To some, the great famine of the 1840’s is ancient history – a time long forgotten, without the power or the relevance to trouble the modern day. Yet its living remnants are all around us. Andrew Hamilton speaks to Miltown Malbay filmmaker, Neil Hynes, about his new documentary film which uncovers the history of the Irish town worst effected by the famine, Kilrush.
There are people still alive who first discovered the human bones from the mass grave in Old Shanakyle. And people who sing songs for the 41 who drowned at Kammoge Point on their way back from the Kilrush Workhouse and the residents of St Patrick’s Terrace, whose homes are within the boundary walls of the great Kilrush Workhouse. The remnants the famine have been buried, but they remain still just under the surface, ready to show themselves to anyone who would care to look. One such person is Miltown Malbay filmmaker, Neil Hynes, who has just released the documentary ‘The Haunting of The Famine’ about the famine experience in Kilrush.
“In the video we visit Old Shanakyle Graveyard and talk about the 3,000 people who were buried there during the Famine in unmarked graves. There is a garden of remembrance there [in the graveyard] to those people who died in the famine and most people are not even aware that it exists,” he said.
“I guess, after that, I felt that there was a great story there and I wanted to go back and do it properly. So this time around I went back and I sourced new materials.
“There were mass graves there – people were buried together in a reusable coffin. People were brought over in a coffin, the bottom of the coffin was tipped, the people fell into the grave and the same coffin was brought back to the workhouse then and another person was put into it. It wasn’t a proper funeral, there wasn’t ever mourners.
“In the video we bring the Burke family to the graveyard, who live in that area and have stories passed down from the grandparents. When they were growing up as children they came across the scattered bones of people buried in the graveyard. Michael Burke, who appears in the film, came across these famine bones maybe 50 or 60 years ago.
“We also look at Paupers Quay, which is sometimes also called Merchants Quay, but it was called Paupers Quay in those days. People used to gather there and look for work and assistance during the famine.
“There was also an auxiliary workhouse located there at Russels Store. This was one of six auxiliary workhouses in Kilrush – it is a standing, surviving, completely intact workhouse which is rare in this day and age.
“We also visit Kammoge Point – where the ferry disaster happened on December 12, 1849. Forty one people drowned at this point when their ferry collapsed just metres from the shore. They were coming back from the workhouse. Basically they went to the workhouse to seek relief, they didn’t get any, they were turned away. On their way back they drowned. It was a terrible, terrible, story.
“We also look at St Patrick’s Terrace. The workhouse at St Patrick’s Terrace was the big one, it was designed to hold 800 or 900 people but it held a lot more. The original boundary wall for that workhouse still exists, and that’s all that exists – what is now St Patrick’s Terrace. So, we are really lucky that we can see these boundary walls are still there so we can see the scale of what we are talking about.
“Occasionally remains from the workhouse are still found in the gardens in the area in and around St Patrick’s Terrace. Deaths in that workhouse took place on a cataclysmic scale. We can only look back on it and it’s hard to imagine that it was so bad, but it was. And that was just one of six workhouses in the area.”
The 25 minute documentary also looks at a number of points of interest around Kilrush such as Francis Street, named for Francis Vandeleur whose son, Croston Moore Vandeleur is chiefly associated with the mass evictions which took place before and during the famine and the old Kilrush soup kitchen. The documentary had an unlikely genesis – coming together when Neil took up a JobBridge scheme with Clare County Council before being tasked with pulling the entire film together in just one week.
“They were in the middle of putting together the famine commemoration that came to Kilrush [in 2013]. The people on the committee were aware of my video skills and asked me to put together a video, but we only had a week to do it. I said I’d give it a go,” he said.
“I teamed up with two local historians [Paddy Waldron and Paul O’Brien], we locked heads, and together we got a script battered out.
“I pretty much obeyed the script and started filming in the different locations around Kilrush which all tie in with the Famine period. It took me about three frantic days of filming and one long day of editing.
“I guess, after that, I felt that there was a great story there and I wanted to go back and do it properly. So this time around I went back and I sourced new materials, I did additional recordings and I went back to each of the locations that I filmed in with local photographer, David McMahon, who photographed a series of stills from each locations which were edited into the final film.”
The official DVD, with extra previously unseen material, was launched over the weekend. It is narrated by Paddy Waldron of the Kilrush and District Historical Society and includes an original song by Michael Burke. It is available from David McMahon photography in Kilrush and Hynes Londis in Miltown Malbay.