Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (36):an uplifting story, Bridget McMahon from Limerick 

Unfinished Stories (3)

(The featured image at the head of this post is of Marjorie Collins in the laboratory at Adelaide University. It is reproduced courtesy of the University of Adelaide Archives).

Bridget McMahon per Maria (1850)

Let me tell you an uplifting story. It’s the story of a famine orphan, Bridget McMahon, from Rathkeale workhouse in County Limerick.

I’m very grateful to Bridget’s descendant, Dr Eleanor Dawson, for sharing the information she has about Bridget’s history. People may know Eleanor from episode four of Barrie and Síobhán’s docudrama, Mná Díbeartha. Eleanor was interviewed early in 2009(?) if my memory is correct. She and I have some things in common. Obviously, an interest in the Famine orphans. We also share a profound belief in the value of education. And coincidentally, we share a medical history. My father died of tuberculosis when he was 31 years old; Eleanor contracted tuberculosis at 16 in her last year(s) of school. She was sent home to bed within the hour of her first ever X-ray, after 3 months of productive cough and lethargy. With home tutors, including her mother, she came out top of the New South Wales Leaving Certificate examination in 1944. Her uncle Archie, a medical man, saved her life, she says. In the days before antibiotics, from 1943 to 1947, he regularly inserted, under local anaesthetic, a cannula between the left lung and thoracic wall, creating an artificial pneumothorax collapsing the worse affected lung and its apical cavity, thereby promoting rest and healing. (Thank you Eleanor for information about the procedure. Eleanor too is a medical graduate; also a researcher, and a retired psychiatrist).

There are some differences between us too. I’m a trained historian who is concerned with historical context; what was the Famine like in Limerick, for instance. I would encourage would-be orphan family historians not to neglect the Irish context of their orphan. And to look for those things that help make ‘our’ family members more than ‘singular’ and unique but representative of something larger. For the advice Alison Light gives in her Common People, see http://wp.me/p4SlVj-Gf

 Eleanor has a closer relationship with a particular orphan, Bridget McMahon, her great-grandmother, than I could ever have. With her training in medicine and psychiatry, she is inclined towards her family’s medical history, and towards a professional understanding of the emotional and psychological dimension of such a family history.

Still, if we were preparing a television programme such as Who do you think you are? we’d tell you we intend focusing on Bridget’s distaff line; from Bridget to her daughter Annie Marie Long (later Collins), to granddaughter, Marjorie Collins (later Shiels), all the way to her great-granddaughter, Eleanor Shiels (later Dawson). How appropriate is that? It is Bridget’s mitochondrial line, mtydna. And if you allow me some licence, I’d say there is much of Bridget in Eleanor Dawson. She is quiet and unassuming, not given to blowing her own trumpet, highly intelligent, resilient, resourceful and a character as strong as tempered steel.

I’m telling you all this because it is important we examine where we are coming from. We, all of us, should be aware, and wary of, the ways our beliefs and values influence how we interpret the past. Self reflection is important.

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Let us begin with Bridget herself. Eleanor tells us, according to the New South Wales Board of Immigration shipping record of the Maria (the penultimate Earl Grey orphan vessel to arrive in Sydney, at the end of June 1850) Bridget could read but not write. She was a dressmaker, Roman Catholic by religion, and of good health, strength and possible usefulness. When she went from Ireland to join the shipload of ‘sister-orphans’ in Plymouth, her father John McMahon was dead, and her mother, Penelope ní Carroll, was living in Rathkeale, County Limerick, possibly in that very workhouse Bridget had left.

On Rathkeale workhouse, see Peter Higginbotham’s great website, http://workhouses.org.uk/Rathkeale/

Something of a mystery

There is a discrepancy between Bridget’s age (19) recorded on the Maria shipping list and the age she gave (22) at the time of her marriage to Samuel Long in 1858. We have searched Limerick Catholic parish records high and low for Bridget’s baptismal record and the marriage record of her parents, John McMahon and Penelope Carrol(l), without success.

