The Kilkenny Workhouse mass burials: an archaeology of the Irish Potato Famine

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Very few grave goods were found during the excavations, but this set of rosary beads was found with the skeleton of a 26-35 year-old female. Image: Jonny GeberThe horrifying human cost of the Great Irish Famine is well known, but what archaeological traces has it left? Recent research at Queen’s University Belfast by Jonny Geber has revealed the realities of life for a community struck down during the crisis, and how a misdiagnosis may have added to the suffering.

The Kilkenny Union Workhouse symbolised the dawn of a new era of poor relief in Ireland. Founded in the wake of the 1832 Poor Law Act, which introduced workhouses to the country, the custom-built facility was one of the largest in Ireland and designed to house some 1,300 inmates. Within its walls the destitute poor received sustenance and shelter in return for strenuous physical labour and unquestioning obedience to a strict regime. More stick than carrot, the workhouse system was a shining beacon for the Victorian belief in inspiring the poor to better themselves by making the alternative a brutal and degrading existence.

An aerial photograph of the former Kilkenny Union Workhouse complex, taken sometime during the early 1960s. The site of the mass burials is top left of this photo, in the corner of the boundary wall. Credit: Property of Karyn Deegan, published by kind permission via the Local Studies section of Kilkenny County Library.Evaluation work at the Kilkenny workhouse site in 2005 by Cóilín Ó Drisceoil of Kilkenny Archaeology unexpectedly revealed the remains of numerous inmates who never left the institution. The discovery of large quantities of skeletal material was a shock as the workhouse did not lie on consecrated ground. Excavation followed in 2006, undertaken by Brenda O’Meara of Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd, and revealed 63 mass burials, the largest number ever to be unearthed within Ireland. These graves proved to hold the remains of at least 970 individuals. Archive research revealed that these forgotten relics of a tragedy were cut over a 43-month period in the mid 1800s. They testify to the devastating impact of a national catastrophe on a vulnerable community.    

The harsh realities of life in Ireland during the first half of the 19th century are powerfully evoked in the words of one French observer, Gustave de Beaumont. In 1835 he was moved to write that: ‘I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland … In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland.’ Another contemporary commentator described the poor populating the outskirts of the town of Callan, within County Kilkenny, as ‘either in a state of actual starvation, or barely keeping body and soul together.’

A key weapon in the struggle to keep body and soul entwined had first reached Ireland in the late 16th century. Initially grown for the amusement of the gentry, by the 19th century the potato had become an essential foodstuff. Offering a ready source of vitamin C and calories, combining potatoes with the vitamin A and D and proteins in milk provided a cheap, balanced diet that served as a life support for Ireland’s poor. In the run up to the famine average daily potato intake by an adult is estimated to have been around 12-14lb. Of that, the majority was from a single variety, which thrived in damp, low-nutrient soils: the ‘Irish Lumper’. The result was that by the 1840s, so many with so little were dependent on a single variety of a single foodstuff. The stage was set for a catastrophe.    

An Gorta Mór
The dead of Kilkenny. These two young children, aged 3 — 4 years old, lay side by side in a single coffin. Victims of the 1845-1852 Great Famine, they joined at least 968 others buried in mass graves on the workhouse site. Image: Jonny Geber‘The Great Hunger’, sometimes referred to as the ‘potato famine’, is still a politically charged subject. For many it symbolises a defining moment in the birth of modern Ireland. The arrival of potato blight, or Phytophthora infestans, in August 1845 wrought lasting change on the country. Devastating crops for seven years, by the time the famine lifted in 1852 a million people were dead, and at least a million more had escaped by emigrating. Combined, this amounted to the loss of over a quarter of the Irish population, which has yet to return to its pre-famine levels.

Many, both during and since the famine, felt that the behaviour of the British government helped deepen the crisis. Following the 1801 Acts of Union, Ireland had been constitutionally part of the United Kingdom. Struggling to believe that such a catastrophe would have been tolerated in Yorkshire or Lancashire, John Mitchel, an outspoken critic of England’s actions during the famine wrote in 1861 ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’    

The summary of inmates at the Kilkenny Union Workhouse during the first week of March 1847. Image: Jonny GeberThe impact of potato blight on life in the Kilkenny Workhouse was immediate and soon threatened to be overwhelming. Faced with the abrupt loss of their food supply, the threat of starvation made even the harsh conditions in the workhouse seem appealing to the poor. Many of those living in rural areas hit by the famine migrated towards towns, and Kilkenny’s numbers swelled as labourers from its agricultural hinterland to the west streamed into the city. By July 1847 the number of Kilkenny Workhouse inmates had breached the theoretical maximum of 1,300 and climbed to 2,340. By 1851 the number had rocketed to 4,357, well over three times the institution’s supposed capacity.

Chronically overcrowded, infectious diseases, such as typhus, cholera, and tuberculosis, ran rampant. The workhouse authorities sought to ease the extraordinary pressure on space brought on by the famine by constructing sheds in the grounds and renting premises of dubious suitability for human habitation elsewhere in the city. But as numbers rose and conditions worsened, problems stemming from the absence of a feature that had once been deemed irrelevant to the smooth operation of a workhouse became increasingly acute: a cemetery.

