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.
The archaeology substantiates that crowbar brigades were very good at their work; they could destroy, dismantle, and spread the remains of stone houses in ways that would leave no trace on the ground surface. Someone walking through this quiet Irish pasture would have had no idea of the history just beneath their feet. The rocks from the interior of the houses’ stone walls, intermingled with the artifacts, were all that remained after the largest stones had been removed to build walls and other structures once the land was emptied of people. Since 2002, our discoveries at Ballykilcline have been supplemented and substantiated by additional, annual excavations at Famine-era houses in counties Sligo and Donegal.
Working with Maggie Ronayne of NUI Galway’s Department of Archaeology and communities in the Burren, our new project – the Burren Field School in Historical Archaeology – will involve full community participation from the outset. Archaeological research – when added to written records, community knowledge and memory, landscapes, and other forms of information – has the potential to change our perceptions and to enrich our understanding forever.
Charles E. Orser, Jr. is Curator of Historical Archaeology, New York State Museum, Albany, and Adjunct Professor, National University of Ireland, Galway.