Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (39): Irish Famine women, a challenge or three

IRISH FAMINE WOMEN; a challenge or three+

Some people may have read the centre-piece of this post already. It is the talk I gave at the International Irish Famine commemoration in Sydney in 2013. Tinteán published an edited version sometime later.

Today, I want to ask other labourers in the vineyard if they would take up some of my ‘challenges’. Is it true that Van Diemen’s Land bore the brunt of Ireland’s Famine misery? What do we know about the 4-5,000 single Irish women who arrived in South Australia c. 1855-56? Who were they? Where in Ireland did they come from? What happened to them? Over fifty years ago Cherry Parkin included them in her Honours thesis. As far as I know little has been done since.

There are no pretty or informative illustrations in this post. I’ve omitted them because i wanted to emphasize the importance of ‘words’. I hope you will ponder them. Note, too, there is one more example added to the end of my talk. I hope it tells you why i think this is important.

 

page 1 Irish Famine Women; a challenge or three

a chairde

Sul a gcuirfidh mé tús leis an léach seo, ba maith liom a chur in iúl an meas mór atá agam ar muintir na Cadigal don náisiún Eora, agus na shinsear a thánaig rompu a bhí i bhfeighil an dúthaigh seo. (Thank you Tom and Sinead and Síle)

One of the most striking achievements in Irish scholarship during the last eighteen years or so is the sheer range and depth of works on the Great Irish Famine. After years of relative neglect the sesquicentenary of that tragic event seems to have opened the scholarly floodgates. Yet surprisingly, there seems to be no major study of women during the famine. It’s as if a big piece of the jigsaw is missing. There are a number of excellent small pieces but no comprehensive study of Irish Famine women. An exemplary work, the closest yet to what I have in mind, is in fact a work in comparative literature; Margaret Kelleher’s The Feminization of Famine: Expressions of the inexpressible.(1997)

Professor Kelleher claims that “where the individual spectacle of a hungry body is created, this occurs predominantly (tho’ not exclusively) through images of women” [8]. [or Lysaght, 99] Think about that for a moment. If I say “Famine” to you, what mental image comes to mind?…..

For me, it’s an image of Sudanese and Somali women who appeared on our television screens last year. Victims of famine and drought, those women decided to take their hungry and sick children and walk for miles and miles in search of help.

It is an image that is echoed in the very moving stream of consciousness essay by Connell Foley at the end of that brilliant Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, [Cork Up, 2012, p. 678]

…and if you are a woman subsistence farmer in a remote part of the congo

or niger and you have five extra mouths to feed because your brother died

2 of hiv and you are looking at the sky and you are looking at your land

and you are calculating if there will be too little rain too late or too much

so that your basic crop will be ruined and you do not know how you will feed

your children or pay for some medicines but you get up every day

and you do what you can… [Beckett] You must go on…I can’t go on…I’ll go on.

And for the Irish Famine, it’s James Mahony’s London Illustrated News images of women. You probably know “A Woman Begging at Clonakilty”, for money to bury her dead child (Feb ’47), or “Bridget O’Donnell and her children” recently evicted from their holding near Kilrush. (Dec. ’49).

Yet looking thru/over my own research notes, what struck me is not women’s victimisation –but their agency, their stoicism and determination in the face of catastrophe –and the variety of their coping strategies. Women were the leaders in workhouse riots and protests in Cork, Limerick and Tipperary [BGMB records] asserting their entitlement to better treatment and better food. In 1848, 600 women rose en masse in Cork workhouse and attacked the visiting Poor Law Inspector, “having armed themselves with stones, tins and bottles”. In Nenagh, women were the leading characters…dashing saucepans, tins and pints of stirabout to the ground and smashing windows”. In Limerick, [in April 1849,] there was a riot of women screaming and throwing pints of ale at workhouse officers. These women were probably in the second of Professor Lawrence Geary ‘s three famine phases, the protracted period of “resistance’ which came after the initial “Alarm” phase and before the final phase he calls “Exhaustion”. The second phase, according to Professor Geary, saw the slow disappearance of community generosity and focus shifting away from ‘family’ to personal survival.[Mike Murphy lecture]

Women have always been given due/proper attention by historical demographers. Women’s age at marriage, their marital fertility rate and their mortality rate are crucial to any study of famine demography.

Of particular interest here is that more men than women perished during the famine. Women had what Kate McIntyre calls “a female mortality advantage”. An interesting twist to this is David Fitzpatrick’s suggestion, that –since women were in effect the principal guardians of comfort and succour, the primary suppliers of care and affection, they became the holders of the only entitlement, love, that may have been inflated by famine [67]. The mere thought of trying to examine the history of affection during the famine will no doubt be the stuff of nightmares for traditional historians.

If the evidence collected by the Irish Folklore Commission is to be valued,— [there is some debate about the reliability of that evidence, since it was collected long after the event itself. However, it’s too easy to dismiss/Nonetheless, I think we should learn to appreciate the skills of oral historians and the sophisticated ways they assess their source material. Such evidence can tell us something of what it was like to have been there. [O’Grada, Black ’47](Why were women in the oral tradition perceived as suffering the worst of consequences?) ] If the folklore evidence is to believed, women during the famine had a good reputation as providers of charity. The renowned Peig Sayers recounted to the Commissioners the story of a Kerry woman, Bridie Shehan, who tied her dead daughter to her back with ropes, and carried her to the local graveyard where two men helped her bury her daughter. When Bridie made her way back home, her neighbour, Nora Landers, called her in and gave her seven of her own precious seed potatoes. [ O’Grada’s Black ’47, 200-01]

A female outsider, an American visitor, Asenath Nicholson, a widow, who wrote about her travels through Ireland, also has a well deserved reputation for charitable good works. It is from her that we learn of an Irish Famine woman’s task of closing the door on her family’s grave. If I may quote from her work, (Annals of the Famine in Ireland)

A cabin was seen closed one day…when a man had the curiosity

to open it, and in a dark corner he found a family of the father, mother

4 and two children, lying in close compact. The father was considerably

decomposed; the mother, it appeared, had died last, and probably

fastened the door, which was always the custom when all hope

was extinguished, to get in to the darkest corner and die, where passers- by could not see them.

Such family scenes were quite common, and the cabin was generally pulled down upon them for a grave.[ Kelleher, 85]

Clearly then women were very much present in famine times. They were there in the workhouse [in Limerick, Cork, Nenagh (or wherever,)] rioting against their treatment and poor quality food. They were there inside the cottier’s cottage, their domestic domain, when the pile of potatoes on the table grew smaller and smaller and decisions had to be taken as to who got what, and how much. They were there around the family hearth when the decision was made to send their sons and daughters abroad, or to decide if the whole family should emigrate. And women were most likely there, at the very end when they could still close the door to their cottage, their family grave.

This then is our first challenge: a full blown study of Irish women’s role during the famine.

What part did women play in Irish society and economy? What work did they do in the fields, at sowing or at harvest time? Did they help dig ditches, gather sticks, dig turf, feed cattle, pigs and poultry or groom horses by lantern, late on a winter’s night? Was their work confined to a kitchen garden, washing, weaving, cooking, sweeping the yard and cleaning the house? How did all this differ from class to class or region to region before, during and after the Famine?

What exactly was women’s role in family life? Were women the chief providers of affection? What was their sense of moral value? Were they protectors and promoters of religious belief? Did they act as guardians of oral tradition and transmitters of language and culture? Did the Famine overturn traditional family structures and throw traditional mores into disarray? Did women have to find and procure food for themselves and their desperately hungry children by whatever means, travelling miles, begging, and stealing if needs be. [These are some of the questions that spring to my mind. I’m sure you will think of others.]

Without an understanding of women’s role, may I suggest to you, our knowledge of the famine will always remain incomplete?

Our second challenge then is a full-scale, comprehensive study of Irish-Australian Famine women. The important thing, as before, is that we view these women through the lens of the Famine.

When I was preparing Barefoot & Pregnant? in the 1980s I was concerned about identifying people who knew an driochsheal, people who had first hand experience of the ‘bad life’, the ‘bitter time’ of the Famine. The young women who came here as part of the Earl Grey scheme were exactly what I was looking for. These young women obviously are essential to any study of Irish-Australian famine women.

But I think it is now time to cast the net more widely –to include, perhaps, some of the landlord assisted immigrants from the Monteagle estates in Limerick or the Shirley estate in Monaghan, for example– Or at least, the young women who came from workhouses in Clare and Cork to Hobart on the Beulah and Calcutta in 1851 –Or to Sydney, on the Lady Kennaway from Cork workhouses in 1854. These last, I’m sure you know, were the occasion of a fascinating political brouhaha here in NSW from the mid to late 1850s.

