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A sad reflection of modern Ireland that Famine victims buried in unmarked graves in Bully’s Acre

Local History

Posted 29/03/2024

It is a sad reflection of modern Ireland that hundreds of people who died during the Famine in Roscommon workhouse are buried in unmarked graves in Bully’s Acre, Fr Francis Beirne, Chairperson of the County Roscommon Famine Commemoration, said during a presentation at a recent council meeting.

Fr Beirne spoke about the impact of The Famine in County Roscommon along with proposals to commemorate the Famine dead in Bully's Acre, Slevinagee off Antogher Road, Roscommon Town.

Bully’s Acre is an unmarked graveyard which was used to bury the dead from the nearby workhouse where the Sacred Heart Hospital is now located.

The proposal by Independent councillor Tony Waldron to invite Fr Beirne to make a presentation to members was agreed at a previous meeting.

Cllr Waldron wants the burial ground to be fittingly developed as a commemoration site in conjunction with a designated commemorative centre housed in the nearby former workhouse where most of the victims died.

In his presentation, Fr Beirne said that the Great Famine was one of the greatest catastrophes in Irish history, and it had long term consequential effects for successive generations of Irish people.

“It altered the demographic, economic, political, cultural and psychological development of our nation. Its impact and repercussions resulted in one million emigrations and similar numbers of deaths which left an indelible mark on every parish, community in this country,” he said.

Councillors were told that between the years of 1841 and 1851, the population of County Roscommon decreased by more than 80,000 people, representing the highest population loss - 31% - in any of the counties in Ireland.

During that tragic period of history, Fr Beirne said that people from all walks of life, particularly the poor, experienced starvation, eviction, emigration, disease and death.

“It was a grave injustice inflicted on the people. It is hard to imagine that vast amounts of food were being exported from this county when the cry for help was conveniently ignored by those who had the resources to assist,” he said.

Fr Beirne said that annual Famine commemorations should be a remembrance of those who died, and a reminder of the grave injustice inflicted on a nation that was poor, vulnerable and had so little to rely on.

“It is a sad reflection of modern Ireland that hundreds of victims that died during the famine in Roscommon workhouse are buried in unmarked graves in Bully’s Acre,” he told councillors.

He said that it should also be noted that many more were buried there in subsequent years up to 1939.

“Sadly it is now an open agricultural field with no perimeter fence to designate it as a sacred burial ground. Surely this neither shows respect nor gives due acknowledgment to the forgotten people that died in dire and appalling circumstances.

“Substantial funding has been channelled from the national exchequer towards commemorating the famine in various locations but too often the victims are overlooked and not the focus of the commemoration,” he said.

Fr. Beirne pointed out that the County Roscommon Famine commemoration committee erected a county famine memorial in 1999 during the centennial years of The Famine. He said it was appropriately located near the entrance to the workhouse and adjacent to the doorsteps of the workhouse reception room, now known as Teach de hIde. It was felt that this would at least identify the location where people in utter destitute sought refuge or sadly died on the doorsteps.

Councillors heard that the dead were subsequently transported to their final resting place in Bully’s Acre and buried there like countless others who died within the workhouse.

“While this famine memorial goes some way in remembering the famine victims, it does not remove our obligation from the inclusion of the burial site in acknowledging the memory of our ancestor dead.

“It would be fitting to develop a commemorative area in the reception rooms of the workhouse that would provide information that could assist tourists and others to guide them to visit Bully’s Acre. It should be remembered too that it is not just a Roscommon Town project but the entire county has recorded links with this historic graveyard,” he said.

At the end of his presentation, he proposed the following:the development of the workhouse reception area, Teach de hIde, and Bully’s Acre as an important cultural memory and an inclusion as a tourism asset in the Roscommon Town heritage trail; the designation of Bully’s Acre as a recorded graveyard on the maps of the draft Roscommon Town local area plan and the burial site to be zoned as a public and community infrastructure; the provision of public access to the site of the graveyard, and the construction of an important memorial in recognition of those interred and; the reinstatement of the physical link between the workhouse and its graveyard to include a footpath along the River Jiggy, which would recognise the link the historic and heritage landmarks in the town.

He believed that this proposed walkway would be in line with the Active Travel and healthy living as espoused by national Government policy. He said these development proposals could be successfully implemented with the formulation of policy and with collaboration of stakeholders as well as community engagement.

“I am hoping you will give the proposals due consideration and at the same time long overdue recognition of the forgotten famine victims in County Roscommon,” he said.

Like all the members who were supportive of the proposals, Cllr Tony Waldron thanked Fr Beirne for his presentation, and believed the proposals would not just lend themselves to a fitting commemoration but it would have huge potential for tourism in the county.

In line with Fr Beirne’s proposals, Cllr Waldron made a formal proposal at the council meeting to that effect, and also asked that a secure permitter fence be erected to preserve the sacred burial site.

During a discussion, a number of councillors noted that were Bully’s Acres in other parts of the county, a point acknowledged by council CEO, Shane Tiernan.

As CEO Mr Tiernan said it was his duty to be fair, balanced, and remember the entire county. He said that where works are required, a budget line needed to be attached. He said that was why policy was formulated with an input from members “which gives us a strong stable footing on how we can deal with these type of situations and how they can be funded - and give them the best chance of equal recognition across the county.” In this regard, he asked that the members give the SPC “a chance” to formulate an appropriate policy and to identify a budget line.

Director of Services Mark Keaveney said it was important that the council had an important countywide policy on this issue, covering every location as they emerged, and examining areas such as access, memorials and funding.

Mr Keaveney explained that the Bully’s Acre land in Roscommon was owned by the council but was landlocked and there would be no access until there was negotiation with landowners.

At the end of the discussion, it was agreed that the matter would be referred back in the first instance to the Economic, Development and Enterprise SPC for further consideration.

Source: Roscommon Herald, Wednesday 27th March 2024 - Image Credit: