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Cross made from Famine coffin discovered

A cross made from the wood of a coffin used in the Great Famine has been discovered.

During research for a Famine Exhibition in the Stephens Green Shopping Centre, Dublin, Linda Walker, from Dublin, came across a little known museum piece – a timber cross made from the wood of a hinged coffin which was used to bury Famine victims in West Cork.

The cross is a prized possession of the Presentation Sisters who were gifted it by Canon John O’Rourke, a priest of Maynooth College.

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

An inscription by Dr Willis on the reverse of the cross reads: ‘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.’

Dr Willis gave the cross to Canon O’Rourke who added a metal figure of Jesus to the front of the cross. He subsequently donated it to the Presentation Sisters.

The hinged coffin came into use at the height of the Famine, as large number of deaths were occurring. The reusable coffin, colloquially known as a ‘trap’ or ‘sliding’ coffin, was fitted with a hinged bottom that swung open like a trapdoor when released.

The Famine Exhibition on the 2nd Floor of the Stephens Green Shopping Centre, Dublin, runs from 15th April to 15th October. While the Famine cross won’t be displayed at the exhibition, a large cast-iron Soup Pot from Donegal and a Workhouse Coffin Bier on loan from Johnnie Fox’s Museum, Glencullen will be.

For more details see: www.theirishpotatofamine.com

Picture: The Famine cross. (Irish Famine Museum/Exhibition, Dublin).