[What a valuable resource is the National Library of Ireland’s online record of Catholic parish records. See http://registers.nli.ie Happy hunting and may your eyes be strong!]

What we did find was Penelope’s baptism, 6 January 1815, ‘Penelope of John Fitzgerald Fmr and Naby(?) Carrol, townland of Caherelly, parish of Ballybricken and Bohermore, sponsor, Mary Soolivan’. This link should take you there. Click on the plus sign at the top of the page to make the image larger.

http://registers.nli.ie/registers/vtls000632644#page/38/mode/1up

Penelope is such a distinctive name. This is the only Penelope we found in Limerick parish records. Our priestly authority, Tom Power, suggests the local priest may not have been happy with the name, it not being ‘Christian’ enough. But Penelope definitely retained it. She is recorded as Penelope Carroll at the birth of Bridget’s sister Mary, in Rathkeale parish, 2 October 1836, and as a sponsor at the baptism of James Quin in the same parish, 22 January 1839. I wonder where the name originated. Perhaps Naby or John learned of it at a Hedge school. Had they heard of Homer’s Odysseus? Maybe Penelope’s determination to keep the name, Penelope ní Carroll, was not so uncommon. Or perhaps she had a rebellious nature, or at least, an independent spirit.

We searched for Bridget’s baptism and her parents’ marriage, especially in  Ballybricken and Rathkeale, and in the parishes in between. We assume both events occurred in parishes where appropriate records have not survived, maybe in Cappagh, Banogue, or Croagh.

—————————————————————

And what of the Famine in Limerick?  It certainly threw Bridget into Rathkeale workhouse. Her father may have been a famine death. Limerick had high rates of people being evicted from their holdings during the Famine, and large numbers of people being employed on public works, breaking stones and making roads. Its port exported tonnes of grain during the Famine years, and imported tonnes of maize or Indian corn, making large profits for corn factors and millers. That corn may have helped save Bridget’s life.

The Famine in Limerick, especially around Rathkeale, is something worth researching further. I have to hand notes I made from a local newspaper, The Limerick Reporter. [Which reminds me, Macquarie University Library has microfilm copies of some Irish newspapers at the time of the orphans’ emigration. From memory, The Galway Vindicator and Connaught Advertiser, The Clare Journal, The Fermanagh Mail and Enniskillen Chronicle, and The Armagh Guardian].

Bridget and her mother surely knew what was happening around them: of the women rioting in the William Street Auxiliary workhouse in Limerick, 13 April 1849? Or of the women rioting in Nenagh workhouse in Barrack street in the same month? Or of John Sheehan P.P. telling of the frightful destitution in Ennistymon, County Clare, “The meal depots are more crowded than our chapels, but these must appear, to have their poverty paraded, with their spectral shapes, and skeleton forms, half-naked and in rags, eaten alive with filth and squalor and vermin…”, Limerick Reporter, April and May 1849.

The following report may have reached them too. It is from the Reporter’s Milltown Malbay correspondent, printed 26 October 1849.

“I was witness to an interesting exhibition at the Ennistymon workhouse, viz. the emigration of twenty-three female paupers selected by the active Vice-Guardians Messrs. Naish and Ward for the sunny clime of Australia. Under the careful superintendence of Miss Griffith, the Matron, these fortunate creatures appeared to excellent advantage in their tasteful costumes, cottage bonnets and green veils, bidding an eternal farewell to the unfortunate land of their birth, while their ruddy health and contented mien, contrasted painfully with the squalid wretchedness of 500 miserable beings at the gates, claimants for admission.”

Did some of the orphans carry guilt in their psychological baggage when they left for Australia?

