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Since the late 1970s, among other things, I’ve been working on the Earl Grey Irish famine orphans. Some might say it is my misguided attempt to take history outside the Academy. As one of my old Professors, R.B.McDowell, said, history has to be about more than professional historians sitting in a locked room talking to one another.
In the 1980s, with help from Macquarie University, Sydney, and the Australian Research Grants Scheme (ARGS) I was able to gain access to Birth, Death and Marriage records in New South Wales and Victoria and pay someone to research the vital statistics of orphans who went to Queensland. This work, research in Ireland whilst on sabbatical, and information from family historians, was the basis of my 2 volumes, Barefoot & Pregnant?, published in 1991 and 2001/2.
The orphans’ ‘story’ has always attracted the media. In 1987 I did a BBC Northern Ireland programme with the great Pat Loughrey, and another for BBC’s “Women’s Hour” in 1994. In 2001 I had the privilege of appearing in Siobhan McHugh’s excellent Radio National programme which was broadcast again on ‘Hindsight’, 11 August 2013. You may need to download it from the ABC Radio National website: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/the-famine-girls/4857904 The SBS Television series, “The Irish Empire”, also had room for the orphans, in Episode three, I think it was.
More recently, in 2013, Barrie Dowdall’s very successful film series for the Irish Language channel, TG4, “Mná Díbeartha” gave an important place to the young famine orphan ‘girls’. It had a successful ‘repeat’ on www.tg4.ie in May 2015.
See http://www.convictwomenandorphangirls.com…where you can buy a DVD of the series.
On Christmas day 2016 Radio Kerry devoted an hour long programme on Kay Caball’s “Kerry Girls”, produced by J.J. O’Shea’. Soon, it will be available on podcast at http://mykerryancestors.com/kerry-girls-christmas-2016/
Writers, too, are fascinated by the orphan girls’ story. In the early 1990s, J. P. Rooney’s play, “Permanent Deadweight” had a successful run with the Charabanc Theatre Company. Prize winning author Kirsty Murray put an orphan girl as the principal character in her Bridie’s Fire, the first in her Children of the Wind series.
Jaki McCarrick’s play, “Belfast Girls“, had a great run in London in 2012. In May-June 2015 it played to rave reviews at the Artemisia theatre in Chicago. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0p4pNJFrsTE Let’s hope plans to develop the play into a film will go ahead. The Canadian premiere of the play will happen in British Columbia in 2017. We wish it every success.
Jaki’s play is going from strength to strength. This Northern fall (autumn, 2017) it will be interpreted by actors in Portland, Oregon and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Break a leg!
The inimitable writer, Evelyn Conlon, published Not the Same Sky (Wakefield Press) about the young women which was launched in 2013 at the International Famine gathering in Sydney. In May 2015 it had another successful ‘launch’ in Dublin and London, to great acclaim.
Other outstanding events celebrating the young women include the re-enactment of the arrival of the Thomas Arbuthnot orphans at Hyde Park Barracks by Richard Reid, Cheryl Mongan and the Yass Historical Society in 1996. That same year Richard and Cheryl published their ground-breaking ‘a decent set of girls…’ The Irish Famine orphans of the Thomas Arbuthnot. Richard’s book, “Farewell my Children” (2011) puts the story in a larger context. This year, in 2015, Kay Caball’s Kerry Girls and Barbara Barclay’s website www.mayoorphangirls.weebly.com are showing the way forward for local studies which i would argue is the best way to go.
Gary Crockett of Sydney Living Museums curated a long running, highly successful exhibition at Hyde Park Barracks; see http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/stories/irish-orphan-girls-hyde-park-barracks .
A new exhibition, opened in 2014, at the same place, curated by Fiona Starr on “Emigrant women at Hyde Park Barracks” was a great success; it had one of the boxes which an orphan brought with her from Ireland over 160 years ago.
Through the ‘noughties’ I had the privilege of working closely with the late, great Tom Power, and the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee. The Irish Famine Monument in Sydney became a reality in the late 1990s because of Tom and his committee. With the technical expertise of Jennifer Bainbridge I was able to set up the first version of www.irishfaminememorial.org website in 2007. The Committee and website continue to flourish and expand in the capable hands of Patricia Strong and her team. Patricia took over the baton from Perry McIntyre in 2015. Perry continues to research the Earl Grey orphans and make sure the website has the most up-to-date information on the orphan database.
In Port Phillip there is an annual gathering at the Famine Rock, Burgoyne Park, Williamstown, the penultimate Sunday of November, commemorating the 1600+ orphans who arrived there. For 2016, see https://tintean.org.au/2016/11/16/famine-rock-memorial/
With so many young people emigrating from Ireland in recent times, the Famine orphans are striking a chord in the collective psyche once more.
This blog is my attempt to set down what I know about Earl Grey’s Famine orphan scheme. You are not compelled to take my word on anything.