“Within this famine pit lieth the unknown dead 1845-1850”
In 1836 a Poor Law Inquiry found that over one third of the people of Ireland depended on the potato as their main (almost only) source of food. The Potato Famine of 1845-49 brought inevitable results.
This famine grave – located in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church at Ardess, outside Kesh – is a grim reminder of the effect of the famine on the Kesh and Ederney area and on Fermanagh generally where it is thought that over 25% of the population died or emigrated as a direct result of the famine. Across Ireland, in addition to the million or so deaths, a couple of million more fled the country mainly for America and Canada.
There is no record of the identities of any of the people buried in this pit – in reality a sunken mound running for 120ft (40metres) up the Memorial tomb – which lay derelict, overgrown and forgotten for decades. The pit was restored in 1997 (marking the 150th anniversary of 1847 – Black 47) by the Ardess Community Association and the Ardess Historical Society when a four part memorial, designed by local artist Gordon Johnston, was erected at one end.
The vaulted tomb of local limestone symbolises an abandoned homestead, the grass covering symbolises a thatched cottage, the footbridge (set back along the pit just out of the attached picture one) provides an overview of the size of the pit emphasising the enormity of the tragic event it represents, and the funeral bier (makeshift field stretcher) recalls the tradition of leaving behind the two roughly hewn poles used to transport the dead.
St Mary’s Church in Ardess, where the Ardess Famine Pit is located, was originally built in 1387. Part of today’s present stone built structure can be dated as far back as fifty years before the Reformation.
The earliest recorded headstones here (the earliest known example of sculpted headstones in Ireland – many in the form of the Irish Celtic Cross) date from the 1600s. Prior to this burials were marked by wooden rather than stone headstones. The graves in this graveyard face east with the exception of those of priests’ who, according to local folklore, face west reportedly overlooking their flock. Directly beneath the Church lies the family vault of the Archdales once one of Fermanagh’s premier families, arriving during the 1600s Plantation.
While wandering around the graveyard you will come upon an old tree stump with a plaque stating “ Site of the Hanging Tree circa 1641”.
It is highly improbable that anyone was hung from the tree now reduced to the visible stump, not least because the stump/ tree would have long ago rotted away had it existed in 1641. An Ash tree like this has a maximum lifespan of around 200 years.
While the Hanging Tree may be a figment of someone’s imagination it is possible that people were hung in this area in 1641. In depositions collected after the 1641 Irish Rebellion evidence of Ann Blennerhassett, wife of Francis who was shot by rebels in Ballyshannon on Christmas Eve of that year states:-
“And further saith that she heard some of the rebel soldiers at the said Rory Maguire’s house (Crevenish Castle, near Kesh) brag, boast and say that they had hanged several Protestants on the churchyard gate of that parish (St. Mary’s, Ardess) where Mr. Flack was minister.”
The truth will probably never be known.
Address: St Mary’s Church, Ardess
Directions: From Kesh village roundabout follow signs for Omagh/Ederney for 200yds – turn right into Mantlin Road just before end of 30mph zone – travel two miles to crossroads with B72 – the church tower is visible about 400yds ahead.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on many trips to Enniskillen. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Drumskinny Stone Circle – Fermanagh’s Stonehenge! – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – “Fare thee well Enniskillen, ………..”