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Out of Ireland

Unfortunately we do not know who employed Bridget in Australia. There is a family story she was seamstress to the Blaxlands  at Bathurst and Ryde. It may only be one of those stories that families create. We have not been able to confirm it.  Yet the story can be traced to someone who knew Bridget when she was still alive, so we shall not dismiss it out of hand. What we do know is that she married Samuel Long,  a Protestant, from County Tyrone, in 1858, nearly eight years after she arrived. She wasn’t having any of that ‘daggers drawn fighting on a narrow ground’ (Walter Scott). She was prepared to marry across the religious divide.

In 2005, Eleanor asked if I would take a short detour from my trip to Donegal and look for Samuel’s place of origin in the parish of Ardstraw, townland of Ballyfolliard, County Tyrone. No worries. It is now a rich and fertile dairy farming area, not jam-packed with people as in the 1850s.

ardstrawfolliard

 

“And we call that crossroads Tobair Vree. And why do we call it Tobair Vree. I’ll tell you why. Tobair means a well. But what does Vree mean? It’s a corruption of Brian… an erosion of Tobair Bhriain. Because a hundred and fifty years ago there used to be well there…And an old man called Brian …drowned in that well… What do we do with a name like that? Do we scrap Tobair Vree altogether and call it what?–The Cross? Crossroads? Or do we keep piety with a man long dead…?” (Brian Friel, Translations, Act two, scene one).

Samuel Long, Eleanor informed me, was one of six sons of a tenant farmer of the Duke of Abercorn. He was literate, had been in the Irish Constabulary and arrived in the Vocalist, in Port Jackson, in October 1856, with two of his brothers. An uncle by marriage, established for some years as a farmer in Wollongong, had paid for them under Remittance Regulations. Aged 26, 24, and 22, they were designated as farm labourers but all were soon absorbed into the Colonial Service. Samuel became a labourer, then a senior attendant and then the storekeeper at the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum. In 1869, Tarban Creek Asylum became Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville. 

Building, Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville, c.1883

Building, Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville, c.1883. Courtesy State Records New South Wales

Samuel and Bridget had a long association with such institutions. Samuel later became institutional storekeeper at the Newcastle Asylum for Imbeciles and Idiots, as it was named, 1871-1914. After the loss of her eighth and last Gladesville-born child as a premature baby, Bridget acted as de facto gatekeeper in Newcastle, for a time.

Both of them must have had some sort of relationship with other members of staff and some of the patients, we would suggest. The institutional records that have survived will allow us to put their lives into historical context. It is a task for another time. It will not be for the faint-hearted.

Later in life Samuel became senior attendant at the Australian Museum in College Street, Sydney. Bridget Ann Long (nee McMahon) and Samuel Long each died in the care of their childless son Robert and his wife Rebecca at their Waverley home in November 1913 and February 1914. Their unpretentious headstone overlooks the Pacific ocean at Waverley cemetery.

Ann Maria Collins (1863-1921)

Around the same time the New South Wales government introduced plans to ‘improve’ Gladesville Mental Hospital, it sought to reform public education. A new Education Act or Public Instruction Act was passed in 1880 making education compulsory for all 6 to 14 year olds. As a result, there would be an enormous increase in the number of schools in New South Wales. State Aid was withdrawn from denominational schools and three new types of schools were created, Superior Public, High, and Evening Public schools. See http://www.governmentschools.det.nsw.edu.au/story/instruction_act.shtm

Ann Maria Long was to marry James Patrick Collins, a Limerick man who had arrived via Canada to take up a post with the new Department of Public Instruction. The couple would move around New South Wales as James moved from post to post. He first taught at Swan Bay and Woodford Leigh before moving to Lismore Public. This last was to become a Superior Public school during James’s time. It prepared some students for matriculation to the University of Sydney. After their home was flooded and one of their children had died of diphtheria and Annie about to be confined with baby Archie Collins, James’s request for a transfer was accepted. The family moved to Richmond where the couple’s last three children were born. In 1897 James was appointed to Manly school and the family lived in the schoolmaster’s residence in Darley Road (now demolished).

