Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (7a); The Voyage (foreword)

The Voyage


Can one have a split personality? One of me is a trained academic historian, researcher and teacher. Make sure you read widely about your subject, research the primary sources but don’t be afraid to be critical. For example in 1858, two of the witnesses to a Parliamentary enquiry into Irish Female Immigration claimed ‘4,000 orphan girls were brought to New South Wales between 1850 and 1852’ which we now know is bulls…. Rumour masquerading as fact.

Think about your subject, weigh things in the balance and for goodness sake, don’t plagiarise ( i.e. present other people’s work, words (even phrases), ideas, illustrations, as your own. That is intellectual theft.) All my colleagues told their students, plagiarism could mean their being awarded no marks at all. And now what do I see in the ‘real’ world? Plagiarism is rampant. Parents write their child’s school assignments and teachers reward them! Media journos borrow/steal a report from overseas and read the report on air as if it were all their own work! Students even pay to have their essays written for them!

Lawd ha’ mercy.

The other one of me wants to get inside the head of our Famine orphan adolescents: but they didn’t record their thoughts and experiences. To do so, I’d need the creative genius of writers like Evelyn Conlon (author of Not the Same Sky) or Jaki McCarrick (who wrote the play Belfast girls). As Evelyn said, fiction writers just make things up if they need to; they aren’t shackled to historical fact.

Writers often make an impact because their work has something to say about present-day concerns. As a trained historian, I’m naturally wary about this. If a student wrote, “workers in the Industrial Revolution were alienated because they had no television to go home to”, I’d comment ‘you’re not being historically sensitive here. That’s anachronistic. You’re too present-minded’.

In other words, I’m ‘conflicted’.

 I’ll have misgivings about imposing what I know of 21st century adolescents on young Irish Famine women of 160 years ago. Or transferring my own experience of family life to families in the past. “Do ye see thon Biddy Mahon. She said that I said you’d said she was  a ….”, “how long do we have to be on this [insert swear word here] ship?” I was tempted to use ‘effin’ but I’m not even sure what swear words were common in 1848 0r 1849 or 1850. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I’d be grateful for any suggestions. Maybe you have a female orphan ancestor. What kind of voice do you think she had? How did she react to the voyage? to her shipmates? to Matron and the Surgeon Superintendent on board? or the sailors? What words would you use?

“I would there were no age between ten and three and twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest”, Shepherd in Shakespeare, A Winter’s Tale. Act 3 scene 3 (folio 1 1623)

Let me give you a taste of the voyage to OZ. What am I doing writing about  long sea-voyages to Australia? There’s plenty of sailing in my family history I’m told. Not here; my two attempts are not exactly covered in glory. A colleague and I set sail from Port Royal (or what’s left of it after the 1692 earthquake) in Kingston Harbour, Jamaica on two occasions. On both we had to be towed back to shore by fishermen. Mind we only had a jib.

Here’s a painting of a ship coming on an unusually rapid voyage to Australia in 1849, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Australia. The artist was Thomas G. Dutton and the picture is from the Rex Nan Kivell collection. I’ll say more about this particular voyage a bit later. If I’d been on this one I’d be swearing too.

It is “Dutton, T. G. & Day and Son.  (1853).  The Constance 578 tons off Kerguelens Land, 20th Octr. 1849 on her passage from Plymouth to Adelaide in 77 days.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an9537871