Remembering the Great Famine – a dying nation’s groan

Sunday August 26th was the last day of Heritage Week in Ireland and on this day I chose to visit a Famine Settlement high above the  Limerick landscape on Knockfierna, County Limerick.

This hill was once home to hundreds of people.

Knockfierna, the highest point in County Limerick at approximately 950 feet, was common land so anyone could live there. It was  to this place  that many of the dispossessed went to live during the Famine years . Some had been evicted because they could not pay their rent; most  had no place else to go because there was no work.

A Famine Dwelling

Foundations  of scores of primitive  shacks have remained in place on Knockfierna since it was deserted in 1847.  Spread over some 200 acres, there  are remnants of many houses – tiny, at about 8 feet by 8 feet, – with nothing more than walls and clay floors with sod roofs . It is estimated that about 130 families lived here at one time. These houses are now being preserved in memory of those who died in that terrible time.

Another Famine Dwelling

I found it quite difficult to think about many human beings, old people, younger people, children,  huddled , sick and starving to death within these walls.

Outside the remains of their huts, although it is now rather overgrown with scrub,  it is still possible to see their horticultural efforts –  raised beds  where they tried in vain to grow a potato crop to feed their families ; a crop that rotted in the ground for several years as it succumbed to a blight. As potatoes were the mainstay of their diet, there was no alternative , and so they had nothing to eat.

From the desolate hillside they looked down on the village of Ballingarry

The great green lush pastures of the Golden Vale are below where these wretched people ‘lived’. It was to Ballingarry graveyard that their coffinless bodies were transported. From this hill their emaciated bodies were taken to Ballingarry to be deposited into anonymous  pits .

The Famine Memorial on Knockfierna with lush green fields below

The poem on the memorial is by Michael Hogan from Limerick. Although not a great work of literature, it encapsulates the time:

‘The Living Skeleton, A Vision of the Famine Year, 1847’:
‘Twas in ruthless Fortyseven,-
When the plague-fraught air was riven
With the sound which harrowed heaven,
Of a famished people’s cry –
When the famine fiend was formed,
All with tenfold horrors armed,
And our godless rulers, charmed,
Saw their Irish victims die;
While Europe, all alarmed, heard
the wail that tore the sky
A dying Nation’s death-groan, ringing
up to God on high.

Detail Famine Memorial on left

The right side of the memorial  is rather difficult to read and I will post a transcription here when I can find one!

Right side of memorial

It is interesting to note the very lush green fields that can be seen over the top of this image –  the great so called Golden Vale below is one of the lushest agricultural areas in Ireland , yet these unfortunate people starved to death in sight of it .

Famine Memorial overlooking a green and pleasant land

Over a million people  died as  a result of the Great Famine between 1845 and 1849. It is not known how many people who lived on  Knockfierna died.

This hill however preserves their hovels and the relics of their garden plots. On this hill they starved, on this hill they sickened and on this hill they died.  Men, women, children. They are buried in anonymous pits in the lush fields of Ballingarry.

Today I remember them.

Ar dheis De go raibh siad uilig


Credit to Knockfierna Heritage & Folklore Group for recognizing the importance of this heritage site and to Pat O’Donovan whose passion for this project has become legendary.



Filed under Emigration from Ireland, Family History, Genealogy, Irish Heritage, Irish History

22 responses to “Remembering the Great Famine – a dying nation’s groan

  1. I had never heard of Knockfierna. Definitely on my list of places to visit now.

  2. Tears aplenty, do their voices call on the wind… do their souls escape from the rich earth… do they know that today, many thousands of us long to be able to help, yet all we can do is remember and learn and hope that in this time, no one will ever have to go through that fear, the desperation, the utter futility of simply trying to survive….
    Let your words, and those of so many others, be their memorial and let the pain in our hearts inspire us to help each other through whatever others are suffering.

    • Thank you Chris. It is from that learning I believe that Irish people are remarkably generous in making donations to famine stricken areas. Last year in the teeth of a terrible depression at home with no spare cash, Irish people donated €17million in 6 weeks, to help starving people in Somalia. As far as I recall they donated more per head of population than any other country in the world to help the Ethiopians and Eritreans in the dreadful famine in the 1980s.
      That is the legacy.

  3. Thank you for sharing. There are so many basics that we take for granted.

  4. A very sad bit of history. Some say that it wasn’t a famine as food was available in Ireland; food grown/raised just to feed the empire. A country of 8M fed all the 80M in the empire and not one-tenth could be held back. It was said the ships left night and day to take the food away.

