In Memory of All Buried Here
— 1845 · The Great Famine · 1850 —
In 1836 the Poor Law Enquiry found that over one third of people in Ireland were dependent on the potato as their main source of food. The population had grown to 8.2 million by 1841, and was vulnerable to any failure of the potato crop. The Great Famine (1845-1849), caused by potato blight, resulted in a national catastrophe.
The Poor Law
In an attempt to alleviate the problems arising from widespread poverty in early 19th century Ireland a new Poor Law was enacted in 1838. The Act created 130 Poor Law Unions, each run by a committee known as The Poor Law Guardians
. One of the main provisions of the Act was the construction of a new workhouse in each Union. George Wilkinson designed all of Ireland's 130 workhouses in accordance with a number of standard adaptable designs. They were built to accommodate 1% of the population (80,000) and not to alleviate the level of destitution and poverty that Ireland was to face from 1845-1949 [sic - 1849]. Entrance to the workhouse was particularly distressing, with families being strictly segregated on the basis of gender, age and state of health. The design of the workhouse buildings and the recreation yards ensured that segregation was maintained at all times. The workhouses provided some relief from starvation and destitution, but life there was without dignity. Of the 1.2 million lives lost during the Famine, at least one in five of those deaths occurred in the workhouses. Those who died were buried in what became known as "Famine pits" or mass graves.
There were three Poor Law Unions located in County Fermanagh: Enniskillen, Lisnaskea and Lowtherstown (Irvinestown).
· Phytophthora infestans
, more commonly known as potato blight, is a fungus-like organism characterized by the withering and shriveling of plant leaves. Spores are washed down into the tubers (potatoes), and if infected the potatoes will rot. They will continue to rot even if they are dug up and stored.
· Potato blight was first observed in America in 1843, and in 1845 in Europe. The first sighting in Ulster was detected here in County Fermanagh on August 28th 1845. By September 1845 reports of blight were coming from all over Ireland. The vulnerability of the Irish people was to be fully realised as their chief source of food was destroyed. Ireland faced a mass shortage of food. Hunger and starvation were witnessed through out the country. Fermanagh did not escape from the ravages of the Famine, losing 25% of its population to death and emigration.
Lowtherstown (Irvinestown) Workhouse
Lowtherstown (Irvinestown) Workhouse was built on a 5-acre site at the west of the town. Today the workhouse buildings no longer exist and housing occupies the site immediately south-west of where you now stand. It was built to accommodate 400 inmates and declared fit for the reception of inmates on October 28th 1844. The first inmates were admitted on 1st October 1845. In the dark days of the Famine in 1848 the most it housed at any one time was 796 inmates, with a total of 2887 paupers passing through in that year.
During the Famine a 40-bed fever hospital was built on the north side of the site. The workhouse had its own burial ground on the west of the site. Food was inferior to that of other unions and in 1846 a typical adult's food for a day was 198g of oatmeal for breakfast and 227g of oatmeal for dinner, while no supper was offered. Each inmate was allowed half a pint of buttermilk for breakfast and dinner. Irvinestown Workhouse was described in July 1847 by Dr. Phelan, the medical inspector to the Poor Law Commissioners, as the "worst
" he has seen in the north of Ireland. He referred to patients lying on bare floors with scarcely enough straw under them and being in a filt[h]y state.
Lowtherstown Famine Graveyard
Due to the large numbers of inmates dying it was resolved by the Board of Guardians on January 13th 1847 that a portion of the workhouse ground should be ditched in as a burial ground. For 150 years this rough field has been known locally as "The Paupers", as with the graveyard at Cornagrade in Enniskillen. No stone marked the graves of those who died so tragically during the Great Hunger of 1847. At a public meeting in the town in 1996 it was resolved to erect a memorial on this site in memory of those who suffered and died as a result of the Famine. The field was to be known as the Famine Graveyard. The memorial stone was officially unveiled on October 4th 1997 by direct decendants of a family from the area who drowned in 1847 in a shipwreck off the Isle of Islay, Scotland whilst making their way to the New World.
In addition to the Famine graveyard located here, people were also buried in a Famine Pit at Ardess Church 5 miles away.