An archaeological survey of a 19th century graveyard in Co Waterford has taken experts by surprise with over 300 individual graves mapped already.

It is believed there could be more than 3,000 famine victims buried in the single field on the edge of the Waterford Gaeltacht.

What started as a "lockdown project" for field archaeologist John Tierney led to the mapping of hundreds of the graves and more information about the famine-era graveyard.

Originally from Cork but living in the Dungarvan area for the last 20 years, John Tierney is director of the Historic Graves Project.

When the pandemic hit last year, he took an interest in old graveyards including those at Gort in Co Galway and Polla (Pulla) in the Co Waterford Gaeltacht.

Hundreds of graves have been mapped

He secured funding from the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) to carry out more research and began a Lidar (light wave-based technology, similar to radar) survey and drone camera study of the field at Polla - about 8km from Dungarvan just off the N25 Youghal road - to find out more about the graves which are known to have been located there since the famine and subsequent decades.

"We were looking for two types of grave in particular; long graves and individual graves. Long graves, where we've seen them elsewhere, are related to famine overwhelmingly; large amounts of people dying and being buried in mass burials and then the small singles as well.

"What really surprised is that the Lidar showed the small single graves are highly detectable using the publicly-available data set."

Local people knew a lot about those buried in the field, but not exactly where the individual graves are, he said.

"There’s a good, rich biodiversity here, but it’s masking the graves. Our purpose was to maintain the integrity of the place, the biodiversity value, but then find where the graves are. We were hoping to find where the graves are and I think to a large degree we’ve managed that."

Located in the lower section of the two-acre field are famine-era long graves, covered with vegetation, and which need more work to find out more about them, he explained.

The "upper" area has at least 300 individual graves. "We’re still pulling it together. Part of what we’re doing is that we’re cleaning some of the ground using a scythe and a rake, just to get a feeling for the ground."

A report on the research is due to be submitted to the RIA next month, and other studies in other locations around the country are likely.

Historian with Waterford County Museum William Whelan said it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that up to 3,000 people are buried in the "long" famine graves, as existing graveyards in the area became overwhelmed by the number of deaths during that tragedy, particularly in 1847 (Black ’47), 1848 and 1849.

"It’s hard to actually get across to people the scale of the disaster… We know that between 1845 and 1855 3,000 people died in the workhouse system in Dungarvan alone, that’s not counting any deaths outside of the workhouse," he said.

"For me as a local historian, a lot of it is just to be reminded of the scale of the famine. As communities we’ve forgotten how traumatic the famine was and this project is fantastic to bring it back into the public eye again."

Bernadette Guest is interested in developing a schools project

The project will help younger people find out more about the famine and how it affected their community, according to heritage officer with Waterford City and County Council Bernadette Guest.

"Next year is the 175th anniversary of Black '47, she said, "and we’d be very interested in developing a schools project.

"By involving the local schools in Dungarvan, Ardmore, An Rinn and Clais Mhór (Clashmore), they can make a real connection to the local history by coming to the site and perhaps marking some of the graves that John has discovered with Lidar.

"They can have an opportunity to learn about mid-19th century burial practices but also, very excitingly, how science and technology are being applied to discover heritage sites like this, and hopefully will inspire future forensic archaeologists and historians."