some orphan pics and stories
Some years ago I jotted down notes for an essay provisionally entitled, “Telling Stories: Irish Famine orphans in Australia”. Here’s a small extract: I was jotting down things at random.
It soon became apparent there were a number of interesting historiographical issues to confront.
- How should we fill in the silences and the gaps in our orphans’ stories?
- What do we know about these family photographs? Are they authentic?
- How can we test and verify oral testimony, family stories and the like?
- Were these women ‘pioneers’ or is this word too value-laden, too triumphalist? Perhaps ‘female white settler’ is a better, more ‘neutral’ description.
- What was these women’s relationship with Aboriginal people, one of the most common gaps or silences in family histories? Fiction it may be, but Kate Grenville’s Secret River at least addresses this shortcoming.
- How exactly should we flesh out the historical context of the orphans’ lives in Australia? How might we take account of changing historical circumstances during the nineteenth century and beyond?
- How did they cope with illness? What was their material life–their dress, their dwelling, their work and their economic condition?
- How are we to ‘situate’ them in a particular place?
- What do we know about their emotional makeup, their relationship with their spouses, their children and their grandchildren, and their friends and neighbours?
- And if we have no direct evidence of any of this, should we make a guess? And how then, should we decide whether that guess was an informed guess, a starry-eyed guess or pure fiction?
I did set the project aside, thinking, ‘Get a grip’, that’s far too serious; it will discourage anyone thinking of writing their orphan history.
You can imagine how pleased I was to see two recent books that addressed some of these concerns. The first is by Libby Connors. Her Warrior was launched a month or two ago. It’s about a great Aboriginal leader, Dundalli (Wonga Pigeon). I’m very much an admirer of Libby’s sense of justice, and her extraordinary ability to see things from both an Aboriginal and European perspective. The second is by Tanya Evans. Her Fractured Families was launched last week (June 2015). Focussing on the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, Tanya has worked closely with family historians. I’m really looking forward to reading it. I suspect she’ll make me reconsider what I said in an earlier post about orphans’ ‘success’ and whether coming to Australia was the best thing they could have done. If you go to www.amazon.com you can sample excerpts from both books. Just go to ‘Books’ and type in the author’s name and click on their book. May I suggest you ask your local library to acquire a copy or two? Good historians need all the encouragement they can get.
Some orphan photographs
Let me upload some orphan photographs descendants kindly sent me some time in the past; a new generation of descendants may be interested to have them. I’ve accepted these at face value, knowing how difficult it can be to authenticate and describe the provenance of every family photograph in one’s possession. I recently inherited a collection of photos from family members, myself, only to realize I have no idea who most of the subjects are. There are sites such as www.myheritage.com/old-family-photos that may help. But I’ve never used any of them.
I do understand that family historians are very creative when it comes to pursuing their history. The very long view provided by DNA analysis looks fascinating. I’ve even had a Canadian friend find distant relatives by studying photographs and identifying common physical features. So, if someone wants to look at orphan photographs and see profound sadness in their eyes, or put words into their mouths, I have seen things I’ll never forget, and will never tell you, it’s not for me to say, you can’t do that.
Feel free to find out a bit more about the people in these photographs by going to the orphan database at www.irishfaminememorial.org
The first ones are of Bridget Hartigan (1834-1914), originally from Newmarket in County Clare. I received them from Roy Dunstan many moons ago. They tell a story in themselves.
I must confess this one looks like it’s been extracted from the one below.
This next is of Catherine Kean also from County Clare and also by the Thomas Arbuthnot. Sometimes details of where the photograph was taken can help authenticate it and tell us more about its provenance.
Mary daughter of Patrick Cassidy and Ann Skelly came from Newtowncashel, in Longford. She was baptised 4 February 1833 and died near Reefton on the South Island of New Zealand in 1895. Her name is on the Irish Famine Monument in Sydney as Mary Casserly.
Mary Kenny’s photograph was sent to me for volume one of Barefoot way back in the late 1980s.
And finally, one of Mary Anne McMaster from Rich Hill, Co. Armagh. She died at Deep Creek, Wynard, Tasmania, 28 December 1914. I do have some more pics but I’ll keep them for another time. If anyone does have a photograph they would like me to upload, please feel free to send a copy.
That should be enough for now. Let me get back to wrestling with the reasons for the Earl Grey scheme coming to an end. It looks simple enough; a clamouring opposition in colonial Australia and embarrassing questions in the House of Commons in England was enough to finish it off. But I suspect there is more to it than this.