Death at Christmas, Skibbereen, 1846/47

Monday, the 28th. of December - a day upon which in former years the festivities of Christmas were in full operation - in the present season exhibited in this town the triumph of pestilence and the feast of death.

So wrote Dr. Daniel Donovan, Medical Officer to the Skibbereen Poor Law Union in West Cork, one hundred and fifty years ago. His many letters to the ‘The Times’, ‘The Illustrated London News’ and to Cork’s ‘ Southern Reporter’ brought vivid pictures of the full famine catastrophe which was unfolding in Skibbereen. Dr. Donovan’s writings describe life and death in the workhouses, jails, streets and in the houses of the poor. In many instances he chronicles the death of whole families and the following is the account of one woman’s efforts to dignify death in a town which was to become synonymous with the Great Hunger.
The head of the Keating family had died, probably in December, 1846. He had been buried in the Chapel Yard Cemetery. In mid January, 1847, one of his sons had died and Dr. Donovan and his assistant, Dr. Crowly, had buried the body in the garden of the widow Mrs. Keating’s house. Shortly after this Mrs. Keating met the doctors in the High Street, Skibbereen. She had with her the body of her daughter. “Doctor,” she said,

won’t you send for my boy. The pigs got into the field where you put him, and I feel they will root the grave. I brought in little Mary myself to lay her alongside of her father in the Chapel Yard.

The doctors despatched two men to disinter the dead boy but so advanced was the state od decomposition of body that they failed to remove it. The widow did not give up easily, however, and next day she exhumed the body and brought it to the Chapel Yard and buried it with that of her husband and daughter.
Seven days later Dr, Donovan again met Mrs. Keating on the street. She demanded a coffin “for the last of her children and family.”

On perceiving a reluctance on my part to grant the request, as I had already supplied coffins for two of her children and contributed to the burial of her husband, she implored me , in the name of the great God, not to let her fine boy, that would be her help and support if he lived, be thrown into the grave like a dog.

Dr. Donovan purchased a coffin which she placed, with her dead child inside, on her head. She then set off home.

I remonstrated with this dying creature, who was .... labouring under famine fever, and pointed out the risk that would attend her undertaking such a task in her weakly state. She disregarded my advice, walked home with the heavy coffin on her head, reached her cabin door, fell to the ground before entering the threshold, and expired, a victim to her fondness for her family and reverential respect for their remains.

Published in:

The Green Dragon No 1, December, 1996.

: Patrick Cleary, a secondary school teacher in Skibbereen. He is the author (with Philip O’Regan) of the book,Dear old Skibbereen, an account of the famine years in that town.

Aother article by Patrick Cleary