Shankill remembers Protestant and Catholic victims of Famine

‘I always thought the Famine was in the south. Here it was sort of airbrushed’


A special ceremony was held on the loyalist Shankill Road in Belfast on Monday to mark how Protestants as well as Catholics suffered and died in the Famine.

More than 30 people gathered at Shankill Graveyard where it is estimated between 400-1,000 victims of the Famine are buried.

The event was driven by the Shankill Area Social History Group (Sash) in conjunction with the Building Communities charity. It is linked to the Sharing the Past project supported by lottery funding which, according to Dr Francis Costello, is “designed to spur a greater awareness of the impact the Great Famine had on all the people of Belfast and Ulster”.

Shankill man Jim McAuley, vice chairman of Sash, said there was a sense that Protestants who suffered during the Famine had been forgotten by history.

“I always thought the Famine was down in the south of Ireland but here it was sort of airbrushed over. We never realised that it was throughout Ireland as a whole,” he said after the noon ceremony.

“We were never taught about it, we never heard about it in any history in school. I think occasions like this help to reconcile people; to realise that we all suffered,” said Mr McAuley.

Kilted piper Gary McDonald played a lament at noon as people gathered at the cemetery site, which is now a park, to remember those who died in the Famine. Prayers were said by local Presbyterian minister, the Rev Jack Lamb, who recalled how his predecessor Rev William Johnston – minister of Townsend Street Presbyterian Church – suffered during the Famine while caring for his flock.

“He contracted typhus but, thanks be to God, he recovered,” said Mr Lamb. “It is very poignant to be here to mark the fact that between 400 and 1,000 Famine victims are buried here.”

“I think that the Protestant community has been slow in recognising and publicising the fact that the Famine did not just affect the Catholic community, that it also affected the Protestant community to a very large extent through illness, death and emigration,” he said.

“I think this is a landmark commemoration. Hopefully it will be a turning point and there will be a growing realisation that the Famine was no respecter of creed or status. I am all for encouraging history as something that can heal rather than something that causes harm,” said Mr Lamb.

Irish-American and Bostonian Dr Francis Costello who, with Dr Gerard MacAtasney, is writing a history on the global impact of the hunger, said that all of Ulster suffered from the Famine notwithstanding a certain belief that because it was more industrious it escaped its ravages.

He said Belfast was not able to cope with the influx of suffering people during the Famine which lasted from 1845 to the late 1840s. He said thousands of people died from Famine-related illnesses such as cholera, typhus and dysentery.

During the ceremony he read an extract from the Belfast Newsletter of May 1847 about 10-year-old Sarah George – who was buried in the Shankill cemetery – “dying the arms of her mother on High Street” Belfast.

“The narrative has been clinically accepted that some Protestants might have died as carers but that they were exceptions, but they were not exceptions,” said Dr Costello. “There is a story of the Famine that the Protestant community does not know.”