Is there a dearth in our Famine heritage? Conserving the fabric of Waterford City's Famine experience


Greg Fewer

Many people today may be a little fed up (if you'll pardon the pun!) with commemorating the Great Famine over the past two to three years, but imagine how bleak the outlook was for the poor in 1847 when another three to five years of starvation and disease had yet to take its course. We, therefore, should consider that since the Famine did not end for the unfortunate in 1847, the commemorations should not cease in 1997. Rather, new ways in which the dead can be remembered and by which the disaster of the Famine can be better understood ought to be explored. One way to achieve both ends is to conserve what remains of the fabric of the country's famine experience. That is to say, to restore and maintain those buildings and sites that were particularly associated with the horrors of the famine. It is especially pertinent that attention should be paid to this matter in Waterford City since what little is left of its famine-related buildings is, for the most part, rapidly deteriorating due to neglect. It is the purpose of this short article to highlight those remains in urgent need of conservation and to suggest ways in which this might be done.

Waterford Corporation has already led the way in commemorating the Famine dead by erecting a memorial to their memory over the workhouse plot in St Otteran's Cemetery in Ballinaneashagh. Unveiled in July 1996, this memorial is the only visible indication that famine victims had been buried in the cemetery. To the credit of the Corporation, St Otteran's is a well-kept cemetery, but what about those other, older, graveyards that were in use during the Famine period, especially prior to the initial use of St Otteran's in September 1847? For example, the graveyard around the medieval church at Kilbarry, near Waterford city, was chosen to take the city's workhouse dead when its own burial plot became exhausted late in 1846. By mid-February 1847, a local newspaper had reported that this graveyard had become 'so overcrowded that the coffins in many instances [were] only a few inches under the surface'. This graveyard is now abandoned and overgrown, but surely the Famine dead lying there should be accorded similar treatment to those in Ballinaneashagh? This does not mean that yet another monument ought to be erected, but that the graveyard should at least be maintained in a better state and public access to it should be guaranteed. Currently, access must be gained by traversing private property, an unfair burden on the landowner.

Waterford Workhouse
Little now survives unchanged of Waterford Workhouse (St Patrick's Hospital) since it was extensively altered and partially demolished during the 1970s. Today, probably the most substantive part of the building to survive unaltered is the entrance block which houses the Civil Registry Office. This building currently appears to be in good condition and it ought to be kept that way as a physical reminder of the mechanism of poor relief used during the Famine years. However, this was not the only workhouse complex that operated during the Famine in Waterford city.

In response to the over-crowded and disease-ridden situation in Waterford workhouse by the end of 1846, a number of auxiliary workhouses were opened at various times during the Famine to accommodate the growing numbers of the starving and the sick who appealed for aid in the city. These included a Presentation Convent, a tanyard, a malthouse, four stores and two other undesignated buildings that were temporarily rented for the purpose, but it is not clear whether any of them still survive today, even in an altered form. Nevertheless, if their former locations could be pinpointed, special archaeological attention could be paid to these sites in advance of any construction projects. This would allow the recovery of Famine-period artefacts that could be put on display in a museum or visitor centre (see below), whilst details on the size, layout and construction quality of the buildings might be ascertained from the archaeological excavation of their foundations. This kind of information would be useful in painting an accurate picture of what life must have been like in each auxiliary workhouse, few details of which can be found in documentary records.

