County Fermanagh in the Nineteenth Century
In 1841 the population of Ireland was 8.2 million, making Ireland the most densely populated country in Europe. The potato was the staple diet for the majority of these people. On average a working man ate 6.5 kilos and a woman 5 kilos of potatoes a day. The potato is a nutritious food; high in carbohydrates and protein, when mixed with buttermilk it provides a wholesome diet.
The over-dependence of the population on a single crop, the potato, made them vulnerable to any crop failure.
Potato blight first appeared in America in 1843; by the summer of 1845 reports of blight began to appear on the continent.. The first report of blight in Ulster was in Fermanagh on 28th August 1845. In that month the Earl of Erne wrote to the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society of Ireland reporting: “many instances of a total failure of the potato crop in County Fermanagh.” By early September blight was reported throughout Ireland. The potato crop was to fail for the next four years.
The blight, correctly name‘Phytophthora Infestans, is a fungus which attacks the leaves and tubers of the potato plant. This potato blight was to cause one of the greatest famines ever witnessed. The Great Hunger (An Gorta Mor) brought about a period of unprecedented suffering in Ireland. The scale of the hunger and the loss of life were immense. Fermanagh did not escape the ravages of the famine. The population of the county declined by a quarter in the decade from 1841-1851.
Famine graveyards are scattered throughout Ireland. Such graveyards- paupers’ graves and the memorials which now stand on these sites are a crucial link to this hugely important time in our recent past.
The New Poor Law.
The Workhouse in Ireland.
The new poor law was introduced in England in 1834 and extended to Ireland in 1838. One of the provisions of the act was the construction of new workhouses in each Poor Law Union. There were three workhouses in County Fermanagh: Enniskillen, Lisnaskea and Lowtherstown (Irvinestown). During the years of famine the workhouses provided relief for those left homeless, starving and destitute. Entering the workhouse was a distressing time; families were strictly segregated on the basis of gender, age and state of health.
Of the 1.2 million lives lost during the famine at least one in five of these deaths occurred in the workhouses. Those who died were buried in what became known as ‘famine pits’ or mass graves. In Enniskillen, locals refer to the graveyard simply as “The Paupers.”
The architect George Wilkinson designed all of the workhouses in Ireland. Enniskillen workhouse was built on a site at Cornagrade on the banks of the River Erne, in close proximity to the island town. It was built to accommodate 1000 inmates. Today, only the entrance block at the rear of the Erne Hospital remains. The workhouse opened on 1st December 1845 with 69 paupers admitted. At the height of the famine in May 1847 there were 1433 inmates in the workhouse, 156 inmates died in that month alone. To save money part of the workhouse grounds were set aside as a burial ground. A small stone memorial marks this site directly in front of the Erne Hospital.
Typhoid and typhus were rife and many people were dying. To alleviate the expense of burying paupers slip coffins were used. The strip of land for the Paupers Graveyard in Cornagrade was provided by the Earl of Enniskillen in February 1847 and was fully operational by May of that year.
From 1845-1852 a total of 2040 people died in the workhouse. The majority of whom were buried in the paupers graveyard in Cornagrade, prior to this inmates were buried in the workhouse grounds. The paupers’ graveyard continued to be used until 1948. The 1901 census reports 203 inmates in the workhouse in Enniskillen.
The Paupers Graveyard Famine Memorial, Cornagrade, Enniskillen.
The famine memorial was officially unveiled on 28th August 1995 at a Commemoration Service to mark the 150th anniversary of the famine. It consists of two stone gable walls built by stonemason Lawrence Connors, with stones taken from old derelict forestry cottages in Derrylin. At the centre is a bronze table with five empty plates created by Derry born sculptor Eamon O’Doherty symbolising the scarcity of food during the famine. The memorial invokes a sense of desolation, despair and loss. A letter written to the Enniskillen guardians in 1847 is cited at the memorial, it reads: “We beg to direct the attention of the Guardians to the shameless, indecent and dangerous piling of the dead paupers in the new ground.”
Lowtherstown, now Irvinestown workhouse was opened on 1st October 1845 and cost £4,950 to build. It was built to accommodate 400 people, but in the dark days of the famine in 1848 it housed 796 inmates. Irvinestown was in the Barony of Lurg and was the 116th Poor Law Union in Ireland. The workhouse was situated in Reihill Park in the town. The inscription stone (1841) is now incorporated into the arch going up to the enclosed area. The surrounding stone wall is all that remains from this period.
John Porter and Rose Cawden were the first inmates to enter the workhouse on 15 October 1845. John, of no fixed abode but originally from Kesh was 75 years old, he was married but had been deserted by his wife. He was a beggar and described as “tolerably clean.” Rose was 55 years of age and a beggar from Largy, Lack.
Food was inferior to that of other unions and in 1846 a typical adult’s food for a day was 7oz oatmeal for breakfast, 8oz oatmeal for dinner while no supper was offered. Each inmate was allowed half a pint of buttermilk for breakfast and dinner.
