Wexford people buried in the town’s Paupers’ Graveyard were disposed of like "human garbage” and died as a result of “harsh social and economic policies that treated poverty as a self-inflicted condition”, guest speaker Professor Kevin Whelan told a large attendance at the annual patron in Coolcotts.
A crowd of approximately 150 people listened to a powerful and inspiring 20-minute address by the historian, author and Clonegal native who has been director of the Notre Dame University’s international programme in Dublin for more than 25 years.
“Think for a moment of our parents and our grandparents While they may have died, they are still very much alive in our thoughts and especially at significant points in the year like Christmas and birthdays. In that sense, they are still valued and a significant force and presence in our lives even though they are no longer physically with us”, he said.
“Then let us think of the people beneath our feet here and the ignominious way they were once discarded as so much human garbage in a paupers’ grave. They died as a result of harsh social and economic policies that treated poverty as a self-inflicted condition, resulting from character flaws. These are the ones who were treated in both life and in death with contempt”.
The annual patron, the first since 2019, was held to commemorate the poor of Wexford who were buried without funeral, headstone or ritual in shallow graves in Coolcotts in the 1800s and early 1900s because there was no money to pay for their burial.
According to an inscription on a Celtic Cross in the graveyard, they were “the poor, the deprived, the destitute, the mentally and physically challenged.”
The Paupers’ Graveyard is a green area of about 50 metres by 30 metres sheltered by trees. A few large stones are scattered there to indicate some graves.
No records were kept and it is unknown how many were buried in the plot which now stands as a monument to the hundreds and possibly thousands of nameless people interred there.
On a sunny June evening in 2022, the thoughts of those in attendance travelled back in time to remember these Wexford people and the hardships and indignity they endured.
The musical sounds of the HFC Band and the melodious tones of Wexford Male Voice Choir wafted over the graveyard as people gathered for the remembrance.
Among those welcomed by Wexford District Manager Angela Laffan were the Minster of State at the Department of Justice James Browne, the Bishop of Ferns, Ger Nash, Reverend Cormac O’Reilly of St Iberius Church, parish administrator Fr Billy Swan, members of an Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces, the Commodore John Barry branch of National Ex-Servicemen, Order of Malta, Wexford Lions Club, Wexford Rotary, Wexford Chamber, Wexford Historical Society and FAB Women’s Group.
The Mayor of Wexford Garry Laffan was unable to attend due to the death of his aunt Kathleen of Monck Street.
Also among the attendance were the families of two trustees of Wexford Memorial Trust, who passed away since the last patron – the late Bill Creedon, former County Secretary and the late Nicky Furlong, the author and historian - both of whom were deeply committed to maintaining the Paupers’ Graveyard during their lifetimes. Wreaths were laid by Bill’s son Conal and Nicky’s first cousin Sean Kinsella.
A dozen wreaths were laid at the Celtic Cross, with Minister Browne laying a wreath on behalf of the Irish Government. Pupils Tanya O' Neill and Karolina Mahoney laid flowers on behalf of nearby Scoil Mhuire national school.
Also remembered were two former Mayors of Wexford, Noel Murphy and Peter Roche who were members of the Trust.
Another former Mayor of Wexford, Padge Reck also attended. Along with the late Ray Nolan, he was a founder member of Wexford Memorial Trust and its chairman from 1990 to 2015.
Also in the crowd were a number of historians and researchers including Celestine Murphy, Greg Walsh, Paddy Kinsella Noel Culleton, Dan Redmond and Willie French along with Peter McDonald, a cousin of Nicky Furlong, and his wife Theresa of New Ross, and Maura Gately whose late brother Monsignor Lory Kehoe was a loyal supporter of the Trust.
The committee of Wexford Memorial Trust includes chairperson Helen Corish Wylde, Brian Byrne, Pat Collins, Monica Crofton, Angie Laffan, Breda Meagher and Anita Ryan.
After the patron, Bishop Nash and Professor Kevin Whelan joined everyone for tea in Coolcotts Community Centre.