Effects of the Great Famine in West Cork clearly illustrated in panels at Skibbereen Heritage Centre

Posted on: 4th June, 2014

Category: Arts & Entertainment

Contributor: West Cork People

When a humanitarian crisis happens anywhere in the world today, the children of the poor are generally its first victims. Sadly, this was once the case in West Cork too. Recently-installed panels on the Great Famine at Skibbereen Heritage Centre show that almost half of the children of the Skibbereen area died during this pivotal period in Irish history.

New research compiled for the award-winning UCC publication ‘Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’ relating to the Skibbereen area is the most recent addition to the Great Famine Exhibition at Skibbereen Heritage Centre. Maps showing the effects of the Great Famine in West Cork clearly show the impact that this tragic period had on the people of the area.

Skibbereen Heritage Centre, located in the award winning, beautifully restored Old Gasworks Building, has been open since July 2000. The primary exhibit in the Centre is The Great Famine Commemoration Exhibition, which tells the story of the Great Irish Famine 1845-50, the worst humanitarian disaster of 19th century Europe. The exhibition focuses largely on the devastation wreaked on the Skibbereen area and its people.

In 1841 the population of Ireland was 8.5 million. By 1851, at least one million people had died and over a million others had emigrated. It is estimated that a further half a million births did not take place as a direct result of ‘The Great Hunger’.

The Skibbereen area was one of the worst affected by the Irish Famine. While the population of Ireland declined by 20 per cent in the decade 1841-51, the population of this area decreased by some 33 per cent. Skibbereen is synonymous with the Famine and it is entirely fitting that it should be remembered and commemorated in such an appropriate way as is done at the Heritage Centre.

The initial Great Famine Exhibition was expanded in 2004 and has been enhanced on a number of occasions since then to reflect the results of new research that has come to light. The most recent addition is based on data taken from ‘The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’, published by UCC in 2012.

‘The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine’, edited by John Crowley, William J Smyth and Mike Murphy, won the Best Irish Published Book of the Year Award in 2012. Despite its title and marvellous maps, the book isn’t really an atlas at all. It’s a magnificent academic study of the most pivotal historical event in Ireland’s history. It is an outstanding book, beautifully put together and presented. With over 700 pages, it is a massive tome, both literally and figuratively. Quite simply, it is THE definitive work on the Great Irish Famine.

The new panels at the Heritage Centre contain just a representative sample from the ‘Atlas’, using text and maps. They display information on ‘The Effects of the Famine’ and give visitors some pretty stark statistics. The information, under a number different headings, is presented in a very reader-friendly way that is very easy for visitors to follow.

The section titled ‘Percentage change in the distribution of rural population between 1841 and 1851’ shows that some parishes in the country lost over 40 per cent, and in some cases over 50 per cent of their population, and the Skibbereen area is one of those that suffered dramatic population loss.

Beneath that we can see the ‘Percentage number of deaths recorded for each county between 1846 and 1851 as a proportion of the total deaths recorded between 1841 and 1851.’ From this we can see that West Cork and Clare return the most devastating rate with 84 per cent excessive deaths in those six years.

Maybe one of the most poignant maps in the ‘Atlas’ provides a picture of the uneven distribution of child mortalities during the famine. Young children were particularly vulnerable during the Famine and great numbers fell victim to hunger and disease. The map displayed at the Heritage Centre gives a breakdown for each parish in the country and it can be seen that much of this part of west Carbery lost over 45 per cent of its young population.

The map displaying the percentage distribution of evictions per county 1846-52 and that showing the estimated levels of emigration 1841-51 show a similar pattern as far as the Skibbereen area is concerned and the statistics paint a very bleak picture.

The Great Famine Exhibition at the Heritage Centre in Skibbereen has received many fine accolades from visitors, from home and abroad. Many of those who visit from abroad are descendants of Irish people who emigrated in the 19th century and they find the exhibition deeply moving.

In addition to its exhibition on the Great Famine, Skibbereen Heritage Centre is also home to the Lough Hyne Visitor Centre, which explores the unique nature of this salt-water lake, Ireland’s first Marine Nature Reserve.

As well as its two permanent exhibits, Skibbereen Heritage Centre also offers a genealogy service, archaeology display, wildlife panels, reference library and a gift shop.

The Skibbereen Heritage Centre is open six days a week, Monday to Saturday, 10am to 6pm, for the summer months. There is a great welcome for visitors and the Centre provides a guided tour of the exhibit for pre-booked groups.

The Centre has just been awarded a TripAdvisor 2014 Certificate of Excellence. The prestigious award recognises businesses that consistently earn top ratings from TripAdvisor travellers.

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