6

Let me give three examples to show what can be done—first, Irish female convicts transported to Tasmania, second, government assisted family migrants to NSW and Victoria, and thirdly, the immigration of c. 4-5000 Single females to South Australia in the 1850s.

At the beginning of the 1840s, about 1,000 Irish convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land each year. By the famine years, the annual intake had risen to 3,000. The transportation of female convicts, unlike that of males, did not stop during those years. “Tasmania thus bore the brunt of Irish famine misery ”, says Professor Richard Davis [9]. Not everyone would agree. Rena Lohan, a postgraduate student, in her study of Grangegorman, the women’s prison in Dublin, for example, found that most of the prisoners were already hardened criminals. Any link between Irish female convicts and the famine is tenuous, she argued. As always, the issue is complex and open to debate.

Were Irish judges more lenient in their sentencing during the famine? Knowing the difficult circumstances people were in, were they more prepared to accept as a defense, that crimes were committed “on grounds of want”? One such was the Exchequer Baron, John Richards who was willing to send convicts to Tasmania especially when he learned they had nowhere to go and would be without support when their prison term expired. Needless to say, not all judges and juries agreed on this matter. There was no consistent policy.

Did more women commit more crimes in order to be transported? Can we establish a strong link between the famine and the types of crimes they committed? Among the crimes recorded against the names of Irish women arriving in 1849 and 1850, for example, we note, “stealing a turkey’, ‘stealing a sheep’, ‘stealing a cow’, ‘stealing fowls’, ‘killed her child by a bandage, a little girl one month old’, ‘house burning’, which in itself carried a life sentence. Do we really need to distinguish between 7’intention’ and crimes born of desperation? Yet what of those women with criminal records stretching before the famine years?

Assuming we can identify female Famine convicts, what became of them in Tasmania? Were they different from other convicts? Were they less likely to re-offend? Were they less likely to be rebellious or to ‘resist’ the convict system, more likely to be ‘accommodationist’, and willing to accept their lot? Or did Australian conditions rather than their Irish famine background determine what became of them? The issues are complex are they not? Yet Tasmanian convict records are so rich it should be possible to answer many of these questions.

A second category of Irish-Australian famine women might include those who came here as part of their family’s emigration strategy. Richard Reid’s excellent work, Farewell my Children [Anchor, 2011], draws attention to the quite elaborate ways families in Ireland used Government assisted schemes to come to Australia during the famine years and the years immediately after. Manoeuvering the intricacies of bureaucratic regulations, filling out forms, collecting the required references from householders, from their local priest or magistrate or doctor, waiting for notification and arranging to join a ship in England, required skill, patience and detailed planning. Working the system, bending the rules, required a different kind of skill.

As family members discussed their emigration prospects around the hearth, in the domestic sphere, I am sure Irish women made their voice heard. One can surmise how influential women’s strength and determination and emotional clout was, in deciding how the family’s emigration strategy would be played out. Strikingly, Irish emigration to Australia in the 19th century was to achieve a gender balance. But in the famine, and years immediately following, many more women than men arrived as government assisted immigrants.

Dr Reid emphasises that it is a mistake to think of these young women, or the young 8sons and daughters in a family, being thrust into the unknown. They were often supported by an extensive and intricate network of family, friends and neighbours, sometimes stretching back to earlier convict days or bounty emigration schemes, sometimes needing a network to be established anew, set-up from scratch. We might ask did daughters play as important a role as sons in establishing these networks, not just for their own nuclear family but for their extended family and other members of their local community as well? Or were they less likely than men to nominate family and friends or manipulate Remittance regulations to their own advantage?

If I might illustrate the complications of this family emigration planning further, with an example form the work of an excellent family historian in Victoria, Anne Tosolini. I’ve used this example before in an article published in Descent in September 1999, [137].

Siblings and cousins (sons and daughters) of the Frehan and Gorman families came here from the parish of Lorrha in Tipperary between 1849 and 1854, some of them to Port Jackson and some to Port Phillip. They were to regroup in Melbourne during those years, the men renting and purchasing properties in neighbouring streets in Richmond, close to people who had been their neighbours in Lorrha. The women, however, settled some distance away, in Geelong. When they married, and their husbands later selected land, they were scattered throughout different parts of Victoria, –their strong bonds of kinship thus becoming slowly and perhaps more easily weakened. Was there a ‘gendered’ difference in the colonial experience of the first generation of migrants? Did the women adapt more readily? Were women more willingly acculturated? Were they more independent in their choice of marriage partners? Was the regrouping of their family more likely to be ‘transitional’ than that of Irish men? These are questions about women’s role in their family emigration strategy that can, and still need to be addressed.

