid increase in the numbers entering the local Workhouse.  The construction of the Great Southern and Western Railway line through Athy to Carlow gave much needed employment in this area during 1845 and into 1846 and so helped to alleviate for a time some of the more damaging effects of the potato crop failure.  The opening of the railway line on 4th August 1846 brought an end to this work and many hundreds of local labourers found themselves without the safeguard of a guaranteed weekly wage.

The continuing failure of the potato crop in 1846 brought further hardship which was reflected in the hugely increased business recorded by Athy’s two pawnbrokers.  Families hard hit by unemployment and food price increases which followed the potato failure were forced to resort to local pawnbrokers to finance day to day living.  However, in many cases the battle for survival outside the Workhouse was soon lost and many had no option but to become inmates of Athy’s Workhouse.

For a time poor relief could only be obtained by entering the Workhouse and on entry families were separated, men from their wives and children from their parents.  Throughout 1846 the numbers entering Athy Workhouse exceeded the capacity of the newly built institution and so two additional temporary workhouses had to be provided at Barrack Street and in a Canal company building at Nelson Street.

At the height of the famine the Athy Workhouses accommodated 1,528 men, women and children at a time when the town’s population was approximately 4,000 persons.  Adding to the problems of the local people was a cholera outbreak which was first recorded in Belfast in December 1848 and which claimed its first Athy victim on 25th July of the following year.  Just as the 1849 harvest was confirming the ending of potato blight, cholera was claiming victims in Athy’s newly built Fever Hospital and the Workhouse.  The Census figures for 1841 and 1851 indicate that more than 1,200 poor persons died in Athy’s Workhouse during the years of the Great Famine.  These unfortunates were buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery across the Grand Canal from the Workhouse.  The town’s population showed a notional decrease of over 1,000 persons during the 1840s.  How much of that population loss was accounted for by death or emigration I cannot calculate but starvation or disease was in time of famine a cause of death for many, even outside the Workhouse.

Last Sunday was designated as Ireland’s Famine Commemoration Day and St. Mary’s Cemetery, Athy was the venue for a Mass to remember the people of this area who died of starvation and/or disease over 165 years ago.  The celebration of a Mass in St. Mary’s Cemetery was, I believe, the first occasion that the Workhouse dead were remembered in this way in the place where they have lain undisturbed and forgotten for decades. 

It is hoped that this will be an annual event to keep alive our understanding of the inhumanity of that part of our past history.

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