Repair work on famine graveyard stirs memories of Celbridge workhouse

Work 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 area.

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 worst off.

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 factory.

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 25,424 people.

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 hour.

While the mid 19th century is along time ago, some older people recall their relations and grandparents describing the time.

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 said.
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:

Henry Bauress
Courtesy of The Leinster Leader
23 February 2006