GHOSTLY echoes of a dark time in Ireland’s history are still being felt in a home in Ballyvaughan, believed to be located on the site of a former workhouse.
The house is part of a complex that is understood locally to comprise a dispensary, a child detention unit and workhouse proper, which opened in the mid-1800s and housed around 500 people. Resident Eilís Haden-Storrie, a journalist and author with long experience working in the North in education around the peace process, bought the property and, for a time, ran a B&B. She found that, from the start, the house attracted people with a curiosity and sensitivity about its history. “The most amazing visitors came,” she said. “The house just seemed to appeal to people with an interest in history and they would often remark on the funny energy they sensed. We also found people were able to point out the place where the original front door was located, even though they couldn’t have know it had been there.”
With an interest in healing and spirituality, Eilís was curious to see if the energy in the house could be improved. “We had one very well-respected healer come here and immediately sense that there was a lot of grief still here. We did some meditations and she told us there was a lot to do. She had seen people and children in a location at the back which we believe was a child detention centre. There are so many layers here. Eventually, she asked if we minded if she never came back to the house. Since then, we have had other come and try to do healing and the energy has changed.” Dr Rosemary Power who is the editor of The Other Clare is fascinated by the house and its history and said she can sense that the energy has shifted.”
While the general atmosphere may have improved, Eilís believes there is one otherworldly resident who is less willing to leave. “People have come here and seen a man that I too have seen,” she said. “He’s only around four foot tall. I thought he had gone, but he seems to have made it clear he’s going nowhere. Energetically, the house is better though, but it’s a sensitive thing. There are people living whose relatives would have lived and died in the workhouse. There is still that sense of anger and shame, even though there shouldn’t be.”
Adding to the sense of intrigue around the house is a recent discovery of a cache of letters deposited decades ago in the walls of the house next door. “Last year – while renovating – my next-door neighbours, Teresa Kilkelly and her son, found a plethora of original 19th century letters and documents sealed behind their living room wall,” Eilís explained. “The correspondence was the property of a Poor Law Union medical doctor, Edward Heyns. Dr Heyns lived in what was then the doctor’s residence in a group of Burren workhouse buildings – home to the destitute right through Ireland’s great Famine. The letters were in a kind of cupboard that had been sealed over and it was like walking in after 150 years. There are an array of documents, which I borrowed for a while. Some of them, I brought to a retired lawyer who was able to use a magnifying glass to read them. My brother’s partner took photos of other documents and enhanced them. I took the big box of eclectic memories to Galway where I met with Maggie Ronayne, an archaeologist at NUI Galway. Maggie – who’s familiar with our home – is of the belief that what we consider to be a shared back yard is in fact a giant Famine grave and that these letters are a valuable part of a history that needs to be respected and preserved.”
Eilís describes the letters as “a mishmash”. “One note reports an abandoned dead donkey,” she said. “Also in the mix are blank ‘Death from Starvation’ forms and letters threatening action against those who’ve not registered the birth of their children. My heart stopped on reading one
particular note requesting entry into the workhouse for a lady named Gutherie who’s ‘in a poor state’. This was not an uncommon occurrence in the late 1800s. As there were several famines throughout the century and mass poverty continued long after and many workhouses in Ireland remained open until as late as the 1920’s when they were handed over to the Free State.”
The subject of vaccination – which was in its infancy in the 1800s – is also a theme in the letters.
“The largest group of documents within this treasure trove all centre around smallpox,” Eilís explained. “It appears that Dr Heyns took three Burren families to court for not having their children vaccinated. In those days vaccinations were a risky affair. One recommended method was to remove skin from each young baby’s arm and rub the wound with a small dose of the variola virus. At the time there was little regulation, doctors were often unqualified or badly trained
– Catholics not being allowed into medical schools of the time – and low-grade product was frequently used. Often parents who lost one child as a result of the mandatory vaccination programme refused to vaccinate another and as a result faced fines or – if they were cash-strapped – imprisonment.”
In the Ballyvaughan area today, Dr Heyns seems to have fallen entirely from peoples’ memory and little is known of him. Eilís enlisted the help of local historian Conor Fahy to find out more. “With little more than the 1901 and 1911 census records to draw on it was slim pickings,” she admitted. “It seems he might have been speculating about moving to Nevada for a while as he’d saved a couple of land-purchase advertisements. But it’s unlikely that he followed through as the application form was blank. Online documents show that in 1888, Dr Heyns married Belinda O’Brien from Lisdoonvarna who was 13 years his junior. He seems to have had a daughter at the time – possibly from a previous match. They later moved to Lisdoonvarna where the new Mrs Heyns took up a post as the proprietor of what was then called The Atlantic Hotel.”
Over those dark years, Ballyvaughan was an administrative area for people who came to sign away their land and enter the workhouse. The so-called ‘Gregory Clause’ meant many were reluctant to do so and instead, hundreds wandered the roads, ravaged by starvation and disease. “I do believe it is time to honour all of those who died in the workhouse,” Eilís said, “as well as everyone who was connected with them. Those who did wrong in these places weren’t born bad people. I think the time has come now to express love and compassion and to end the shame and hurt.”
The letters, meanwhile, offer a window onto a tragic and complex era in Irish history and Eilís is keen to find out more about the man behind them.
“The documents span from 1882 to ’85,” she said. “We’ve no idea why they were sealed into a wall. Many of them are too fragmented to read but still they’re clues to a world we’re learning to understand as we navigate our way through the decades of commemoration. I’m eternally grateful to our neighbours for letting us lay our hands to these precious gems. The touch of skin to paper creates a sense of the connections of all of us beings across time. It brings spirits out from dark corners and into the light of awareness. If anyone has any local knowledge or family history centring around the Burren during the 1880s and would like to be involved in adding to Dr Heyns’ time capsule, do get in touch. If you’re lucky enough to find any old documents while renovating, The Clare Local Studies Library would love to hear from you.”
Eilís Haden Storrie can be contacted on email@example.com.
Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald.
Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti.
She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at The University of Galway.
If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 065 6864146.