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.