The medical secrets from the hundreds of children buried between 1847 and 1851 in the grounds of the Kilkenny Union Workhouse are uncovered in a new study on the skeletal manifestation of stress in child victims of the Great Irish Famine.
Almost two thirds of the 545 children who were buried in the mass grave on the workhouse grounds were under the age of six, while workhouse records show the mortality rate for babies under the age of two was four times higher than older children.
The first study of its kind carried out on excavated child skeletons of the Famine, reveals that markers of stress on the bones of the tragic young victims show growth retardation, signs of rampant scurvy and infectious diseases among the child population.
Bio-archaeologist Dr Jonny Geber, from UCC, who examined the skeletons over a three-year period, said his study looks at the deep suffering of children who would have lost their parents through death induced by the Famine or workhouse segregation as children over the age of two were taken from their mothers.
“It is really sad when you now think about the youngest children trying to cope with this situation and then how many of them ended up dying in the workhouse.
“With this research I can tell the story of those who did not survive the Famine, which is a story that has never been told. Through interpreting their skeletons you can get a unique insight.”
While the Famine would have resulted in suffering from malnutrition and infectious diseases, the study also suggests the workhouse would have put its child inmates under severe distress, especially if they were over the age of two when they would have been separated from their parents.
“It would have been a severely traumatic experience to have entered the workhouse. Especially for the children, as they would have lost their parents through segregation, if they weren’t already orphans”, said Dr Geber.
“Young children need a lot of emotional security and comfort for their wellbeing and I’d say they lost a lot of that when they went into the workhouse. There are many studies that tell how lack of emotional comfort and care increase the risk of death in small children that are institutionalised.
“It is very striking that more than half of the bodies in the graves (in the Kilkenny Workhouse) were children, and although we know more than half of all those who died during the Famine were children, very little research has so far focused on their experiences of this period.”
The study, funded by the Irish Research Council, found that all infants between six and 12 months were affected by growth retardation, while three quarters of children between the age of one and 12 had the hallmarks of retarded growth on their skeletons.
Examination of the teeth on the child skeletons found that children who had already experienced illness before the Famine were more likely to survive longer.
“The most striking thing was the scurvy rate which was so high. Scurvy leaves very subtle marks on the skeleton.
“It’s a very painful disease as it affects your muscles, and you also get bleeding gums which we could see along the teeth where you got porotic lesions, and it may have been painful to eat for these children.”
Dr Geber said most of the deaths in the Famine were caused by infectious diseases and not directly from starvation.