Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Great Famine and Athy

I recently bought a slim volume published by Afri Action with the title ‘They all had names’.   It was an updated edition of a previous publication dealing with workhouses and famine graveyards in Ireland.  Afri is a non government organisation which seeks to promote debate and influence government policies and practices on human rights, peace and justice issues.  One of the key objectives is the reduction of poverty which would probably explain why it organises the annual walk to commemorate the Great Famine at Doolough in southwest, Co. Mayo.  What is referred to as the ‘Doolough tragedy’ arose from what can only be regarded as bureaucratic incompetence and complete lack of consideration for fellow beings.  On Friday, 30th March 1849 two officials of the Westport Poor Law Union arrived in Louisburgh to check whether those people in receipt of outdoor relief should continue to receive it.  For some reason the inspection did not take place and the officials went on to Delphi Lodge, a hunting lodge 12 miles south of Louisburgh.  The people who had gathered for the inspection were told to appear at Delphi Lodge at 7.00 a.m. the following morning otherwise their relief would be stopped.  Hundreds of destitute and starving people had to undertake, what was for them given their state of undernourishment, an extremely fatiguing journey in very bad weather. 

A letter writer to a local newspaper, The Mayo Constitution, reported shortly afterwards that the bodies of seven people, including women and children, were subsequently discovered on the road side between Delphi and Louisburgh overlooking the shores of Doolough Lake and that nine more never reached their homes.  Local folklore maintains that the total number who perished because of the ordeal they had to endure was far higher. 

This occurred at a time when the worst of the Great Famine had passed and here in Athy conditions were reported to have returned to a degree of normality given the success of the 1849 potato crop.  But what was domestic normality in 1849?  Was it similar to the scene reported in the Chronicle Newspaper of 31st January 1824 which read ‘Labour is but very indifferently paid – sixpence a day is the utmost which a labourer gets; but, alas!  There is no parish or poor-fund for the wretched family to draw upon, when sickness renders them unable to work.  This is not all – the farming labourer is not employed for a period of time throughout the year exceeding six months.  The whole of the winter is spent in idleness.  During that time the creatures live by expedients; and what expedients must they have recourse to, whose luxuries in the plentiful season consist of only succedaneums for natural food? – How can they provide food and necessaries for the winter season, who find it difficult to live in the abundance of the harvest time?  They may have a few potatoes, but they must confine themselves to two meals a day at most.  What fuel they are able to obtain is chiefly collected from their charitable neighbours.  Sometimes they procure a spot of bog where they are enabled to manufacture a small supply of turf.  To make up the deficiency of necessary fuel, they wander about in search of sticks, brambles, &c. and gladly seize upon the bulls that are hackled from the flax.  By means of these scanty supplies they contrive to wear out the winter.  The poor peasantry are totally unacquainted with the luxury of meat; milk is a blessing which they are equally strangers to. – Surely on the face of the earth there is not a more destitute, more miserable population.’

The Great Famine in Athy resulted in the deaths of 1,205 persons in the local Workhouse and in the nearby fever hospital.  These unfortunate people were buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery across the road and the Grand Canal from the two hospitals.  Regrettably their last resting place has been neglected over the years and the booklet earlier referred to ‘They all had names’ had this reference to St. Mary’s.  ‘The graveyard of St. Mary’s is unkept and badly maintained by Kildare County Council.’

It is a sad reflection on all of us that we have allowed this sacred ground to be forgotten, although I have to acknowledge that the volunteers in the local cemetery’s committee have done some work in recent years in St. Mary’s. 

Could I appeal to local County Councillors to spend some of the discretionary monies, which I’m told is available to them, in maintaining St. Mary’s Cemetery?  This year we will gather in St. Mary’s cemetery on the Great Famine Commemoration Sunday in May to remember the men, women and children from our town and the outlying regions who spent their last days in the local workhouse.  Their names are forgotten but the famine dead should always be remembered and their last resting place should never again be allowed to fall into neglect. 

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