AS the 2013 National Famine Commemoration in Kilrush approaches, the fact that 3,600 famine victims lie buried in Shanakyle Cemetery underlines the tragic severity of the 1845 – 1849 Famine.
On July 14, 1995, a ceremony was held in Shanakyle Cemetery to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Famine. Fr Patrick Culligan addressed the gathering and much of what he said is still relevant as the May 2 – May 12 National Famine Commemoration approaches in West Clare.
In his speech, Fr Culligan quoted excerpts from Dr R Madden, who was a United Irishmen historian. Dr Madden visited Kilrush in February 1851 and described, in some detail, the manner in which the famine dead were buried in the town. Dr Madden’s comments featured in a book written about the ravages of the Famine in the west of the county.
“The dead are interred every morning in a churchyard (Shanakyle) about a mile and a half from the town. The bodies are carted away without any appearance of a funeral ceremony; no attendance of priest, no pall,” Dr Madden is quoted as saying in Life and Death in West Clare 1845-1851 by Monsignor Ignatius Murphy.
“The coffins – if the frail boards nailed together for the remains of the paupers may so be called are made by contract and furnished at a very low figure. The paupers’ trench in a corner of the churchyard, which I visited, is a large pit, the yawning aperture about twenty feet square. The dead are deposited in layers and over each coffin a little earth is thinly scattered, just sufficient to conceal the boards,” Dr Madden recounted graphically.
“The thickness of the covering of the clay I found did not amount to two inches over the last tier of coffins deposited there. A pauper who drives the cart and another who accompanies him to assist in the trench, are the only funeral attendants. It is very rare that any of the kith or kin of a pauper accompany his remains to the grave. Because there are so many deaths and so much difficulty in ascertaining anything about the identity of such a multitude of paupers as those amounting to half a hundred or more who die a week, it is seldom anything is known of the deaths in the poorhouse by the friends outside,” Dr Madden reported in early 1851.
The majority of people buried in the Famine graves in Shanakyle were from Cross, Carrigaholt, Kilkee, Doonbeg, Cooraclare, Kilrush and Killimer. The latter was a single parish while all of the parishes came under The Kilrush Union.
In his speech almost 18 years ago, Fr Culligan said that the population of the Kilrush Union was about 70,000.
“In 1854, when Killimer became a parish, there were still 12,000 people in the Kilrush parish. Before the Famine there were 6,000 people living in Killard (Doonbeg) and 10,000 plus in the joint parishes of Moyarta/Kilballyowen, which were the Carrigaholt and Cross of today. The village of Killard almost totally disappeared after the Famine,” Fr Culligan said.
In White’s History of Clare it states that in1849 Kilrush parish priest Fr Kelly, wrote that along with his curate, Fr Michael Meehan, he went through the parish of Carrigaholt administering the last sacraments, when word was brought to them that the parish clergy were all down with fever.
“In that one day they attended no less than 40 cases of cholera and Famine fever. The parish priest of Moyarta, Fr Malachy Duggan, who had attended 18 cases only two days before, died of cholera within a few days. He was known as Parliament Malachy because he went to the parliament in London to lobby for relief for his people,” Fr Culligan stated.
The Kilrush Union was very highly populated at this point, which was 200 years after Oliver Cromwell’s army had depopulated the area.
However, while famine stalked the land, corn continued to be exported. Eviction was widespread in The Kilrush Union at that time.
“Cabins were thrown down in all directions and the workhouse (1848) in Kilrush was full. There were six auxiliary workhouses in the town,” Cecil Woodham Smith wrote in her book, The Great Hunger.
“I cannot think where the evicted find shelter. A thousand cabins have been thrown down in three months,” Captain Kennedy, the Kilrush Poor Law Inspector, said in his diary.
In his book, The Diocese of Killaloe 1800-1850, Monsignor Ignatius Murphy stated that records between December 1847 and July 1848, show that 900 houses were levelled in the Kilrush Union by Autumn 1849.
It was calculated that 20,000 people were evicted in the union in 1845 and 1846.
In the 1850s’ 150 orphans were sent to Australia from workhouses in Clare. In his book, A Famine Diary, which was published in 1991, Gerard Keegan gave a harrowing account of the problems faced by emigrants and orphans. In some instances parents died during the voyage.
The launch of the ten day national commemoration (May 2 to 10) of the Great Famine in West Clare will coincide with the start of the Carrigaholt Oyster Festival on Friday May 3. Kilkee based Crack’d Spoon Theatre have been asked to recreate a fictional incident from the 1840s to mark the occasion. This will include a civic reception staged by local landlords Westby, Burton and McDonnel for Crofton Moore Vandeleur head of the Poor Law Union and his wife Grace.
In addition, as Carrigaholt was the last port of call for the ill fated immigrant ship “The Edmund”, intending passengers will be queuing for tickets in the square.
Research in the lead up to the Famine Commemoration has thrown light on twilight vigilantes variously named The Rockites, Lady Clare Boys, White Boys, Terry Alts, which were agrarian secret societies who met after dark and dressed in wild terrifying costumes to take revenge against landlord collaborators.