Sadly, James died aged 42, leaving behind 34 year old Annie with six surviving children. Annie herself would die when she was only 57. Somewhere in that gene pool lies a seemingly random family ‘time-bomb’? Annie was able to manage after James’s early death…by teaching. She and her eldest son, Clarence Richard, worked as pupil teacher and work mistress, moving from one rented accommodation to another. With the help of bursaries Annie put four children through Sydney University, at a time when the number of people going to University was very small. As Sydney University says, it was ‘a brilliant family’… Clarence Richard Collins, B. A., Archibald John Collins M.B. Ch.B, Rosalie Helena Collins, B. A. and…

Near the outbreak of the First World War, in 1913, Archie completed his medical studies. He was to graduate with first class honours and awarded the Walter and Eliza Hall traveling scholarship for medical research in London. Instead, he served with distinction in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in France, being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Military Cross (MC) for gallantry in charge of a casualty clearing station. He was later knighted for services to medicine and served the University of Sydney as a Senator for many years. What a tale Eleanor’s family has to tell of Archie.

The fourth graduate was Eleanor’s mother, Marjorie Collins, B.Sc. and M.Sc.

Marjorie Shiels (1895-1970)

Marjorie Collins. Courtesy of the University of Sydney Archives G3/224/1415

Marjorie Collins. Courtesy of the University of Sydney Archives G3/224/1415

Marjorie Collins was also a brilliant scholar. Like her brother Archie and her younger sister, she was Dux of Fort Street School. For a synopsis of her academic career see http://sydney.edu.au/arms/archives/history/students_early_women_Collins.shtml

She graduated with first class honours in Botany from Sydney University in 1916. She was a pioneer botanical ecologist who was awarded the first Master of Science (M.Sc.) degree at Sydney University in 1924.

 In 1917, Marjorie’s outstanding undergraduate career led to a position as lecturer and demonstrator at Adelaide University working with Professor T.G.B.Osborn.

Here is the featured photograph again with Marjorie acting as demonstrator in one of Professor Osborn’s classes. Our thanks to the University of Adelaide Archives.

Marjorie Collins in the laboratory

Marjorie Collins in the laboratory

Marjorie’s biographer, Dr Claire Hooker, tells us that Marjorie’s stay at Adelaide inspired her to examine some of the big questions about the effects of climate “on vegetation and on the ecology of semi-arid regions”, what today we would describe as environmentalist concerns. She loved the land she studied and developed early ideas about conservation.

At the end of 1919 she returned to Sydney to take up a Linnaean Macleay fellowship. She was the first botany candidate to win such a fellowship, a fellowship “that required extensive, rough fieldwork”. Undaunted, Marjorie held Linnaean Macleay fellowships until 1924 and in that year, she won a Sydney University Medal for her M.Sc. examination in Botany, and graduated with first class honours. But as Dr Hooker opines, Marjorie “was to find being a pioneer painful and difficult, both as a woman scientist and as an ecologist”. In 1925 she left academia.

After marrying, Marjorie taught in schools for long periods, wrote natural history articles, and co-authored widely used Honours Leaving Certificate school textbooks on Biology and Practical Biology.  She inspired many school-students with her enthusiasm and warmth, not least her daughter, Eleanor, who was also to carve out her own distinguished career as doctor, researcher and psychiatrist.

Eleanor Dawson

Here is a photograph of Eleanor Shiels when she graduated from Sydney University, in 1951. She was already four months into junior residency at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and one month married to Edward Dawson. A compromise would soon be arranged with the Hospital Board.

Eleanor Shiels at Graduation MB BS 1951

Eleanor Shiels at Graduation MB BS 1951

Eleanor’s career spanned medicine and psychiatry. Her CV, she says, is on her bucket-list. But at least I know after she retired she continued her good work writing about, and making submissions to professional bodies and to parliament on the ethics of psychiatrist-patient relations. Now in her twilight years she is still learning, this time, how to care for her life-partner and soul-mate, Edward Dawson.

