Witnesses to a catastrophe

A forgotten Famine burial site inside the grounds of a former workhouse in Kilkenny has yielded the remains of nearly 1,000 people…

A forgotten Famine burial site inside the grounds of a former workhouse in Kilkenny has yielded the remains of nearly 1,000
people, and a wealth of knowledge about how they lived and how they died.

AN GORTA MÓR, the Great Hunger, was a time of terrible human drama as Ireland’s poor struggled to survive the ravages of famine and disease. The chance discovery of a Famine-period burial ground in Kilkenny city now helps to tell their story, how they lived and how they died during a dark period of Ireland’s history.

Some one million people died and were buried as conditions and finance allowed, with the poorest ending up in burial grounds used by a network of Victorian workhouses.

It was on the grounds of just such a workhouse in Kilkenny that the remains of almost 1,000 victims were found in 2005 as work got under way on a new shopping centre.


The discovery in turn delivered an unparalleled opportunity to gather hard information about the victims and how they died, says osteoarchaeological scientist Jonny Geber.

He conducted research on the bones recovered from the burial site inside the grounds of the Kilkenny Union Workhouse, in the process gaining important insight into conditions at the time.

“There are plenty of burial grounds associated with workhouses, but these were known and would never be excavated,” explains Geber.

Remarkably, the burial site inside the grounds of the Kilkenny workhouse was never consecrated and for some reason remained unknown. “This is unique. This burial ground was completely unknown, it had been lost in local memory,” he says. “That is one of the most fascinating aspects of it.”

Given the situation, authorisation was given to fully excavate and clear the site. Here was an unprecedented opportunity to study the remains before re-interrment, something that provided the possibility of a forensic analysis of the workhouse residents and the conditions in which they lived and died.

The deceased could become silent witnesses to the catastrophe that ravaged Ireland during the mid-18th century and also help reveal how the calamity struck the lowest levels of society.

Geber became involved in 2006 after archaeologists Margaret Gowen Co were commissioned to excavate the site. “I quickly realised the site was very significant, very important,” he says.

He decided to undertake a PhD in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast, with funding provided by Johan and Jakob Söderberg Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and Margaret Gowen Co.

The ground held the remains of 970 people who were thought to have died between 1845 and 1852. They were interred in a series of deep pits with between six and 27 people in each pit, thought to have represented that week’s deaths.

All were buried in coffins and these were stacked in the pits one on top of the next. The majority of them, 56 per cent, were infants, children and youngsters.

The only personal effects left behind by the almost 1,000 buried there were four sets of rosary beads, four medallions and two finger rings, poignant testimony to the poverty of those who ended up in the workhouse, were any actually needed.

Geber got to work studying the remains, looking for the tell-tale signs of disease. In this he co-operated with Julia Beaumont, a PhD student in archaeology at the University of Bradford.

The bones can reveal a great deal, for example the type of diet consumed by an individual or their health status given the paucity of food in parts of Ireland at the time, he says.

The palaeopathological analysis showed that this was “a population under severe stress” caused by the Famine, he says. There were high rates of active infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and many more would have suffered with “Famine fever” or endemic typhus.

The greatest scourge however was scurvy, caused by lack of vitamin C. The failure of the potato crop triggered the disease because this source of vitamin C dropped out of the daily diet. As a consequence more than half of those interred at Kilkenny showed bone damage caused by scurvy.

The hard evidence provided by the research suggests that scurvy may well have added greatly to mortality at the time, Geber says. The prevalence rate in Kilkenny is higher than most historical estimates in general and scurvy in certain age groups is correlated with mortality.

The research also showed that the workhouse did provide at least some vitamin C in the diet delivered to the inmates. This too was revealed in the bones, says Geber.

The evidence from the burial grounds also matched up with what the records of the time had to say about conditions inside the workhouse and provides greater clarity about this harsh system.

Workhouses for the poor were introduced in Ireland in 1838, says Geber. Their purpose was to provide a place of final retreat for the destitute, but in fact the real goal was to deter people from seeking relief by making sure conditions inside were always more wretched than conditions outside. This means that those who viewed the workhouses as a refuge were truly without hope.

The horror of conditions must have reached a peak during the Famine. The Kilkenny workhouse was built for 1,300 inmates but records show that by June, 1851 it housed 4,357 souls, says Geber.

Other stories resulted from the research, for example four adults interred there underwent lower limb amputations, with two failing to survive, the evidence being burial along with the severed limb.

The analysis was completed last year and the remains were re-interred in a special memorial and garden built adjacent to the shopping centre. Few who pass by however and glance casually at the dedication stone could ever comprehend the horrors experienced by those buried there.

Famine uncovered: many children died alone in the workhouse

CHILDREN MUST have suffered terribly during the Famine, not just in terms of hunger but also from social isolation and abandonment.

“The most startling discovery was that there were so many children among the dead, particularly children aged two through six,” explains Jonny Geber, the researcher who analysed the remains of the Famine dead.

“The Famine would have struck an entire generation but children tend to be ignored in the social research,” he says. “We know a lot of children would have died in the Famine and this shows it.”

The harsh Victorian workhouse system was based on the idea that people were poor through their own fault and therefore deserved punishment. Only orphans, complete families with children or the very oldest and weakest would have been allowed to enter this unforgiving regime.

The large number of children’s skeletons testified to their presence in the burial pits; youngsters who would have lost parents or been abandoned at the door in the hopes they might survive An Gorta Mór. Of the 970 skeletons analysed more than 540 were children of varying ages.

“Many children died alone in the workhouse, there must have been thousands of them. It is sad to think of it,” says Geber.

These children were buried in the pits with the adults, but the Kilkenny Board of Guardians who ran the workhouse went to great lengths to maintain the dignity in death of adults and children, Geber says.

“To be buried in a coffin was very important in 19th-century Ireland.”

Records at the time showed that the officials struggled to keep up with expenditure on coffins and shrouds for the dead.

None of the burials occurred without a coffin, implying that the notorious sliding coffin was not used in Kilkenny, he says. Some workhouses found a way to cut costs by using these devices, which included a hinged door. Once the burial took place, the body would drop out while the coffin could be lifted from the grave and used for the next victim.

Almost all of the bodies were interred in individual coffins which were stacked in the pits before burial. In 10 cases the coffins were shared, usually by an adult and a child with the child placed by the legs of the adult.

One coffin was found to have an adult with two children and in another touching case a newborn child was found nestled in the crook of the arm of a female, presumably its mother.

Geber acknowledged he felt a “huge sense of responsibility” towards the Famine victims found in the Kilkenny Union Workhouse. He hoped that by telling their story some of their dignity could be returned.

Dick Ahlstrom