The 84th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2015)

Child experiences of the Great Irish Famine (1845–52): Bioarchaeological insights on the impact of institutionalization at Kilkenny Union Workhouse


Department of Archaeology, University College Cork

March 27, 2015 9:15, Grand Ballroom C Add to calendar

The Great Irish Famine is among the worst food crises in history. Of the estimated one million people who died, 47% were less than 10 years of age. Despite this fact, very little research has focused on the experience of childhood during this period. This paper is discussing bioarchaeological insights of institutionalization of children in Ireland during the Great Famine. The study is based on skeletal remains of 522 children (< 15 years) that died in the workhouse in Kilkenny City between 1847 and 1851.

The Irish workhouse system was introduced following the enactment of the 1838 Poor Law that aimed to provide a “more effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor”. In-door relief was intended to function as a deterrent, and inmates were subjected to a harsh and demeaning treatment which involved hard physical labor, restricted food rations, and age and gender segregation within a strict disciplinary regime. During the Famine, they became the last resort in an attempt to survive starvation and disease for hundreds of thousands of people.

The bioarchaeological study of the non-adult remains from the Kilkenny mass burials have indicated that the institutionalization aspect is a substantial factor to consider when interpreting skeletal markers of stress in this population. This relates not only to morbidity frequencies, but also the mortality pattern observed in the youngest children that is likely to have been influenced by psychosocial stress relating to maternal separation. This occurred when a child was only 2 years of age.

This research is funded by the Irish Research Council (GOIPD/2013/36), and supported by Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd.