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Dublin: 6 °C Monday 21 October, 2019
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Former pupils of St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls eat like it's 1851

It’s for a very good cause….

AMID ALL THE ongoing ceremonies to mark 100 years of the Easter Rising, five women have been enduring a tough but fascinating dietary challenge in a bid to commemorate a group of long-forgotten women buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The five women, all former pupils of St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls in Cabra, Dublin, are eating, for one week, the same unappetising meals that their boarding school counterparts did more than 150 years ago.

Their week-long diet is based on a schedule that was found in a 1996 book published to mark the 150th anniversary of the school, which details what these women would have eaten in the canteen every day in 1851.

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Alvean Jones, Joanne Chester, Josephine O’Leary, Mary Moloney and Martina Doyle have been enduring an highly austere diet of bread (no butter) and milk, stirabout (porridge), boiled vegetables, chicken or ham, and broth.

The women are aiming to raise money to restore the plot of a common, unmarked grave in Glasnevin Cemetery that contains the remains of a number of former pupils of the school who boarded, lived and worked there during the 19th and 20th centuries until their deaths between the years 1914 and 1973.

Back then, these former pupils would have had no choice but to stay on as staff members – as teachers or servants – either because they were orphans or were abandoned by their families. When they died, the school buried them in common graves, including the one in Glasnevin Cemetery.

The plot is marked by a large cross but there are no names listed and today is in a very dilapidated condition, in stark contrast to the other common graves surrounding it.

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Alvean Jones, one of the group of five fundraisers, said:

We decided that these women would no longer be forgotten about and the graves abandoned. So we are fundraising by honouring the hard lives the pupils in the school lived. We are following – to the letter – the original 1851 dietary schedule for the girls at the school.

The group are hoping to raise enough funds to restore the plot, erect two headstones featuring the names and date of deaths of all the women in the grave, and clean up the cross.

There are actually two common graves – one contains the remains of 47 of these women, while the other contains the remains of a further eight. The Dominican Sisters, the order then established and still runs St Mary’s School, had agreed to cover the €8,600 cost of restoring the larger plot, while the fundraisers are raising money to restore the smaller one.

The group are on the last day of their challenge and have been vlogging their progress to Ireland’s Deaf community on Facebook, who are following their every gulp and grimace as they savour stirabout, binge on broth and wash everything down with plenty of milk.

No processed food is allowed.

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Enduring the challenge has made all of the women think a bit more about what food means to them, but also about how lucky they are.

Joanne Chester wrote on day three of the challenge: “Honestly, I’m kind of struggling with the 1851 food challenge. Not that I’m starving, just that I am really craving for my [normal] food. Especially my dinners.

I’m really grateful to have the kind of food that we all have today, which is incomparable to 1851. I am also feeling grateful to at least have food, unlike poor people and those in developing countries who are struggling even to have basic food every day.

The group have set up an online fundraising page here.

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About the author:

John Cradden

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