My third example of Irish-Australian Famine women is the circa 4-5 thousand young women who sailed into Port Adelaide in 1854, 1855 and 1856. Boatload after 9boatload of young single Irish females—by the Europa, the Grand Trianon, the Nashwauk, Aliquis and Admiral Boxer, for example,—came to South Australia in the mid 1850s as part of what I would call ‘ their flight from famine and its aftermath’. The Famine had opened the floodgates. Like the Earl Grey female orphans, they too might be considered famine refugees.

So many came in such a short time, so many were allegedly ill-suited to the work required of them, so many demanded food and accommodation in immigrant depots, and so many had been sent to Adelaide under false pretences (they had been told in London they could easily walk to Melbourne and Sydney) that South Australian government authorities established a government enquiry into what they called “Excessive Female Immigration”. Lucky for us they did so. In the minutes of evidence to their report we hear the voice of some of the young women themselves. The women called before the enquiry were asked why they came here. Their answers were what we would expect;–ambitious, independent, hopeful, banal.

[“February 15th 1855 Frances McDowell called in and examined, 32]

What induced you to come out here?—I do not know.

Had you received letters from friends? –I have no friends in Australia.

Did you think you would benefit yourself by coming to this Colony?–I was induced by the published statements to think that I might do well here.”

Some of these women were part of a network already here, and soon left South Australia to join their family and friends in Sydney and Melbourne. But my general impression is that the majority did not belong to such a network. ..Still, until there is an in-depth and thorough study of these women, our conclusions should remain tentative. This surely is a tempting research project for someone living in Adelaide.

Some excellent work has already been done on aspects of this so-called “Excessive” female immigration, –by Cherry Parkin, Eric Richards,Ann Herraman, Stephanie James, Marie Steiner to name a few. After acknowledging the initial troubles these young women had, –some walking 16 miles in the heat of the day, barefoot, to go to a situation, others returning to depot sunburnt, blistered, overworked and cast out after harvest was finished, some found crying, disappointed, despondent and depressed at their prospects—the view of most Australian writers is that these Irish women were generally well cared for and absorbed successfully into South Australian society. Areas of thickest Irish settlement …such as Paddy Gleeson’s Clare Valley were the first to accept and absorb them. The Seven Hills marriage registers demonstrate just how quickly they were accepted.

Other writers, outside Australia, are less upbeat. To quote from two, “The young women settled in badly and most left as soon as they could”. “Those sent into the outback as agricultural labourers barely survived”. (Akenson)

Who exactly were these young women? Which parts of Ireland did they come from? Where did their confidence, –or desperation, come from? What became of them? Were they being realistic in their expectations? Were they disillusioned? In fact, the same sort of questions may be asked of all of our Irish-Australian famine women, whether family emigrants, workhouse women, foundling orphans, convicts or convict families.

Is it possible to view them through the lens of their famine experience? Or at least try to view them from their own perspective? Look at their history through their own eyes, follow in their footsteps? This is my third challenge.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Finding out about the famine in our subject’s locality and even surmising the impact it might have had on our subject’s psyche, and subsequent life, are approaches we may need to take. It especially means our not accepting official sources at face value. They provide only a limited and slanted view of things –which is not that of the women themselves. Dig deeper. Read the sources “against the grain” [perhaps in the same manner as postcolonial Indian historians of the 1980s.] If necessary, rearrange the mental furniture we normally use in studying the past.

In the end, our sources may never allow us to get ‘inside the head’ of individual women. We may never get close enough to know them ‘in the round’–except perhaps through intelligent creative fiction. Which is why I’m very much looking forward to reading Evelyn Conlon’s Not the same sky [Wakefield Press, 2013]which is being launched later this afternoon.

Finally, our challenge is also about taking care with the language we use. Language is a loaded gun. If I may explain this by means of a few phrases, [–‘the Atlantic slave trade‘, the ‘Holocaust‘ and ‘pauper immigration‘.]

My first full-paid university appointment in the 1960s was in the West Indies. For me, a phrase such as “the Atlantic Slave trade” is a Pandora’s box, full of memories and meanings. But at its core is the 12 million people bought and sold like chattel, bought and sold like pieces of farm machinery or livestock, people denied their humanity.

One of the last courses I taught at Macquarie University before I retired included the Holocaust, the industrial mass murder of 6 million Jewish people. It was a subject that troubled me greatly. I found myself insisting upon saying Jewish people as a means of recognising the victims’ humanity. Without that recognition of our common humanity, it can happen again and again, as it did in Cambodia, in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.