Let me finish by sharing with you a poem she wrote just over a year ago; it sheds light on the very personal nature of family history. I’ll call it “Eleanor’s poem”. Eleanor may prefer another title.

Eleanor’s poem

At fifty-seven my mother’s mother suddenly died

in the twenty-fourth year of her widowhood.

Epidemic losses from her married years had numbered three;

diphtheria and typhoid, and then pneumonic flu.

Two sons had come back safe from Flanders’ fields,

from Passchendale and Zonnebecke,

the elder wounded, the younger decorated,

eventually even knighted and stated by his ultimate valedictorian

to have forged his soul in the crucible of battle.

But in that family didn’t they all?

Alone my teacher grandmother had raised the six survivors of her seven children

to lives of study, sacrifice and service.

Aided by bursaries, two of her daughters and two sons alike

graduated with honours from her ever-moving suburb-to-suburb household,

fine paradigm of need and equal opportunity.

Then came cancer and post-operative embolism.

At fifty-seven she suddenly died, never having seen or held a grandchild.

At fifty-seven her only married daughter did become a grandmother.

That daughter stood beside me, raptly looking down upon my snugly cotted offspring;

sharing my delight, warmly encouraging yet gently warning me

about the scant-envisaged future years she labelled ‘work and thrall’.

She’d reminisced then how Camilla Wedgwood,

doyenne of 1920s Sydney academic scene,

had viewed me years before in that same cot, tut-tutting, ‘what a waste!’

And with that memory, my mother, a humorously self-styled bluestocking

conspired with me to recognize that even clever women in high places

do not know everything.

Years later, at fifty-seven, now long years ago, I myself was pondering the past;

coming to realize ever so slowly, that I’d not need and must not want a grandchild,

if that child had to be a cold-store embryo or else a long-day child-care baby.

Time would tell.

For at twenty-one my eldest grandchild told me of his dream-

a dream of living with his soul-mate in a tree house

and taking babies for picnics in a forest.

with an email chuckle-sign he asked for help-

help to work out how to make his dream come true.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,

and our little life is rounded with a sleep”.

(Eleanor Dawson 13/02/2015)

Eleanor has long been a supporter of the Irish Famine Monument at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney. Here she is with the Irish Ambassador Declan Kelly  at a wreath-laying ceremony at the the Monument in 2002.

Dr Eleanor Dawson and Ambassador Kelly

Dr Eleanor Dawson and Ambassador Kelly

[A gathering at the Irish Famine Monument takes place each year on the last Sunday of August. This year, 2016, the guest speaker will be Tim Costello. See http://www.irishfaminememorial.org for details].

Eleanor understands and is proud of her connection to her Irish Famine orphan, Bridget McMahon, from County Limerick. Let me remind you of her wonderful lineage: Penelope Carroll–Bridget McMahon–Ann Maria Collins–Marjorie Shiels–Eleanor Dawson. Or as Jaki McCarrick puts it in her play, “you…are a great gift to Australia, and don’t ya forget it”.

Once again a link to the contents of my blog http://wp.me/p4SlVj-oE

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4 thoughts on “Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (36):an uplifting story, Bridget McMahon from Limerick 

  1. Thanks very much for sharing this story,Trevor and for introducing Eleanor Dawson. I enjoyed and related to her story. My grandmother and her mother were both very independent women. My grandmother was concert pianist Eunice Gardiner who had 7 children yet continued her career. My Famine Orphan is on my grandfather’s side.
    It’s interesting because my famine orphan Bridget Donovan married an Englishman who was protestant as well and it really baffles me. Wasn’t that selling out?
    I put my research into Bridget on hold for a while after being unable to find her death. Must get back to it.
    Best wishes,
    Rowena Newton

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was a wonderful post. Thank you! One thing to note:  The link to the Irish Famine Memorial appears to be incorrect. I think it should be memorial rather than monument. Regards, Jill

    Liked by 1 person

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