Memorial service for victims of Great Famine discovered in mass grave

Thu, May 20, 2010, 01:00

A MEMORIAL service was held in Kilkenny yesterday to honour some 1,000 unnamed people whose remains were discovered in a previously unknown mass grave dating from the Great Famine.

Archaeologists said the majority were children who had died in a former workhouse on the site between 1847 and 1851. They were originally buried in unconsecrated ground as the local graveyard was filled to capacity in a city “overwhelmed by the scale of deaths in the local population arising from famine, poverty and disease”. The discovery is the largest mass grave uncovered to date in Ireland. The skeletal remains were found in 2005 during excavation works for McDonagh Junction, a new shopping centre and apartment complex. The bones were removed for analysis under the supervision of the National Museum of Ireland and have now been reinterred in a specially-built crypt in a memorial garden open to visitors.

Representatives of the Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian and Church of Ireland religious denominations, accompanied by a Gospel choir, participated in a ceremony described by one observer as “a decent burial”, after 160 years. A clergyman laid a wreath on the Kilkenny limestone crypt. The State was represented by an Army colour party drawn from the 3rd Infantry Battalion, Mayor of Kilkenny Malcolm Noonan and councillors from the main parties.

Jonny Geber, a Swedish consultant osteo-archaeologist, who spent three years analysing and researching the remains said it was “clear that the unfortunate men, women and children who spent their final days in the workhouse were not just malnourished, but desperately sick”.

His research revealed that the mass grave had contained “about 1,000 people” of whom “60 per cent were aged under 18” and who were buried “between autumn 1847 and spring 1851”. Pathological evidence indicated that most had suffered from scurvy which “was not really present in Ireland before the Famine because potatoes had been a source of Vitamin C”. However, the immediate cause of death was likely to have been a fever epidemic.

Mr Geber said his work on the project had afforded him a “unique insight into the tragedy” and he could now understand the “shocking human experience” endured by the Irish population at the time.