Even a seemingly innocuous/straightforward phrase such as “pauper immigration”, [still current in some quarters when writing about the Earl Grey famine orphans,] –has different layers of meaning. It carries a class interpretation. It implies that some immigrants are of less value than others, and hence, as human beings. Many of the young famine orphan girls who came here were bilingual, especially those from the west of Ireland. They spoke both Irish and English. The Irish word “bochtán” –‘poor person’– contains within it recognition of the poor person’s humanity in a way that the phrase, “pauper immigration” [Madgwick, chpt.X] does not. As those young women accommodated themselves to their new Australian circumstances they lost that language, and that world view; they lost that way of looking at the world. [There is a v. interesting essay, on this very subject by Mairead Nic Craith, Legacy and Loss, towards the end of that brilliant work, Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. p.580]

Today, I wish to add a third phrase, “the Irish potato famine” which is gaining currency these days. It is a phrase which many Irish people find insulting. Why is that? What’s wrong with those words?

Sure, failure of the potato crop is a very important part of what happened but as I said in post no.4 http://wp.me/p4SlVj-3I

famine is always about more than shortage of food and starvation. In that post I mentioned the work of Amartya Sen. Do search for him on google and for his colleague with whom he wrote about famine and poverty, Jean Drèze. I see one can even download the whole of Sen’s Poverty and Famines: an essay on entitlements and deprivation from more than one place. Even if you do not agree with his theory of entitlements applied to the Irish case you will realize how complex famines are. Poverty, over-crowding, a vicious land system, poor housing, underemployment, hoarding, thieving, price gouging, gombeen men, ‘culpable’ neglect on the part of government, the quarter acre clause, betrayal of one’s neighbours, and the unstoppable march of disease, are all in the mix. A phrase such as ‘the Irish potato famine’ misdirects our attention and fails to understand the complexities involved. “The Irish Potato Famine”–no; “The Great Irish Famine”–yes.

Let me put this another way. I’ll use the final words of David Nally in his Human Encumbrances.

“How are catastrophic famines to be prevented? One possible answer is provided by those who resisted famine policies in the 1840s: stop creating them”. (231)

Do please think about the words you want to use  before uttering them.

Is minic a ghearr teanga  duine a scornach (it’s often a person’s tongue/language cuts his throat)
My thanks to Tom Power, and  Tom and Sinead McCloughlin for this saying.

Careful as you go. Mind your language.

Trevor McClaughlin 24 August 2013

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Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (12): Maps, Orphans in Victoria

MAPS

In the last post I mentioned a possible use for completed family reconstitutions viz. maps showing the location of the orphans at particular times in their lives. Here’s a couple I used in Barefoot 2–the location of the orphans in Victoria in c.1861. This one is based on the birth records of their children. The second one is the location of the orphans in Victoria at the end of their lives c.1890-1901; this one is based on their death certificates.

Mike Murphy used some of these maps in that magnificent volume, Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, p. 554.  A couple relating to Queensland in particular also appeared in Irish Women in Colonial Australia, pp.112-3. Obviously the more information is gathered about the orphans the more these maps will need redrawing. Nor do you have to stick with the dates I’ve chosen.

Anyways, for your perusal…perhaps you can see the influence of the Victorian gold rushes?

Earl Grey Orphans in Victoria c. 1861

fosvic1861

Earl Grey orphans in Victoria c. 1861

Earl Grey orphans in Victoria c. 1891-1901

fosvic1891a

Earl Grey orphans in Victoria c. 1891-1901

As you can see, family reconstitutions have more than one use. Maybe you can think of others?

Earl Grey’s Irish Famine orphans (5): Who were the female orphans? (cont.)

WHO WERE THE FEMALE ORPHANS? (cont.)

In the last post I finished by recommending Peter Higginbotham’s website on Workhouses;  http:www.workhouses.org.uk/Ireland/ It is an essential resource for anyone interested in the female orphans.

And just in case you missed Steve Taylor’s views of the Famine  http://viewsofthefamine.wordpress.com/miscellaneous/cottage-interior-claddagh-galway/

But let me continue with what I started. First a standard account of the workhouse system generally then on to specific information about orphans and the workhouse they came from.

