Famine Cross

Presentation Sister Elizabeth Maxwell
famine cross


The text below the famine cross museum piece reads as follows:

'Made from the Wood of a Hinged Coffin used in the Famine of 1846-47'.

The famine cross was given to the Presentation Sisters by Canon John O'Rourke, a priest of Maynooth College.

The inscription on the reverse of the cross is as follows:

During the frightful plague which devastated a large proportion of Ireland in the years 1846 -47 – that monstrous and unChristian machine a “sliding coffin” was from necessity used in Bantry Union for the conveyance of the victims to one common grave.  The material of this cross, the symbol of our Redemption, is a portion of one of the machines, which enclosed the remains of several hundreds of our countrymen during their passage from the wretched huts or waysides where they died, to the pit, into which their remains were thrown. T.W.

This text is reputed to have been written by Dr Thomas Willis and pasted onto the back of the bottom shaft of one of three crosses he is thought to have fashioned from the base of a hinged coffin. 

Dr Willis gave the famine cross museum piece to Canon O'Rourke who added a metal figure of Jesus to the front of the cross.  He subsequently donated the crucifix to the Presentation Sisters.

Willis was a Dublin-based physician and apothecary best known for his promotion of the health of the working classes, and was a founding member of the Irish St Vincent de Paul charity in 1844.  He was appointed one of two Poor Law Inspectors for Bantry, County Cork in 1847 after serving as a guardian of the Bantry workhouse

Famine Cross Background (Notes from Canon John O'Rourke)

The Cross of which I propose to give some account, is made of common white deal, although time has darkened its colour.  Its centre limb or shaft is two feet three inches long, and it measures one foot and one inch across the arms; its scantling is two inches seven- eighths by five eighths of an inch.

It is one of three crosses which the late Dr Thomas Willis of Upper Ormond Quay, in the City of Dublin, but who spent the last years of his long life in Rathmines, had made from the wood of a coffin which, in the great Famine of 1846-47, was known as the hinged or sliding coffin.  The peculiar construction of this coffin resulted from the necessities of the time.  In the beginning of the fearful visitation coffins were provided for the dead in the usual way, and friends bore their departed friends to the grave as of old; but this pious and time-honoured custom had to be gradually given up, as the number of deaths increased.  Besides in the presence of starvation, and death, the people became – I will not say callous, as some have said, for that would be untrue-, but they became stupefied, and to some extent insensible to everything but the pangs of hunger, and its dreadful consequences from which they saw no escape.

They ceased to bury their dead with any regularity; they had not the simplest appliances for doing so, and, even if they had, dying on their limbs as they were, they had not the strength or energy to bury them.  Whole families died unheeded and forgotten.  During my enquiries with reqards to the Famine, I heard of cases in which the dead were only accidently discovered by the offensive effluvia which issued from their cabins.  Under such circumstances there was but one mode of interment possible, and it was adopted: the cabin, roof and wall, was thrown down upon the dead, and thus, what was once their little home, became “the grave of the household”. Neighbours above want were very generous in supplying coffins, or contributing to the purchase of them, but the ever- increasing number of deaths at length set at defiance all attempts to bury the dead with the simplest marks of decency. Poor Law Boards were sometimes applied to for coffins, but they usually refused to supply them, considering that to do so would be a misapplication of the rates, utterly insufficient as they were, to save the people from starvation.  And so the dead had to be buried without coffins; sometimes they were tied up in straw for interment, but more frequently they were brought to the churchyard in carts or cars, with litter of some kind thrown loosely over them.

As the ravages of the Famine became more fatal and extensive, the difficulty of getting graves made became as great as that of providing coffins, and when a grave was opened, as many corpses as it could be made to hold were crushed into it  But an ordinary grave would not hold many , so the people began to make pits capable of holding a large number, probably from twenty to thirty and sometime even more. Many years ago I examined a number of those pits in the beautiful Churchyard of Abbeystrowry, on the banks of the rive Ilen at Skibbereen, which was the principal burial-ground during the Famine. In them the dead were places in strata, a little clay being thrown over each stratum before the next was laid one The pits were of various sizes, but I should think, that in some instances, one stratum would consist of ten or twelve bodies ranged in double lines of five or six each, there being probably three or even four strata in each pit; but I am of opinion that this reqularity was not always observed, and the dead were thrown into those pits sometimes in a careless manner, and the pits were closed when they could hold no more.

I found no trace of the hinged coffin in Skibbereen or Skull or Ballydehob, or in other localities of the South, that suffered in the early part of the Famine; so that I am strongly of opinion, that this strange contrivance for bearing the dead to the grave originated in Bantry, and in the later period of the Famine. Its construction, as may be well supposed, was very simple; it was a coffin in shape and appearance, its peculiarity being that the bottom of it had two hinges at one side, and a hasp and staple or other moveable fastening at the other.  When those who bore a corpse in it came to the grave or pit, they lowered the coffin over it; the hasp was freed, the bottom of the coffin at once opened, on its hinges like a door and the corpse, thus freed, fell into the grave or pit.   In those dreadful times, extra medical aid was sent to various part of Ireland, but chiefly from Dublin.  Dr Willis was appointed to Bantry, and it was there he became acquainted with hinged coffins; it was also there he had the three crosses made, of which that I have described above was one; another he presented to the late Mr A.M.Sullivan and the third, he retained.  In the inscription which Dr Willis affixed to the back of this cross, (and which is on it still, verified by his initials) he says that “several hundreds” were carried to the grave in the hinged coffin of which it is made: in a conversation which I had on this subject with the late Mr A.M. Sullivan, who was a native of Bantry, he used these words:

“I have seen one of those hinged coffins, which had borne more than three hundred corpses to the grave.  I have seen men go along the road with it to collect dead bodies as they met them”.

Dr Willis says “several hundreds”; Mr Sullivan says “over three hundred” so that as to numbers they substantially agree.  Now, Dr Willis told me, that the hinged coffin from which this cross was made belonged to the Poor Law Union of Bantry, and from the fact that Mr Sullivan was a native of that place, it seems most probably that Dr Willis and Mr Sullivan referred to the same hinged coffin.     Assuming the fact to be so, we have in this cross the wood of one of the most famous, if not the most famous of those hinged coffins, which have become historic in connection with the great Irish Famine of 1846-47. 

The figure on the cross having come into my hands I got it affixed to it, but as far as I know, it has no historical value.

The cross, whose history I have thus endeavoured to trace, is preserved in the Convent of the Presentation Order.


Irish Famine Museum, 2nd floor, Stephens Green Centre, Dublin