Corpses fell off the funeral cart

We often hear people referring to what they call the "good old days". Looking back into the history books one wonders if there were in fact such things as good old days. There probably were but there were lots of bad old days too.

Recently a friend gave me a copy of an old booklet which gives a brief history of the Cherryfield Famine-Pauper Graveyard in Baunta Commons, Callan, Co Kilkenny.
It makes fascinating reading.

But it certainly doesn’t do anything to convince me that the Ireland which most of us never experienced was in fact a place of fun and games.

A plaque on a pillar at the graveyard reads: In memory of the uncounted victims of famine and poverty buried here, most of whom died in Callan Workhouse 1841-1922. The Plaque was erected in 1986 by Callan Heritage Society.

And on the front of the brochure is a remarkable quotation from the then Lord Clifden. It read: “This graveyard should be respectably arranged and not located in some unvisited spot as if one was ashamed of the receptacle for the bodies of the poor.”

There is a short history of Cherryfield:
The now disused burial ground is the resting place of those who died in Callan Workhouse and who had no family or friends to claim them.

It is located in a remote one and a quarter acre site about one and a half miles south-east of the town off the Clonmel Road in the townland of Baunta Commons.

Because cherries grew three in times gone by it is still popularly known as Cherryfield.
Most of those buried in Cherryfield were victims of the Great Hunger which devastated Ireland during the 1840s. The Callan area of Co Kilkenny was severely affected by this catastrophe.

Harrowing tales have been passed down about the endless procession of funerals from the Workhouse, or Poorhouse as it was generally called, and the misery and degradation that surrounded them.

It is said that often up to six bodies at a time were carted out for burial, and that it was not uncommon for corpses to fall off the ‘funeral cart’ because the boreen into Cherryfield was so rough and muddy.
Originally it was intended to have a ‘pauper’s graveyard’, as the terminology of the time called it, located in less remote place as Lord Clifden proposed, but because Baunta Commons consisted of large areas of poor agricultural common land there was little problem in acquiring a cheap site.
The graveyard was crudely fenced off for many years but was fully enclosed by a wall in the 1860s. A substantial gate and entry piers were also erected at that time.

After the passing of the act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, several attempts were made by successive governments to come to terms with the problem of chronic poverty in Ireland.
Finally in the late 1830s it was decided to tackle the problem by means of the Workhouse system, and the ‘Irish Poor Law Act’ was passed on July 31, 1838.

To implement this act the country was divided into Poor Law Unions and each union was to have a workhouse.

Originally there were 130 Unions, but later in 1850 as a result of the crisis caused by the ‘Great Famine’ this number was increased to 163.

The Callan Union was situated partly in Co Kilkenny and partly in Co Tipperary. It comprised an area of 106,633 statute acres with a population of 42,707. Callan workhouse was contracted for on May 29, 1840 and was completed in 1841.

The management of the workhouse was as follows: Master, matron, clerk chaplain, schoolmaster, porter.

It cost £5,500 to build and $1,140 to fit out. The entire complex, situated at the south end of the town, covered an area of six and a quarter acres. It was built to accommodate 600 people and its first admission took place on March 25, 1842.

Thirty-three Poor Law Guardians, elected from various areas in the Union, had overall responsibility for the workhouse.

In its first years of operation, the Callan Workhouse functioned very well, but the catastrophe of the Great Famine (1845-48) totally overwhelmed it, reducing its functions to utter chaos.
Built, as mentioned to accommodate 600 people, it had at the height of the Famine thousands of unfortunates clamouring for admittance. Even by 1851 it was still crammed to over capacity. The census for that year lists 2,102 people as residing in it.

The statistics for the Famine in the Callan area are grim and mind-boggling. Between 1841 and 1851 a total of 1,411 people, 688 males and 723 females, died in Callan Workhouse, and 2,104, 1,050 males and 1,054 females died in the temporary fever sheds, a grand total of 3,515 people. These virtually all died during the years of 1846 to 1850.

After the famine years, the workhouse settled back into a more normal level of operation and continued to function right up until the 1920s. In 1922 it was garrisoned by Free State troops during the Civil War. It was later sold to private individuals and public bodies.

Cherryfield continued as a ‘pauper graveyard’ up until the closing down of the workhouse.
The booklet is a credit to Callan Enterprise Group who compiled it. It is a grim reminder of the harrowing times suffered by our ancestors, during what we so often loosely refer to as the “good old days”.

Courtesy of the Kilkenny People