It was not till 1838 that Ireland had its first Poor Law with an Act ‘for the more effective relief of the destitute poor”. The Act divided the country into a number of Poor Law Unions, 130 of them in 1843, based on major towns. Each Union was to have a workhouse run by a Board of Guardians elected by rate payers in the Union. In theory, the money for the building and the running of the workhouses was to come from rates levied in each Union. By 1843, 112 of the workhouses were completed and the remaining eighteen were on their way. The more substantial ones such as those at Belfast and Newcastle West in County Limerick were built according to a standard plan drawn up by Government architect, George Wilkinson. His ground plan was for a workhouse to accommodate 800 people. Such buildings had a commanding  and unwelcome physical presence in the local community where they were built.

callan wkhse

Callan workhouse, Co. Kilkenny

       The thinking behind the Poor Law System was that conditions in the workhouse should be so unattractive that only the truly destitute and desperate would enter. There was some doubt among Poor Law Commissioners that material conditions inside the workhouse would be inferior to that of the poor but they were convinced that the strict regimen and discipline and separation of families would deter people from seeking refuge. Contemporary middle and upper class thinking was aimed at ‘improving’ and ‘controlling’ the lower orders by incarcerating them and subjecting them to close supervision in institutions such as factory and mill, national school, workhouse or if all else failed, prison.

In a workhouse, inmates were subject to minute regulation of their lives. There were strict rules for their admission, first to a probationary ward. There they were ‘thoroughly cleaned’, ‘clothed in workhouse dress’ and examined by a medical officer. They were then classified as belonging in the sick or ‘idiot’ ward, placed in the adult male or female ward or the separate yards for boys and girls or the apartments for children. Families were broken up, wives separated from husbands, brothers from sisters, and children from their parents, although those under two years old could remain with their mothers.

“Buttermilk and urine,

The pantry, the housed beasts, the listening bedroom. We were all together in a foretime…” (Seamus Heaney, Keeping Going)

Also set down in meticulous detail were ‘rules for framing dietaries’–three meals a day for children, two for adults, consisting of such ‘delights’ as bread, Indian meal, oatmeal, buttermilk and soup in what can only have been ‘mouth-watering’ combinations.

Articles 14 to 48 of workhouse regulations dealt with discipline and punishment of ‘paupers’. When they got out of bed, when they were set to work, when they had their meals, when they finished work and when they went to bed were all timed by the ringing of a bell. Prayers were read before breakfast and after supper each day. Roll call took place half an hour after the bell was rung for getting out of bed. No one was allowed any tobacco or ‘spirituous or fermented liquor’ or to play at cards or ‘at any game of chance’.

The grounds on which an inmate could be deemed ‘disorderly’ and ‘refractory’ were also set out in detail as were punishments for such misbehaviour. Anybody who used obscene or profane language or did not ‘duly cleanse his person’, for example, was disorderly. Anyone who repeated one or more of the 12 offences constituting disorderly conduct or who insulted or reviled workhouse officers or who wilfully damaged or attempted to dispose of the property of the Board of Guardians or who climbed over any wall or fence or left the workhouse in an irregular way was deemed refractory. Refractory inmates were put in solitary confinement or were taken before a magistrate. As you can see, the refuge the workhouse offered rested on the twin pillars of discipline and punishment. The intention of the framers of the Poor Law as exemplified in the prison-like conditions of workhouses, their dull work routine and monotonous food and emphasis on strict discipline was designed to deter all but the truly destitute from becoming a burden on the poor rate.

In August 1847 an Irish Poor Law Commission took over from the English one. It now had to contend with the Famine. The number of Poor Law Unions was increased from 130 to 163. Existing workhouse buildings were extended and temporary fever sheds erected or rented in a forlorn attempt to deal with the crisis. By the end of 1847 it was officially estimated 417,000 people were being relieved inside workhouses in Ireland. At the end of 1848 that number had increased to 610,000 and was to increase again to 923,000 in 1849. [These figures do not include the number of people on outdoor relief.] In the midst of crisis the Poor Law system was asked to reorganize itself and deal with catastrophe on a horrendous scale, a scale  for which it was not designed and for which it was ill-prepared.

The extra demands the famine placed on workhouses relegated the aim of disciplining and punishing to a secondary role. In fact discipline became harder to maintain. Rebellion was sometimes a very personal even existential thing. In September and December 1847, James McMahon, Betty Hill, Jane Campbell and Eliza Dawson were thrown out of Newry workhouse, James for refusing to eat his supper, Jane and Eliza for quarrelling and Betty for giving cheek to the Master.  At other times, shortage of food led to full blown riots, many of them led by women, as in William Street Auxiliary workhouse in Limerick in 1849 and one week later, at the Barrack Street workhouse in Nenagh in Tipperary, where the women “broke in the door of the dining hall and threw the tins and other vessels within their reach about the floor, yelling fearfully all the time”.

