Dealing with death
About one million people died during the Irish Famine. Historians cannot be sure of the exact number since accurate records were not kept owing to the vast number of people dying.
People died from diseases like dysentery, typhoid and cholera as well as starvation.
There were so many deaths that burial rituals, such as keening and waking, so important to the Irish, had to be overlooked. In fact, bodies were often taken away in carts to be buried, without coffins, in mass burial places. Sometimes, the bodies were not found until they were half-devoured by dogs or rats
‘Death stripped of all dignity’
The indifferent informality of a Famine funeral at Skibbereen in Co. Cork, on the right (Illustrated London News, 30 January 1847), contrasts with the pre-Famine traditions and rituals on death shown in The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child by Frederick William Burton (1841, National Gallery of Ireland).
The death of Baby Bridget
Each Famine death caused distress and suffering to already distraught families.
The following extract from an historical novel about the Famine, Under the Hawthorn Tree (by Marita Conlon- McKenna, O’Brien Press, 0-86278-206-6, pp 21-2) describes how one family was affected by the death of their ten-month-old baby, Bridget.
|They pushed in the door. Mother was dozing with Bridget in the chair near the fire. She looked tired and they could tell she had been crying.|
Quiet as mice, they reheated some leftover oatmeal and water. They were all tired out, and glad to fall into bed. With arms and shoulders aching, they scarcely had time to notice the normal rumbling hunger pains that came before sleep.
At some time during the night they became aware of their mother’s sobs and of Bridget coughing and trying to breathe. Michael came and lay down in the bed beside the girls. They held hands and prayed - every prayer they had ever learned.
‘God help us, please help us, God,’ they whispered.
No one slept. It was the early hours of the morning before the coughing stopped. Then there was a sudden silence. Mother was kissing the baby’s face and each little finger one by one.
‘God let the sun come up soon and let this terrible night end,’ the children begged.
Suddenly they became aware of their mother’s silence. They got up and went over to her. Large tears slid down her cheeks.
‘She’s gone. My own little darling is gone.’
Peggy started to cry. ‘I want Bridget back,’ she wailed. ‘I want her.’
‘It’s all right, pet,’ assured Mother. ‘She was too weak to stay in this hard world any longer. Look at her. Isn’t she a grand little girl, now she’s at rest.’
The baby lay still, as if she were just dozing. Mother told them to kiss her, and one by one they kissed the soft cheek and forehead of Bridget, the little sister they hardly knew.
Mother seemed strangely calm and made them go back to bed. ‘At first light, Michael, you must run to Dan Collins and ask him to get Father Doyle. I’ll just sit and mind my darling girl for a little while yet.