    • It is sad Jim. It is true that grain was being exported throughout the famine. I am not so sure to what extent we grew food for export or indeed whether the exporting may have been speeded up during that time. There was a move away from a varied diet in Ireland in the hundred years or so before the famine so that when the blight hit, 40% of the population (3million) depended on the potato almost exclusively with occasional seasonal foods added, such as herring, buttermilk and oatmeal.Many consumed potatoes at 2 or three meals each day, with the average daily intake being 8 to 15 pounds. Oatmeal was eaten in the summer months when there were no potatoes, but during the famine the amount of oatmeal required outstripped supply and besides it had to be milled which cost money. Bread too had to be paid for. It amazes me personally that the coastal counties of Ireland – Clare, Galway, Mayo, Kerry, Cork, Donegal etc were hard hit, yet the sea had an abundance of food. There were so many factors at play here. Those who could afford to leave did so; some were sent away by landlords. The very poorest of the poor starved to death.

      Reference: Mapping the Great Irish Famine Kennedy, Ell, Crawford, Clarkson. published by Four Courts Press.

  5. Thank you for taking time to remember this awful period. As much as I love history, I am eternally grateful to have missed some of the really terrible times, such as the Famine. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have seen my family starve before my eyes – that is, if I was still alive.

    • Yes we are fortunate in our ‘accidents of birth’. The English are often blamed (and they are not blame free ) for the misfortune but we added to it ourselves. In many places the famine victims are buried in pits – all you can see are mounds in an open field. The catholic church did not permit them to be buried in their graveyards in many places. More of ‘Man’s inhumanity to man.’

  6. Pingback: A history of Ireland in 100 objects – An Empty Cooking Pot from about 1845 | A SILVER VOICE FROM IRELAND

  7. I never read of the Famine without it tears at my heart. You have so evocatively brought their plight to life. To die in sight of plenty must have been even more terrible if that is possible.

    Does:”Ar dheis De go raibh siad uilig” ,mean “Today I remember them”? I would like to learn that phrase…are you able to spell it so we non-Irish speakers can learned to say it. Next time in Ireland I’ll be visiting Knockfierna.

    Thank you so much Angela for sharing this journey into Ireland’s often-tragic history.

    • Thank you Pauline. The Irish phrase means : May they all be at the right (hand) of God. I will have a go at the phonetics for you at a later date!
      Regards, Angela

    • Phonetics for my Irish phrase :May they all be at God’s right hand:
      Air yesh jay go row she-id ilig .
      I should issue a caveat here – I speak Ulster Irish which is very different to Munster Irish as spoken in Clare. My Irish is very ‘flat’! For example my children went to school in Munster. The Irish word for a pen is ‘peann’. In Ulster we we say PAN; in Munster they say PIONN – totally different sounds! As if that were not enough, there are also differences in vocabulary- In Ulster we use the word uilig for ‘all’ in Munster they would tend to use ‘go léir’ (say Go lair) which has the same meaning! And as for grammar , we wont even go there !

      • Thanks for the phonetics and translations Angela! I was reading a book about learning Irish a week or two ago and the different “dialects”/pronunciations….convinced me not to try it at all 🙂


      • Sorry to hear that Pauleen. You just choose which Irish you want and off you go – it’s amazing that in spite of the differences, people from all over manage to communicate very well.
        ‘Inniu, cuimhnímid orthu’ is the Irish for Today, we remember them.
        Inniu = In you
        cuimhnímid – kiv (as in skiv) -nee (as in lee) mid …. kiv nee mid
        orthu = or-hoo
        inyou kivneemid orhoo.

  8. Lovely pictures of a place I have recently discovered was the birthplace of Great Grandparents x 3 – Matthew and Bridget Murphy and children. From my research so far they sent the oldest son – a blacksmith first, then joined him c1840, so by 1851 they were all living in a tenement in St. Marylebone.

  9. This site is disgusting; a shocking cover-up of genocide. One last attempt to drive home the notion that the British army (more then half of the total empire army) were not the perpetrators.

    • Mr Fogarty. The site at Knockfierna is a tribute to those who died of hunger in this particular locality.It is a respectful and appropriate memorial to those who lost their lives during the Irish Famine. I refused your email request to allow for discussion of your extremist views on my site. Therefore, any future comments will be deleted.

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