Remembering Kilkenny's 970 Great Famine workhouse victims

British and Australian ambassadors among those to pay respects at unique event

Sam Matthews


Sam Matthews



British Ambassador Robin Barnett and Australian Ambassador Richard Andrews pictured laying a wreath at the opening of The Kilkenny Famine Experience in MacDonagh Junction, Kilkenny

The 970 people who died in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse during Ireland’s Great Famine were remembered at a special ceremony last week, where a new sculpture was unveiled at MacDonagh Junction.

The sculpture, crafted by Ani Mollereau, features the fingerprints, etched in brass, of almost 1,000 people connected to the workhouse, the local community and the diaspora. It was unveiled in conjunction with the official opening of the Kilkenny Famine Experience, a free audiovisual tour set on the site of the former Kilkenny Union Workhouse.

Centre manager Marion Acreman, who spearheaded the project offering new insights into the lives of Irish people in the 1840s, revealed that they had received the fingerprints from all over the world, including from some people who have since passed away.

British Ambassador Robin Barnett and Australian Ambassador Richard Andrews were among those in attendance. MC Sue Nunn got proceedings under way, and welcomed Miss Mackey’s third and fourth class students from St John’s Junior School who performed on stage dressed in 19th Century garb.

It was the first time the three had collaborated, under the baton of Muireann Ryan, and the result was excellent — a wonderful rendition of ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’.

Cathaoirleach of Kilkenny County Council David Fitzgerald said that the occasion should not be treated as a purely a historical excerise.

“This happened not simply because the potato crop failed, but because the wrong political decisions were made, which led to the Great Irish Famine,” he said.

Similarly, British Ambassador Robin Barnett acknowledged that people ‘were failed by those who governed in London at the time’.

He said it was wonderful to have something like the Great Famine Experience ‘to remember with respect the suffering of the men, women and children who perished in the most unimaginable circumstances’.

“I also pay tribute to those who were left with no choice but to flee their beloved homeland, to escape the famine,” he said.

“Many perished attempting to escape hunge and starvation.”

The Kilkenny Famine Experience project grew out of the evidence collected in 2005 by the teams of archaeologists and osteo-archaeologists as they exhumed and analysed the bodies of the hundreds of people buried in the grounds of the former Kilkenny Workhouse.

Those new to the centre had little idea of the wealth of history there. The Cultural Services Team of Kilkenny County Council recognised the project as a priority for funding under Kilkenny’s Creative Ireland programme in 2017.

“We were delighted to provide funding under the County Kilkenny Culture and Creativity Plan 2017 to the Kilkenny Famine Experience Project”, says Dearbhala Ledwidge, Heritage Officer, Kilkenny County Council.

“By working with artists, heritage professional and communities this excellent project shines a light on the Kilkenny Workhouse, and the lives of Kilkenny people during the famine. It also allows us to honour those that died and never forget this difficult part of our heritage.”

The Kilkenny Famine Experience is supported by the Creative Ireland Programme, an all-of-Government five-year initiative, from 2017 to 2022. The project has also received funding supports from MacDonagh Junction Shopping Centre, Minister Heather Humphreys, Department of Culture, Heritage and The Gaeltacht, The Heritage Council and Kilkenny County Council.

The Kilkenny Famine Experience is free and bookings are now available to the public here.