work on famine graveyard stirs memories of Celbridge workhouse
is due to start on improving the appearance of one of Celbridge's
most historical areas.
Kildare County Council is replacing a wall and cleaning
up the area adjacent to what is known as the town's famine
graveyard on the Maynooth road.
It is also to create a cycle lane along by the historic
The green public space, which contains trees, grass and
a Celtic cross, lies very close to what was, in the living
memory of some of the town's citizens, the Celbridge workhouse.
According to Tony Maher, chairman of the Tidy Town Association,
the area contains hundreds of unmarked graves.
Up to now, he says, the area has remained remarkably clean,
unlike other public spaces, but for sometime, the area bordering
the Maynooth Road, had been untidy with a partially knocked
wall along the edge.
That is about to change. The Council did not own the land.
The Health Services Executive had title to it.
Originally the area was given to the public by the Connolly
family in Castletown House.
It became an important area following the famine in 1845.
The potato crop, the staple diet of the majority of the
population, became diseased leading to hunger, poverty,
illness and destitution.
But there was widespread poverty before this and the Government
had passed the Poor Law Act 1838 to provide help to the
They divided the country into Unions and levied a rate within
each on property above a certain valuation to maintain workhouses.
Three of these were erected in county Kildare, including
one in Celbridge, which since the 1950's has been a paint
According to Tony Doohan's "A History of Celbridge,"
this opened in 1841. Built at a cost of stg£6,800
it was designed to house 519 people from Celbridge, Lucan,
Rathcoole, Leixlip, Maynooth and Kilcock, an area containing
But many more were to live and die there.
In September 1845, the potato blight struck and did so again
in 1846, causing hunger and fever.
There was no hospital accommodation for fever patients and
the Board of Guardians was instructed to provide a fever
hospital on a site separate from the workhouse itself.
But the hospital was too small to hold all those who needed
it. Disease spread and death followed.
On 29 September 1846, there was only 88 people in the Celbridge
Workhouse. But after that date, 1,214 people were either
admitted or born there.
The records state that 1,007 were either discharged or died
in the workhouse and on 29 September 1847, 295 people remained.
During the worst of this disaster, a human being died every
While the mid 19th century is along time ago, some older
people recall their relations and grandparents describing
In the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, it is difficult for
most of us, even older people, to imagine the famine, but
many, with links going back over three generations, will
have oral memories of the workhouse and its history.
Mr. Maher says that his grand aunt had family links with
that Famine period.
He said the workhouse was closed in 1922 by the new Free
State government and the property was handed to the Health
Board. It was a hospital in the 1930's.
While there is an element of wanting to push such a human
tragedy out of the collective memory, care had been taken
to keep the area well.
"What happened here was probably our darkest moment,"
said Mr Maher.
The County Council wanted to realign the road, including
building a cycle path, as part of a 1.25 million euro project,
took out a compulsory purchase order to buy a ten foot stretch
of land at the edge of the graveyard from the HSE.
While some might have had misgivings about this, Mr Maher
said the Tidy Towns Association did not object.
Even though between 1,500 and 2,500 were buried there, nobody
come to visit it as a graveyard, he said.
For health and sheer administrative reasons, the dead were
not put in coffins but in unmarked graves with lime. There
were no individual graves and there are no bones left, he
Amputated limbs and still born children were buried there.
The graves were "pre-consecrated." You did not
need a priest to assist at your burial.
"In 50 years time the people of Celbridge won't know
what happened here."
The Tidy Towns Association would like to see its future
reflect its history and remain in the public eye.
The Famine and its consequences were not just confined to
the Workhouse and those associated with it.
Mr Maher said that many people chose to die at home rather
than go to the Workhouse.
"Local folklore had it that people who went there did
not come out alive."
He pointed out though that elsewhere, some famous people
started lives in them and survived.
One was the great comic, Charlie Chaplin.
Right now, the Association is concerned with maintaining
and improving the area.
Mr Maher is not sure when the current cross was built. It
may have been in the 1920's.
Formerly, a metal cross and metal gates did exist, they
are now gone.
Further on the history of the country's workhouses can be
read on the website: www.workhouses.org.uk
Courtesy of The Leinster Leader
23 February 2006