‘A Coroners inquest was held on the lands of Redwood, in the Parish of Lorha, on yesterday, the 24th, on the body of Daniel Hayes, who for several days subsisted almost on the refuse of vegetables, and went out on Friday morning in quest of something in the shape of food, but he had not gone far when he was obliged to lie down, and, melancholy to relate, was found dead some time afterward.’
‘The Great Hunger’, is still a politically charged subject. For many it symbolises a defining moment in the birth of modern Ireland. The arrival of potato blight, or Phytophthora infestans, in August 1845 wrought lasting change on the country. Devastating crops for seven years, by the time the Great Hunger lifted in 1852 a million people were dead, and at least a million more had escaped by emigrating. Combined, this amounted to the loss of over a quarter of the Irish population, which has yet to return to its pre-Great Hunger levels.
Many, both during and since the Great Hunger, felt that the behaviour of the British government helped deepen the crisis. Following the 1801 Acts of Union, Ireland had been constitutionally part of the United Kingdom. Struggling to believe that such a catastrophe would have been tolerated in Yorkshire or Lancashire, John Mitchel, an outspoken critic of England’s actions during the Great Hunger wrote in 1861 ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’
The Kilkenny Union Workhouse symbolised the dawn of a new era of poor relief in Ireland. Founded in the wake of the 1832 Poor Law Act, which introduced workhouses to the country, the custom-built facility was one of the largest in Ireland and designed to house some 1,300 inmates. Within its walls the destitute poor received sustenance and shelter in return for strenuous physical labour and unquestioning obedience to a strict regime. More stick than carrot, the workhouse system was a shining beacon for the Victorian belief in inspiring the poor to better themselves by making the alternative a brutal and degrading existence.
Evaluation work at the Kilkenny workhouse site in 2005 by Cóilín Ó Drisceoil of Kilkenny Archaeology unexpectedly revealed the remains of numerous inmates who never left the institution. The discovery of large quantities of skeletal material was a shock as the workhouse did not lie on consecrated ground. Excavation followed in 2006, undertaken by Brenda O’Meara of Margaret Gowen and Co. Ltd, and revealed 63 mass burials, the largest number ever to be unearthed within Ireland. These graves proved to hold the remains of at least 970 individuals. Archive research revealed that these forgotten relics of a tragedy were cut over a 43-month period in the mid 1800s. They testify to the devastating impact of a national catastrophe on a vulnerable community.
Despite the desperate circumstances driving the burials and the extreme poverty of those interred, the mass graves did not take the form of bodies merely dumped in pits. The importance of dignity in death was keenly felt in 19th century Ireland, with the traditional Irish wake forming an essential custom for rich and poor alike. There are also numerous accounts of families in even the direst financial circumstances attempting to scrape together enough pennies to throw a respectable funeral. This need is reflected in the burial provisions made at Kilkenny, where the deceased were wrapped in a shroud and buried in simple pine coffins. These were then stacked one on top of the other in the burial pit.
Photo: Remains found at The Kilkenny Workhouse