Overcrowding and epidemics of disease strained even the biggest and best organised workhouses to breaking point. Cashel workhouse rarely had enough space or temporary fever sheds for the victims of dysentery, fever, measles and cholera. In January 1848 the Cashel Medical Officer P. Heffernan reported to the Board “Your Hospital is crowded to excess and the paupers are falling sick in dozens. I cannot admit anymore into the Hospital for want of accommodation”. The Guardians were later dismissed that year.

In Belfast the medical officer complained he could not contain the spread of contagious diseases unless he could treat patients in separate wards. Smallpox patients were put in a small bathroom, those suffering from ‘erisipilas’ went to the straw house but he still lacked a separate ward for dysentery patients. He said “…treating several contagious diseases in the same place is attended with very great risk to the patients”, not to mention workhouse officers. In 1847 the wards master, the schoolmaster and schoolmistress caught ‘famine fever’ and in June of that year Patrick Boyce the workhouse bookkeeper died of typhus. In 1849 the Belfast Board complained “that the practice of waking the bodies of the Dead from cholera prevails to a considerable extent, thereby exposing the people who assemble on such occasions to the risk of disease and causing alarm in the neighbourhood”. They asked  they be allowed to bury bodies with haste, compulsorily if necessary.

There is a rich archive of material relating to Irish workhouses, not yet fully tapped which helps us place female orphans in a specific local context in the period before they left for Australia. What their workhouse was like may be depicted using both Indoor Admission and Discharge Registers and Board of Guardian minutes. For example, here’s a chart I drew some time ago, relating to inmates’ length of stay in 1848 in a selection of workhouses for which evidence was available. Overwhelmingly for most, their ‘length of stay’ was less than three months. There was little time for them to be ‘institutionalised’.  At least 42 % or more of the orphans entered their workhouse on more than one occasion before leaving for Australia. [Please forgive my amateur attempts to insert these charts–I think we may be listing. I’ll not bore you with the statistical tests I used, except to say both the median and mode measures of central tendency lay in the first category i.e. less than three months. I am open to correction.]

workhousesstay
LENGTH OF STAY IN WORKHOUSE IN 1848

.

 Or again, a chart showing what percentage of inmates gave “Union at Large” (i.e. Poor Law Union) as their place of residence in 1848. That is, they were homeless, and probably mendicants.

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PLACE OF RESIDENCE IN 1848

 These charts are interesting in light of Dympna McLoughlin’s chapter on “Subsistent Women” in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine where she draws attention to women living ‘a hand-to-mouth existence, with no secure employment’. They included, Dympna says, “petty traders, tramps, peddlers, petty criminals, dealers, beggars and a high proportion of labourers”. (p.255) These were women who were geographically mobile, who used the workhouse for their own ends, coming in in winter and leaving again in  spring. But they were hard hit by the Famine and being without ‘respectability’ and ‘reputation’ in society had little option other than assisted emigration. I am inclined to give some weight to her argument since I found only a handful of references to female orphans’ families in land records such as Tithe Applotment Books and enumerators’ returns for Griffiths Land Valuation. Only infrequently did they appear in baptismal records. I know too that a number of orphans gave ‘Union at large’ as their place of residence and that many of them entered and left the workhouse on a regular basis.  Most of them certainly belonged to the labouring class. The argument is certainly worth exploring further.  At the very least it helps underscore just how destitute the orphans were and how difficult it was for them  to escape their poverty trap.

Note, however, fewer than 20% of Workhouse inmates gave ‘Union at Large’ as their ‘residence’. They may have been homeless but they still claimed they were from a particular Poor Law Union.

Most of our orphans were from among the unemployed and destitute cottier and agricultural labouring classes. They were from families whose economic strength was extremely fragile at the best of times and who were periodically thrown on the charity of good neighbours when illness, death and the uncertainty of employment destroyed their fragile cohesion. Tragically, the charity of good neighbours, any reluctance they may have felt about joining public works schemes or accepting food hand-outs or entering the workhouse was destroyed by the calamity of the Famine.

