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Two adult skeletons (above) in the workhouse burial ground. Photo by: Margaret Gowen

One thousand famine victims found in Irish burial site

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Two adult skeletons (above) in the workhouse burial ground. Photo by: Margaret Gowen

The excavation of a Victorian workhouse in Kilkenny which contained the remains of almost 1,000 people has shed new light on the way they lived their lives as well as how they died.

The majority of the remains found were infants and children (540)..

“The most startling discovery was that there were so many children among the dead, particularly children aged two through six,” osteoarchaeological scientist, Jonny Geber, told the Irish Times.

“The Famine would have struck an entire generation but children tend to be ignored in the social research,” he added. “We know a lot of children would have died in the Famine and this shows it.”
Alongside Geber, Julia Beaumont, a PhD student in archaeology at the University of Bradford, studied the remains and looked for tell-tale signs of disease. The bones gave the researchers an insight into the diet of individuals.

Surprisingly, the greatest scourge was a lack of vitamin C which was triggered by the loss of the potato crop, one of the few sources of daily vitamin C available during the Great Hunger. More than half of those buried at the site showed bone damage caused by scurvy.

Geber says the high rates of scurvy may well have increased the mortality rates at that time considering the rate discovered in the Kilkenny site is higher than average historical estimates.

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The Great Hunger was a time when millions of Irish perished due to a potato blight. In 2005, a Famine-period burial ground was discovered in Kilkenny City, which had been used by Victorian workhouses.

“I quickly realized the site was very significant, very important,” he explained.

“This is unique. This burial ground was completely unknown, it had been lost in local memory,” he says.

“That is one of the most fascinating aspects of it.”

The ground was home to the remains of 970 people who are thought to have died between 1845 and 1852. The dead were buried in a series of deep pits, each containing between 6 and 27 people. All were interred in coffins and stacked on top of each other on the pits.

“To be buried in a coffin was very important in 19th-century Ireland.” Geber pointed out.

Personal belongings from the deceased included four sets of rosary beads, four medallions and two finger rings.

According to Geber, workhouses for the poor were first introduced in 1838. The Kilkenny work house was originally built for 1,300 but records show that the number of inmates at the location swelled to 4,357 by June 1951.

The remains were re-interred in a special memorial garden built adjacent to the original site, where a shopping mall has been developed.

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Read More:
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