12 Aug 2022

Telling the story of those who died in the Kilkenny workhouse

A LOT has been written about the economics and politics of the Famine, and about those who managed to survive those treacherous years of the mid-19th century – but not much is known about those who lost their lives during it.

A LOT has been written about the economics and politics of the Famine, and about those who managed to survive those treacherous years of the mid-19th century – but not much is known about those who lost their lives during it.

A newly published case study of the Kilkenny workhouse, however, helps to tell the poignant story of those who had nowhere else to turn.

“Burying the Famine dead: Kilkenny workhouse,” which is included in the new Atlas of the Great Irish Famine and written by Johnny Geber, reveals the harsh conditions in which thousands of people lived in the workhouse – even in addition to the deprivation that brought them there in the first place.

Inmates, for example, were put to work making blankets, clothes and pins – a reflection of the local economy outside the workhouse – and there were even instances of men being sentenced to three to four weeks of hard labour in the local jail “after having refused to work when told to do so.”

The strain of the Kilkenny union workhouse trying to deal with the sheer size of the crisis is also outlined. When it opened in 1842 it was designed to house 1,300 people – the fifth-largest workhouse in Ireland at the time. By 1851, however, a total of 4,357 people “were dependent on indoor relief from the workhouse.”

This strain was also manifest as the number of deaths in the workhouse began to climb from an average of 80 people per month up as high as 200 per month. In short, the local cemeteries began to run out of room, Mr Geber explained, as there had been no designated burial ground when the workhouse was built. The city also had to content with the high number of deaths at the nearby Fever Hospital.

With a shortage of space at St Patrick’s and St Maul’s cemeteries, and complaints from the public about the sanitary conditions resulting from the rate of burials, the workhouse guardians – reluctantly, it seems – resorted to creating a burial plot on the grounds of the workhouse itself.

It was this makeshift plot where the remains of around 970 people were discovered in excavations during the construction of MacDonagh Junction shopping centre in 2005. The burial ground contained some 67 pits with anywhere from six to 27 bodies each – apparently coinciding with the number of deaths per week in the workhouse, according to Mr Geber.

A new cemetery was eventually opened on the Hebron Road, following an advertisement in the Kilkenny Journal seeking a suitable plot of land at least an acre in size – which prompted calls from members of the public that it was unethical and insulting to those in the workhouse that they be buried in unconsecrated ground.

The plot at the workhouse remained unconsecrated until a reburial ceremony was held at the new Famine memorial garden at MacDonagh Junction in May 2010.

The fact that the workhouse burial ground wasn’t consecrated “would have been of great grievance and probably also a sense of shame, which perhaps explains why the existence of the cemetery had been forgotten,” Mr Geber writes.

“The fact that the cemetery was forgotten is one of the most interesting things I came across, if you consider that the Famine is not that long ago,” the author said of his case study. “It’s only 160 years ago – it’s not that many generations – but it had been totally forgotten.”

Remembering these people’s lives is, in fact, one of the main things he set out to achieve.

“One of the most important parts of the project that I’ve been involved in is being able to tell the story of these people,” more than half of whom were children, he said. “These were the very poorest of society so we don’t really know much about them, because they never really left any written legacy by themselves.”

Even the minute books mainly contain only statistics such as the number of death each week, he said.

One of his main findings was the scourge of scurvy among the inmates. “Scurvy is not that often identified in archaeological skeletons, but in this case it’s really severe and it’s affecting more than half of the skeletons,” he said. “In most cases when you identify disease on the bones it’s when it has reached a very chronic stage, so a lot of the skeletons that did not show evidence of scurvy were probably individuals who did have scurvy but not to the same extent.”

Scurvy is caused by a lack of vitamin C – “and they would have gotten that from the potatoes, so it is a direct reflection of the blight,” he said.

At the same time, typhus was rampant in Kilkenny and scurvy “would have reduced their immune defence so they were more prone to getting infectious disease.”

“That is quite a significant finding as well because it explains why there were so many males that died,” he said. “There were more males that died during the Famine, and in the skeletons I saw that the male skeletons had more evidence of scurvy. I suggested that it might have been because they would have gotten food rations in the workhouse and there would have been a bit of vitamin C in that food, but the males did not get enough food to meet their biological requirements.”

It was Mr Geber who prepared the remains for reburial, and in the process he recorded additional data so that their stories can continue to be told. Having just completed his Ph.D. on the subject, he hopes to carry out further research and publish his Ph.D. in book form. His findings have also been published in the Old Kilkenny Review and in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

After over a century and a half, their stories are finally being told.

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