ST. ANNE’S CHURCH AND THE PAUPERS’ GRAVEYARD
Today, Sunday May 3, I took a walk up to St. Anne’s Church in the town of Ballyshannon. I was doing this partly for this series of photos, and partly for the poetry blog- as I am writing about Eavan Boland’s ‘Quarantine’, which is set during the Famine.
I have to keep the two posts separate, but if you’d like to match these photos with the poem itself, just click here and it will open in a separate page or hop over to the poetry page to see them all www.isaireland.com/irishpoemstolove/
Ballyshannon was established as a plantation town during the early 17 century, and St. Anne’s Church was built on a hilltop known as ‘Mullach Na Sí’ or the Hill of the Fairies, in 1841, just at the beginning of the decade that would bring the catastrophe or ‘Great Hunger’ or 1845-1850.
St. Anne’s Church has a beautiful setting, high on the hill, and is visible from almost every approach to Ballyshannon. Spotlit at night time, it is a familiar and iconic landmark, and surrounded as it is with the magnificent backdrop of the Erne Estuary and Donegal Bay, it is always worth visiting.
The graveyard to the front of the church has many impressive plots, vaults and carved monuments, from as early as the 16th century. Carved on these stones are the names of many prominent families of Ballyshannon, including that of well known poet, William Allingham (Allingham is the nephew of poet, MaryAnn Allingham, -see poem 2 on the blog – the whereabouts of her grave is unknown). It was a fabulously sunny morning, with astonishing clarity of view across the Erne river and down to the Dartry mountains, and it was made all the more moving by an hour of bell-ringing in honour of all those who have died from Covid-19. ‘Amazing Grace’ pealed out from the bell tower and carried over the Mall Quay, and out on the waters into the Atlantic.
On the other side of the Church wall, there is a patch of land; a field, somewhat overgrown with long grasses, briers and accessible by a winding pathway from the road. This is known as the Paupers’ Graveyard, or the Union Burial Ground, and it is the final resting place for about 1000 poor souls who died during the Great Hunger 1845-1850. There are no records of their names, nor are there any markers in this field, except for a memorial plaque erected in 1995. One can see from this viewpoint, both the Ballyshannon Workhouse, where many of the paupers would have died, and the Mall Quay, where Famine Ships would have taken the luckier survivors out of this hellish time in Irish history.
We often talk about this period of Irish History as ‘The Famine’ – but it was not a famine. There was no shortage of food in Ireland between 1845-1850, there was a failure of the potato crop, and this was the main source of food for the poor. Centuries of colonial legal and economic strategies that enriched a small minority at the expense of a nation culminated in a catastrophe of unimaginable horror. Over a million people died, and to this day, most of them are nameless, forgotten people. Too poor for headstones, too unimportant for records, too inconvenient to rescue.
I walked back down the pathway from the Paupers’ grave, overjoyed to see a few bunches of forget-me-nots growing along the margins. We won’t.