In the end it was Typhus that decided the issue. Striking in 1847, the fever exacted a terrible toll on the weakened workhouse community. Coinciding with the banning of pauper burials at the local cemeteries of St Patrick’s and St Maul’s, the workhouse authorities had no choice other than to look within their own walls. A similar move in the years prior to the famine had earned the institution a stinging rebuke from the Poor Law Commissioners. Now there was no other option and despite local opposition to what was deemed an unsanitary solution, mass graves began to be dug in the north-eastern corner of the site. Comparing the numbers in each grave with the mortality rate recorded in the surviving workhouse minute books suggests that each mass burial held approximately a week’s worth of the dead.

Stack them high
The skeleton of an adult and a small child. The child lay within a coffin placed above the adult coffin, and only later fell into the lower coffin.  Credit: Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd.Despite the desperate circumstances driving the burials and the extreme poverty of those interred, the mass graves did not take the form of bodies merely dumped in pits. The importance of dignity in death was keenly felt in 19th century Ireland, with the traditional Irish wake forming an essential custom for rich and poor alike. There are also numerous accounts of families in even the direst financial circumstances attempting to scrape together enough pennies to throw a respectable funeral. This need is reflected in the burial provisions made at Kilkenny, where the deceased were wrapped in a shroud and buried in simple pine coffins. These were then stacked one on top of the other in the burial pit.

Hints of the economic strain brought on by this determination to ensure that inmates were interred with dignity are apparent in the 10 occasions where two individuals were crammed into one coffin. In most cases such burials took the form of an adult with an infant placed between their legs. In one instance, though, a baby was positioned resting on the crook of an adult female’s right arm. In another, two children aged between 3 and 4 years old were squeezed side by side into a single adult coffin.The high numbers of young people among the dead may also have been influenced by workhouse admission procedures. Normally only complete families — which were then broken up and separated into strict single-sex accommodation, orphaned children and the infirm were accepted. The presence of males and females in the same mass graves shows that such segregation did not outlast life, and that the sexes were finally reunited in death.

Excavations underway on the mass graves at the Kilkenny Workhouse site by Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd in 2006. The graves contained bodies in coffins stacked one on top of the other.  Credit: Margaret Gowen & Co. LtdThe severed bones from four amputations were found among the dead. In two cases it was just the limb that had been deposited, but in the other two cases it was clear that the amputees had not survived the procedure and their bodies joined those in the mass graves. While this was a common enough outcome to an amputation in the mid 19th century, there are clear signs of a medical failure on a far wider scale among the Kilkenny dead.

In 1848 Joseph Lalor, one of the Kilkenny Workhouse physicians published an article in the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science describing an epidemic of what he diagnosed as ‘gastric fever’ (typhoid fever) at the institution. Lalor noted the emergence of a new symptom that he called a ‘purpuric eruption’ in 1845, the first year of the famine. These markings were essentially spots found on the chest, groin, back of the neck, arms and legs. By September 1846 such symptoms had become frequent. Lalor’s description of his ministrations paints a potent picture of life for those struck down with the illness:

Diluent drinks, and the abstraction of solid food, and of all external or internal irritants, formed the chief part of the general treatment… Inflammatory complications were most safely and successfully treated by mercury, with opium and blisters; and the apparent analogy between this disease and scurvy should not deter us, in such complications, from the use of this medicine, which acted favourably here.

Scurvy's signature. The holes around the temple of the skull, known to osteologists as porotic lesions, from this 10-11 year old child are typical of scurvy. Other signs include the pocked surface on this mandible, a skeletal scar caused by the bleeding gums brought on by the disease. Image: Jonny GeberDespite Lalor’s confidence in his diagnosis, however, study of the mass grave material suggests that he was too hasty in writing off scurvy as a possible cause. Indeed, if these skeletons are any guide the disease seems to have been endemic among his patients. Of the 970 individuals found in the mass burials, 499 display patterns of damage to their bones that suggest they were suffering from advanced scurvy. Tell-tale traces include an excessive concentration of tiny holes at the bones around the temple, and around the teeth sockets and palate. Resembling the aftermath of a woodworm infestation, this damage was wrought by stress from the chewing muscles onto defective blood vessels. It resulted in haemorrhage and the bleeding gums the disease inflicts.

In a way skeletal traces of scurvy reflect a paradox, as they can only form once vitamin C has been re-introduced to a diet. This suggests that these individuals were suffering from extreme scurvy prior to entering the workhouse, and that they received some vitamin C from the institution food rations, probably in the form of vegetables and milk. Evidently they were not able to regain their strength before succumbing to death from infectious disease. This fits with famine folklore telling of workhouses being perceived as ‘death houses’ that, once entered, you were unlikely to leave alive.

 This is an extract, but you can read the full feature in CA 278.  


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