As a child, artist Mary Nolan O’Brien passed the old Famine graveyard every day on her way to school — and, at the request of her mother, always murmured a prayer as she walked by.
So it was fate that must have brought an elderly American man to knock on her studio door in September 2012.
Now in his 70s, engineer and amateur genealogist Bob Murphy from Boston, Massachusetts, had spent decades researching his family tree. His search brought him to the West Cork village of Innishannon.
When Mary answered the door at her home, just outside the village, Bob explained he was looking for the final resting place of his ancestors, a graveyard Mary knew as the Kilpadder Famine Pit in the nearby townland of Dromkeen.
“Bob’s ancestors had farmed in Dromkeen — it’s believed they’d leased a plot from the local Frewen Estate,” said Mary.
The grave site is located on the grounds of the former Frewen estate.
During the Famine, Bob’s grandfather and two siblings emigrated to America, leaving behind the remainder of their family of eight, all of whom died in the Famine and are believed to have been buried in Kilpadder, which dates from 1845.
Mary brought Bob to the site which was then severely overgrown and neglected. “It was a jungle,” she recalls. “Bob became upset when he saw the state of it.”
The grave site, bereft of any memorial stones, had no records of the people buried there and covers about three quarters of an acre.
Bob returned to the States but, within weeks, contacted Mary with a proposal to fund the restoration of the graveyard.
A member of the Knights and Ladies of St Finbarr, the oldest club in the US for emigrants from Co Cork, was prepared to donate $2,000 for the restoration of the graveyard — if Mary would oversee the project.
Bob and his friend Jim Calvey, who was club treasurer at the time, also donated personal funds to the initiative. “I’d always wanted to do a job on it — it was on my bucket list,” says Mary, who immediately sought and got permission from the landowners, the Connolly family, to tackle Kilpadder, a designated archaeological site, located off the Kilmacsimon road on the Bandon side of Innishannon.
With the co-operation of Cork County Council’s archaeological department and thanks to the work of a group of committed volunteers, the project began — and three years later the formerly overgrown and dilapidated grave site is a beautifully landscaped and tranquil memorial to those who died.
“It is now a fitting memorial to those who rest there,” Mary explains.
This Friday Bob Murphy and Jim Calvey will travel to Ireland for a special Mass at Kilpadder Famine burial ground to be celebrated by Fr Finbarr Crowley, parish priest of Innishannon. A stone memorial will be unveiled, and the site will then be formally added to the Innishannon History Trail.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved