Skibbereen and beyond
For this post, I found myself facing something of a dilemma. How could I remind people of the conditions that sent the Famine orphans fleeing from Ireland, and at the same time, how could I draw attention to the commemoration of the Port Phillip orphans held at Williamstown in mid November, 2017? They were two separate subjects.
I decided to put the Eliza Caroline in my cross-hairs. She was the last Earl Grey orphan vessel to arrive in Port Phillip, filled with young Famine refugees from all over the country, from Tipperary, Sligo, Wexford, Carlow, Waterford, Dublin, Cork, Donegal and Kilkenny. Fittingly, she was one of two vessels carrying young women from an area that symbolizes the Great Irish Famine, the area in west Cork around Skibbereen. The other vessel was the Elgin the last orphan vessel to arrive in Adelaide. Alas, we do not know the names of those on board the Elgin who came from Skibbereen.
News of the Famine around Skibbereen
Many of you will be familiar with the engravings of James Mahoney and others in the London Illustrated News making its readers aware of the tragedy unfolding in Cork. This one perhaps?
or this one?
These two youngsters were scratching the ground with their bare hands looking for potatoes. Cahera is about four miles north of Skibbereen on the road to Dunmanway.
Clonakilty is about twenty miles to the west of Skibbereeen.
Skibbereen has passed into Irish folklore, and into the identity of the ‘Rebel’ county. Try typing the town’s name into your browser and see what you come up with. Here’s a couple of results to sample
Of course it wasn’t only Mahoney’s engravings that made an impact on middle-class sensibilities. It was the accompanying articles as well. Along with the pictures that appeared in February 1847, in the middle of that terrible winter, came the report, “Neither pen nor pencil could ever portray the misery and horror, at this moment, to be witnessed in Skibbereen”.
The reporter quoted from the diary of the resident medical officer, Dr Donovan, describing the Barrett family who had ‘literally entombed themselves in a small watch-house‘ in the cemetery in Skibbereen. “By the side of a hut is a long newly made grave…near the hole that serves as a doorway is the last resting place of two or three children;…in fact the hut is surrounded by a rampart of human bones…and in this horrible den, in the midst of a mass of human putrefaction, six individuals, males and females, labouring under most malignant fever, were huddled together, as closely as were the dead in the graves around”.
The ‘malignant fever’ may have been brought on by any of the Famine diseases, relapsing fever, typhus and dysentery being the most common. In typhus for example, a host scratches and releases bacteria from an infected insect into their own bloodstream. The small blood vessels are attacked causing a spotted rash and delirium. Eyes become bloodshot, muscles twitch and the delirium deepens to stupor. With dysentery, bacteria is transmitted by rotting food, fingers and flies, bacteria that multiply, inflame and ulcerate the intestines, bringing about painful and exhausting straining, violent diarrhoea and the passage of blood. The ground is often marked with blood. In both cases the death rate is high.
Knowing your parents were dead, Bridget Driscoll, you had even watched them become delirious, fall into a stupor and crawl into a corner to die, it’s okay to fear the worst and forever worry about what will become of you. You’d need to have the skin of Tollund man not to be concerned. So many Earl Grey orphans would be affected psychologically by their Famine experience.
Were the orphans from Skibbereen more vulnerable than other orphans because of their unique circumstances and experience? Were they more likely to become casualties in Australia? Or was the experience of other orphans, in other places, you Mary Kearney from Dingle, or you Mary Carrigge from Ennis, equally traumatic?
“I ventured through that parish [Clare Abbey] this day, to ascertain the condition of the inhabitants, and, although a man not easily moved, I confess myself unmanned by the extent and intensity of the suffering I witnessed, more especially amongst the women and little children, crowds of whom were to be seen scattered over the turnip fields, like a flock of famishing crows, devouring the raw turnips, mothers half naked, shivering in the snow and sleet, uttering exclamations of despair, whilst their children were screaming with hunger; I am a match for anything else I may meet with here, but this I cannot stand”. (Letter from Captain Wynne, District Inspector for Clare to the Chairman of the Board of Works 24 December 1846, cited in M. Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine, Cork U.P., 1997, p.27.) Clare Abbey is close to Ennis.
“About a fortnight ago a boy named John Shea of Tullaree died of starvation–such was the verdict of a jury. On yesterday week his sister died, entirely from the same cause: she lay naked and uninterred on what had been the hearth, for four days, during which time she had been gnawed by rats. On Friday evening last a brother of hers died of dysentery, brought on by hunger,and on Saturday the father also fell a victim to this desolating scourge. They had no food for many days…The door was hasped on the outside, and the famishing family abandoned by every relative”. (John Busteed, Surgeon attached to the Castlegregory dispensary, in the Kerry Evening Post, 24 February 1847, cited in Kieran Foley, “The Famine in the Dingle Peninsula”, Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, p. 401).