Waterford City & County Infirmary
The Waterford City and County Infirmary was originally founded in 1785 with the support of a fund formerly used to support a medieval leper hospital that was closed in the middle of the eighteenth century (there being no more lepers to treat in the city by that time). The new foundation was also known as the Leper Hospital (although it was to be an infirmary for 'indigent persons') until it was given its more recent name in 1896. Just next door to the Infirmary, a fever hospital was built in 1799 and was the first institution of its kind in Ireland, according to the Rev. R. H. Ryland in his The history, topography and antiquities of the county and City of Waterford (1824). This slightly younger hospital was unfortunately demolished in the 1970s and its site has recently been built over in Waterford city's current spate of apartment block construction. Despite the fever hospital's existence, a timber shed had to be built in the grounds of the Infirmary to act as a temporary fever hospital at the height of the Famine in 1847. This was primarily for inmates of Waterford Workhouse which stood just up the road. The following year, this and other temporary fever sheds in the city and county were closed. With the advent of the cholera epidemic of 1849, however, the Infirmary's Trustees gave over part of the hospital building to house cholera patients, provided that the workhouse guardians 'removed the abandoned and unsightly fever shed'. The Infirmary remained in use until the early 1980s when government cutbacks in health funding forced the hospital's closure.

Tragically, this grand old Georgian building remains derelict and has suffered from the ravages of vandalism and neglect. Most of its windows have been smashed which must have resulted in substantial rainwater damage to its floors and plaster work. On the other hand, its roof appears to be in excellent condition, thereby limiting the damage done and making future restoration work feasible. Since there is now nothing left of the neighbouring Fever Hospital with which to commemorate its bicentenary in 1999, and given that the Infirmary's own bicentennial in 1985 has already passed (not to mention its centenary under its current name in 1996), special attention might be paid to resolving the problem of the latter's restoration and to finding a suitable use for the building in time for the former's anniversary. Perhaps, the Infirmary could be used as an additional campus of Waterford Institute of Technology which has experienced considerable growth in student numbers since its upgrading from a regional technical college earlier this year. Even if most of the building was turned over to private commercial use following its renovation, a room could be kept aside to house a permanent and publicly accessible museum or exhibition about the Famine in Waterford.

Such an exhibition centre or museum could display Famine-period artefacts recovered from any archaeological excavations carried out in the grounds of the Infirmary prior to its renovation as well as from other construction work taking place on Famine-related sites within the city. Among the types of objects that might be found on site include discarded medicinal bottles, medical apparatus and surgical equipment as well as evidence of the personal belongings of the fever hospital's inmates. The latter might include buttons and scraps of still-preserved clothing (presumably dominated by the workhouse uniform), clay pipe fragments (Waterford workhouse inmates were given snuff or tobacco at Christmas) and a few toys or gaming pieces such as marbles that sick children might have had to play with. As I have discussed in a forthcoming article in the Newsletter of the Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement, much other information, from the design and layout of the fever shed in the Infirmary's grounds to details of the health and diet of the workhouse and fever hospital inmates, could be discovered about the Famine period if these archaeological excavations were ever to take place.

Waterford could make much of its Famine heritage if its citizens wanted to, but action needs to be taken now if the surviving elements of this heritage are to survive into the next century and beyond. Furthermore, concentrating on renovating the Infirmary over the next year or so might mean that its bicentenary could be celebrated in style. It would also mean that a derelict part of the city could once again be put to good use.

References and further reading
Cowman, Des, and Brady, Donald, eds (1995) The Famine in Waterford 1845-1850: Teacht na bprátaí dubha (Dublin: Geography publications with Waterford County Council).

Fewer, T. G. (1997) 'The archaeology of the Great Famine: time for a beginning?', in Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement Newsletter 8, pp. 8-13.

O'Connor, Emmet (1989) A labour history of Waterford (Waterford: Waterford Trades Council).

Ryland, Rev. R. H. (1824) The history, topography and antiquities of the county and City of Waterford (London: John Murray; reprinted 1982 with an introduction by Rt Rev. Michael G. Olden, Kilkenny: Wellbrook Press).

Want to read more about the Great Irish Famine? Then why not take a visit to The Irish Potato Famine Page ( (This link was added on 25 May 1998 and updated on 8 February 2007)

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Last modified 13 October 2001.

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This article is an amended version of one which first appeared in The Munster Express (Waterford), 9 January 1998, p. 3 (cols 1-5).

©1998-2009 Thomas G. Fewer