Archaeology sites expose Great Irish Famine home
Archaeologists discover hidden mysteries of an Irish famine family's struggle
The Famine rests within Irish memory on many levels and is told with diverse voices. With each passing year, as the stories of those terrible years recede further into history, the Famine becomes slightly more intangible, less real to our modern minds. The archaeology of the Famine challenges our views on that awful history and provides special glimpses into the reality of those times in unparalleled ways. Beginning in the summer of 1994 and continuing for five consecutive summers, my students and I excavated the buried remains of two house sites in County Roscommon in the old townland of Ballykilcline. Historical records say that the residents of these two houses were members of the Nary family (father, mother, and sons) and that they were evicted in 1847-48 by the forces of the Crown. Ballykilcline became a Crown estate in 1834 and shortly thereafter the tenants began a protracted rent strike.
After twelve years of non-payment, the Crown's agents decided to evict the residents en masse and assist their emigration to America. The individual families of Ballykilcline spread throughout the country. Many of them, including the Narys, eventually settled on the flat, fertile farmland of central Illinois, not far from the Illinois & Michigan Canal that had been dug by thousands of their countrymen and had only then just opened. The excavation of the two houses presents a unique look at the daily lives of the Narys, an average rural Irish family, at the height of the Famine, immediately before and during their eviction
Their material possessions, lying hidden in the soil for over 150 years, have powerful stories to tell. Careful analysis revealed that their plates, cups, and bowls – variously decorated with intricate blue patterns, one or two colorful flowers, or broad bands of blue and brown – were practically indistinguishable from those used by urbanites in New York and Boston, but with some subtle differences.
That many of the dishes’ designs were upside down or badly applied suggests that poorly made seconds were marketed to such rural “peasants” as the Narys. And, that these white dishes – mass-produced in the English midlands – were found alongside pieces of earth-toned “milk pans” – made locally by traditionally trained potters – shows that rural Ireland was in the midst of change. Other artifacts suggest the roles that women played in the household economy: glass beads of blue, green, red, and white from lace-making bobbins, a white ceramic nesting egg to encourage the hens to lay, and a rusted pair of sewing scissors for extending the lives of the family's clothing.
A small, silver-alloy thimble stamped with the words “FORGET ME NOT” offers a touching reminder of love and tenderness that transcends time. These tiny artifacts, left on the ground because they were broken or could not be taken to America, provide silent testimony to the mundane features of daily life in the Irish countryside during the era of the Famine. Their very presence forces us to confront the richness of Irish life in new and often subtle ways. The artifacts lack the bias that accompanies the characterizations of the Irish “peasantry” as lazy, uninspired, and dull. These tiny monuments from the past force us to think about what we share in common with these men and women. The archaeology also tells us another thing of great importance. It informs us that people can attempt to erase history. Before excavation, the Nary houses were completely hidden under a thin layer of sod and earth.
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