‘A million a decade – of human wrecks, corpses lying in fever sheds. Corpses huddled on foundering decks, and shroudless dead on their rocky beds: Nerve and muscle, and heart and brain, Lost to Ireland – Lost in Vain’
This is one of the many chilling, deeply poignant and saddening memorials that mark the cemetery at Abbeystrowry, where approximately 9,000 men, women and children were buried, coffin-less, in large burial pits during The Great Famine of 1845-1852. Though many of the burials at Abbeystrowry predate the famine and indeed postdate it also, that only increases the sheer contrast between the ornate and beautiful wrought iron crosses and stone markers and the area of green grass that marks the site of the burial pit. The cemetery stands on the outskirts of Skibbereen in west Cork, an area that truly suffered a terrible fate during an Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger). Many of those who are buried in the pit came from Skibbereen Workhouse where they had, at the height of their suffering sought shelter and food but only found disease and death. The workhouse opened in the 19th of March 1842 and was designed to house 800 but by the height of the famine in December 1848 it was recorded that 4,230 poor souls are recorded as residing there. The workhouses were rife with disease the main causes of death were cholera and yellow fever. The mortality rates a Skibbereen peaked during March and April 1847, for example, the week ending 20th of March, 82 died; for the week ending 27th of March, 106 died; and for the week ending 3rd of April, 67 died.
I can find very little on the church ruin that stands in the cemetery though the history of Abbeystrowry dates back to the 13th century. At this site a branch of the Abbey of Sancta Maura had a cell here, the local name for the cell was Mainistir na Sruthra (the Abbey of the Stream). The small medieval church has beautifully constructed windows and it is terrifying to imagine the scenes it saw unfold in front of it during those dark years of 1845-52.