We haven’t heard of these so much: the contemporary media did not direct our attention there. As today, we’ve heard more about a hurricane in Puerto Rico and Florida, and little about what happened to Barbuda or Antigua or other small Caribbean islands.
Understanding the psychological baggage the orphans brought with them to Australia is not an easy task. Did some ‘friendless’ orphans become more vulnerable than others when they faced the harshness of the Australian environment?
I thought I’d look into this a bit more, first turning to the Irish Famine memorial database for the Eliza Caroline. You can find it here, http://irishfaminememorial.org/orphans/database/
Mary Coghlan again
And lawdy, lawdy what jumped out at me were two names I knew only well, Mary Coghlan and Mary Minahan, both from Skibbereen. I was alerted to Mary Coghlan’s history by her descendant Barbara Borland back in 1990. I’ve written about Mary before, towards the end of blog post 22 on ‘Cancelled Indentures’. You can read it here, http://wp.me/p4SlVj-vf
Mary was the victim of the most shocking domestic abuse by her husband James Walton. Barbara was descended from the couple’s eldest daughter who had married a Swedish seaman. She wrote that she was “happy her great grandmother had a rewarding marriage and descendants to be proud of which makes Mary Coghlan’s life seem to be of some worth”.
Mary Minahan‘s history has been researched by her descendant, Kathleen Newman. Kathleen told me about her in 2000. A synopsis of Mary’s story appears on the Irish Famine memorial database. Only one of Mary’s eight children survived. All the others died young. Was that sad history of childbirth related to her Famine experience, i wonder? Or indeed her history of petty crime?
- Surname : Minnahan [Minahan]
- First Name : Mary
- Age on arrival : 17
- Native Place : Skibbereen, Cork
- Parents : Not recorded
- Religion : Roman Catholic
- Ship name : Eliza Caroline (Melbourne 1850
- Workhouse : Cork, Skibbereen
- Other : shipping: house servant, cannot read or write. Empl. John Hopkins, farmer, Mercer Vale [now Beveridge] 24 miles from Melbourne, ₤8, 6 months; convicted many times (by 1899, 32 previous convictions) for a variety of misdemeanors (assault, vagrancy, being idle and disorderly, soliciting) and under a variety of aliases (Brown, Sorento, Freck, Coutts)’ & sent to Melbourne Gaol. She had 8 children, the first by Henry Wallace, the next 4 by Charles Joseph Pruen, the last to Charles J Brown (the same man?). By 1867 only 1 child, David William Minahan, had survived. Her death not located. kathleennewman[at]optusnet.com.au
Kathleen tells us, her gaol record in 1878 described her as “5 feet 3 inches tall with a fresh complexion, red hair and hazel eyes.” By the time of her court appearance in 1894, (Richmond Guardian 24 November), she was “a wretched looking old woman…charged with having no lawful means of support”.
Maybe these were exceptional cases. To check I looked through some of my family reconstitutions which are biased toward stable family histories. Here’s two I have.
Jane Leary was also from Skibbereen. She married twice, had a family of nine children but lived to the ripe old age of eighty. [Thanks to R.M. Reilley for alerting me to Jane. I’ve gone back to my original forms; that’s were i recorded names of those who sent me information. In some cases I still had access to vital statistics that allowed me to add precise dates. That precision was necessary for a demographic analysis.]
Ellen Fitzgerald, likewise from Skibbereen, also married an ‘exile’ per Maitland. Thanks to Jenny Dedman for this one. Ellen and William had all of their eleven children on the Victorian goldfields. It looked to be a stable family. But wait, how did she die? Of malnutrition! How on earth did that happen? What exactly does that mean? Did she not have enough food? Was she suffering from some kind of illness?
This prompted me to look carefully at the other Skibbereen orphans on board the Eliza Caroline. And found Catherine Coughlan, who had numerous convictions for drunkenness and vagrancy, and died in 1869. c. 36 years old: Mary Donovan married well; her husband was later a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Victoria, and she too became a social activist. But she died in 1866, also c. 36 years old. Julia or Judy Driscoll died in Ballarat Hospital, aged about 39. And Mary Hicks‘ husband deserted her and their eleven children in 1866. This was not a particularly happy outcome for these West Cork orphans. Maybe there is some substance to the claim West Cork orphans were especially vulnerable, after all.
Let me continue with this in the next post. I’d advise against making up your mind about this argument just yet.
May I finish by reminding you of the Irish Famine Orphan commemoration in Williamstown on the 19th November? Thankyou Chrissy Fletcher for this.
“SAVE THE DATE
Irish Famine Orphan Girls Commemoration – Melbourne
Sunday 19 November 2017 – 3pm start
Standing Stone Famine Rock, Burgoyne Reserve, The Strand, Cnr Stevedore Street, Williamstown”.
“…She fainted in her anguish, seeing the desolation round
She never rose, but passed away from life to mortal dream
And found a quiet grave, my boy, in dear old Skibbereen”.