Skibbereen - Remembering the Great Hunger

Famine graves ~ Skibbereen, West Cork

The town of Skibbereen in West Cork was at the center of the horrors of the Great Famine that ravaged Ireland between 1845 and 1850. Over one million Irish natives died of starvation or starvation related diseases. Sadly ... many believe the deaths were unnecessary because the ruling Aglo-Irish were shipping grain and food out of the country for profit while the lower class Irish starved. Some benevolent land owners tried to help their starving Irish tenants, but not enough to stave off the blanket of death that covered the hungry land when the potato crop failed.

Today, May 17, 2009, victims of the Great Famine were remembered at a ceremony in Skibbereen marking the first National Famine Memorial Day. Children from seven local schools lit candles in memory of the victims of the Famine and planted a Rowan tree.

Skibbereen was one of the worst affected areas of Ireland during the Famine, with 28,000 dead and a further 8,000 lost to emigration. It was on the grounds of a Franciscan Priory (referred to as "the abbey") in Skibbereen that between 8000 and 10,000 coffinless bodies were piled into mass graves. The sick were dying too fast to get coffins made, and sparse numbers of healthy people made proper burials impossible. The dying were burying the dead.

The Skibbereen town website tells of some Irish that succumbed to consequences of the needless famine.

On 24th October, 1846 Denis McKennedy dropped dead while working on the Caheragh road. At the Inquest, held at the Abbey graveyard, it was proved that, for the week in question, Mrs McKennedy, for her family of 5, had only 21lbs of potatoes (given by a neighbour), 2 pints of flour and one cabbage. Deceased's wages were 8d. per day, and same were in arrear for two weeks, owing to an official error. The Jury found that deceased died of starvation, owing to the gross negligence of the Board of Works, and, unfortunately, this was not the only case of its kind in the Skibbereen district...

... People crawled into Skibbereen from the country, in the hope of finding some food, and died there. The Workhouse became overcrowded, and though built to hold only 800 people, eventually it had 1449 inmates, and then had to be closed against any more. The mortality there was frightful, 140 having died in December 1846 and, early in 1847 (which was worse year for deaths), there were as many as 65 deaths in one week.

Today, the mass graves and surrounding cemetery and abbey grounds have been transformed into a living memorial for the victims of the Great Famine.

The visitor entering the gateway going into to the Skibbereen Famine cemetery first enters a kind of covered vestibule with the following word carved into the walls:

Ireland’s worse single disaster – the Great Famine 1845-1850
Resulted in the deaths of over a million of its people
With more than another million consigned to the immigrant ships.
Skibbereen at the the centerof the horror suffered more than other places and here
In the famine burial pits of this cemetery were placed the coffinless remains of 9000 victims… a chilling reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger who pined away , stricken by want of the fruits of the field.

The visitor leaves that area and walks into the open cemetery where he or she is met by four standing stones engraved with the following words:

Stone 1
A million a decade of human wrecks
Corpses lying in fever sheds
Corpses huddled on foundering decks
And shroudless dead on their rocky beds
Nerve and muscle and heart and brain
Lost to Ireland. Lost in vain.

Stone 2
Pause and you can almost hear the sound echo down the ages.
The creak of the burial cart
The rattle of the hinged coffin door
The sigh of spade on earth
Now and again
All day long

Stone 3
Here in humiliation and sorrow not unmixed with indignation
One is driven to exclaim, “O God, that bread should be so dear and human flesh so cheap."

Stone 4
1845 – 1850 To the nameless dead victims of famine and fever who lie here in the abbey and in other cemeteries in wayside graves.

Just behind these stones is an expansive, lumpy grass-covered knoll ~ the mass graves of the famine victims. A small white stone rests at the edge carved with the following:

THE FAMINE 1845-48

It's overwhelming to walk the cemetery grounds and try to grasp the magnitude of 10,000 individuals ... all dead ... all discarded here, abandoned by the government that should have cared for them ... with no names, no ritual, no loving tributes. The place is heavy with sorrow, yet is a testimony to the Irish capacity to weave tender art into miserable recollections. Here tihe artistic interpretation is to remember, lest we repeat the horrible action.

The ruins of the old abbey are in the center of the cemetery, which is on an incline. They are moss and ivy covered and barely discernible. At first, the famine dead were buried in unmarked graves beside the abbey. Lumpy, grass covered areas flank the ruins, some marked by a rock or makeshift nameless marker. The juxtaposition of these unmarked graves with those that have ornate headstones and carved crosses reveal the disparity in means of those who mourned. But there is a strange sense of equality among the dead.

Across the street from the cemetery is the Skibbereen Heritage Center housed in a restored old gasworks building. There are state-of-the-art interpretive displays and multi-media presentations that give a close view of the Great Famine and how it effected Skibbereen particularly. There is also a Famine Trail that begins at the town square and passes by many of the same buildings that were in use at the time of the Famine.

When I visited Skibbereen in February 2007, I spent about an hour in the Heritage Center and then another hour in the cemetery with constant reflection on the human tragedies and unnecessary sufferings and deaths of these Irish people. This was my fifth day in Ireland, and I had already covered over 900 miles in my rental car.

My next stop was to be Drombeg Stone Circle. My mind was still racing with thoughts of death and the Famine when I exited the car park. I unthinkingly pulled my car into the "right" lane (as we do in America), and began driving down the motorway in a lane meant for on-coming traffic. I had never had this type of "directional memory lapse" in all my years (and thousands of miles) driving in Ireland and the UK.

A car came around the bend and met me head-on. It stopped quickly as I did. We did not collide, but I will never forget his face and the look of shock on it.

The driver just waited there holding back the traffic behind him. He waited for me to get my composure and right myself. After a moment I pulled into the proper lane, gave a nod of anguished thanks that driver, and proceeded out of town.

Strange happening, that.

Apart from the austerity of the Great Famine memories, Skibbereen (Irish for "little boat harbor") is large, bustling town with a small town feel. It has many attractions that include beaches, woodlands, lakes, sports recreation, shopping and dining. The Skibbereen town Website has more information.