Irvinestown was described in July 1847 by Dr Phelan, the medical inspector to the Poor Law Commissioners as the “worst” he has seen in the north of Ireland. He referred to patients lying on the bare floor with scarcely enough straw under them and being in a filthy state.
Given of the large numbers of inmates dying it was resolved by the Board of Guardians on 13 January 1847 that a portion of the workhouse ground should be ditched in as a burial ground for the paupers. There was no spare ground available in the public graveyard beside the town clock. A man was employed to act as sexton in making graves and was paid one shilling a day.
For one hundred and fifty years this rough field has been known locally as the “Paupers”, as in Enniskillen Graveyard. No stone marked the graves of those who died so tragically during the Great Hunger of 1847. At a public meeting in the town in 1996 it was resolved to erect a memorial on this site in memory of those who suffered and died as a result of the famine 1845 to 1850. The field was to be known as the Famine Graveyard..
On Saturday 4th October 1997 the famine memorial stone was unveiled by Sarah and Michael McCaffrey from Creeslough, County Donegal. They were direct descendants of a family from the area who drowned in 1847 in a shipwreck off the Isle of Islay, Scotland whilst making their way to the New World. The central memorial cut limestone came from the derelict Magheramena Castle near Belleek and a time capsule with artefacts from the famine period and contemporary 20th century items were placed in the memorial.
Lisnaskea workhouse is situated just off the Newtownbutler road. In 1841 the Union had a population of 37,920. The site for the workhouse was bought from the local landlord Lord Erne on 16 September 1841 for £336. The building was to house 500 paupers. It continued to house the homeless and destitute until the 1940s.
Lord Erne gave help to the poor and hungry during the famine and started two soup kitchens in Lisnaskea. He was instrumental in convening a Relief Committee made up of landlords and rate-payers from the Barony of Magherastaphena. The committee provided work for the poor. Lord Erne also imported meal for his tenants when none was available locally. His wife, Lady Selina, established a lace school where women could learn needlework skills in the hope that they would be able to earn a little money for food.
In an attempt to offload some of their responsibility and alleviate the overcrowding in the workhouse The Board of Guardians agreed to send forty four female orphans to New South Wales and Western Australia in 1848 and 1849. They were aged between 14 and 18. In all The Earl Grey Emigration Scheme which ran for two years brought over 4000 orphan girls to Australia.
The first inmates were admitted to Lisnaskea Workhouse on 25 February 1843. In 1846 the house had 817 inmates with many of them suffering from typhus and typhoid. Many died and were buried in hastily constructed graves, which caused concern among locals because of “the indecent and shameless piling of dead paupers in the low ground.”
Erected by Lisnaskea Historical Society, the famine memorial marks the site where large numbers were buried in the Paupers Graveyard at the height of the Great Famine. It also serves as a reminder to us of the large numbers who continue to die of starvation in Africa. The hand carved limestone came from the derelict Magheramena Castle near Belleek and has a direct link with the other famine graveyards in the county.
The inscription stone was unveiled on 29th November 1997 by Mrs Christina Jones whose grandmother was a cook in the workhouse, and Frank Gilbride who was born in the building. The manicured lawns in this peaceful park shaded by 12 yew trees known locally as the “Twelve Apostles” reveal little of a turbulent time in the history of Lisnaskea Poor Law Union when hunger and death stalked the land.
Ardess Famine Pit 1845-1850
The Famine Pit in Ardess graveyard is unique in County Fermanagh. Here in this ancient graveyard by the side of St Mary’s medieval church, dating back to 1387, a famine pit can be seen. Here lie the bodies of over 200 local people who died so tragically during the Great Hunger of the 1840s.
Ardess is in the Parish of Magheraculmoney and during the famine was part of Lowtherstown (Irvinestown) Poor Law Union. Poor people from North Fermanagh made their way to the workhouse in IrvinestownOthers were not so lucky and died in their poor hovels. Later they were buried in St Mary’s Church of Ireland graveyard. Not for them the finely sculpted tombstones of their better off neighbours but instead a pit in the ground without a marker to record their final resting-place.
For generations this famine pit, 120 feet long and 14 feet wide, lay derelict and forgotten until it was restored by the Ardess Community Association and Ardess Historical Society. They wished to remember those who were buried in this mass grave during the Great Famine.
The memorial was officially opened at an ecumenical service on 17th September 2000. It was designed by artist and model maker Gordon Johnston. The inscription stone reads “Within this famine pit lieth the unknown dead 1845-1850.” The vaulted tomb is made of local limestone and symbolises an abandoned homestead with a grass covering to evoke memories of a thatched cottage. The footbridge allows visitors to get an overview of the extent of the famine pit and to contemplate the tragedy of the time, to remember those who are buried here from the Ederney and Kesh area. The funeral bier is another link with the past recalling the tradition of leaving behind of two roughly hewn poles.
A local man Billy Mitchell was responsible for burying the famine victims; he was paid one shilling a day. Memories are still recalled of an enterprising man who wheeled one coffin in a barrow and carried another on his back.