INDOOR RELIEF REGISTERS

One of the most important collections of workhouse records that have survived are the Indoor Relief Registers, sometimes known as Admission and Discharge Registers. Thanks to the wisdom and foresight of the former Deputy Keeper of Public Records Northern Ireland Dr Brian Trainor, many of these Registers have survived for Northern Irish Poor Law Unions. It is these and the Registers for North and South Dublin workhouses that I’ve studied, alas, all too briefly. The Registers record a number for each person entering the workhouse, their name, their gender, their age, whether they are single, married or widowed if they have reached adulthood i.e. usually 15 years of age and whether they are orphaned, deserted or a bastard, if they are children. Then follows details about their occupation and religion and more columns headed ‘if disabled, description of the disability’; ‘name of wife or husband’; ‘number of children’; ‘observations on condition of pauper when admitted’; ‘electoral division and townland in which resident’; ‘date when admitted or born in workhouse’; and finally, ‘date when died or left the workhouse’. It’s an amazing piece of recordkeeping.

In practice there existed a wide degree of latitude in the keeping of the Registers. At worst, details are often missing and the information we gain about individual orphans is sparse indeed. Thus, for an orphan who came by the Derwent to Port Phillip in 1849-50 from Ballymena, the record is No. 4115, Betty Hamilton, female, 15 years old, single, no employment or calling, Presbyterian, residing in Ballymena, admitted 14 June 1849, discharged 25 October 1849. At best, the information is extensive, not only about personal and family history but also about occupation. A plainmaker, helper in stable, brush maker, bootbinder, pinmaker, fustian cutter, fringe and tassel maker, ribbon weaver and woollen winder were among those entering South Dublin workhouse in  1848. Their place of origin is recorded in the North Dublin Register; born in Kilkenny county, County Louth, Cavan, Donegal, Derry, native of Dublin, demonstrating the pull of Ireland’s major city at the time of the Famine. And in Enniskillen Register at the beginning of 1848 we read of the condition of ‘paupers’ when admitted; ‘in great want’, ‘in great distress’, ‘orphan, father and mother died on the road’. ‘had to sell the coat off her back for food’, ‘in a starving condition’, ‘lying in the quarry starving’, ‘husband deserted her, to be prosecuted’, ‘beggarman, nearly blind, dirty and sickly’, ‘wandering about from place to place’, ‘beggar girl, deserted by mother’, and the mother of two young orphans, Mary Love, ‘widow disabled from dropsy’, a reminder that these are records of destitute people, victims of the famine who were yet fortunate enough to gain entry to a workhouse.

The one major deficiency is that Indoor Registers have survived for only a small number of workhouses; outside Dublin they are mainly from the North of Ireland. The evidence is thus weighted in that direction. But they allowed me to identify at least some female orphans in their workhouse.

Identifying the female orphans

The key is record linkage, in this case linking Australian shipping lists with Irish workhouse Registers. The names of the orphans who travelled  to Australia as part of the Earl Grey scheme appear in shipping lists held in archives or State records in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Most information is available from the Board of Immigration shipping lists for arrivals in Port Jackson. Those in Melbourne tend to provide less information about their Irish background but more easily accessible information about their first employer in Australia. Adelaide records I am glad to say now include the shipping list for the first vessel to arrive, the Roman Emperor which had been missing for some time. From British Parliamentary Papers I also knew the names of the  Poor Law Unions providing orphans for each vessel: this was a third link.

In the mid 1980s armed with this information and knowing the date of departure of each vessel I was able to spend some time looking for orphans in Dublin and Northern Irish workhouse Indoor Registers. For example, knowing the first vessel in the scheme the Earl Grey left Plymouth for Port Jackson on the 3rd June 1848, I looked for the names of individual adolescent females who were discharged from their workhouse in Belfast or Antrim or Armagh  et al. on the same day, about a week or ten days before 3rd June. I applied the same method to the two vessels that carried Northern Irish orphans to Port Phillip, the Diadem and the Derwent. They were to leave Plymouth 13 October 1849 and 9th November 1849 respectively. The same method was used for the vessels with Dubliners on board. And voilá, in the massive Dublin Registers,

North Dublin No. 14737 Maria Blundell female 10 yrs old no calling RC delicate after fever native of Dublin returned from fever hospital, North City entered 11 March 1846 left 20 October 1849

North Dublin No. 22543 Mary Dowling female 14 yrs old no calling RC born in Dublin ragged and dirty Union at large entered 9 July 1847 left 20 October 1849 [she was listed alongside her 10 yr old  brother Michael who was later discharged 26 July 1850]

South Dublin No. 1013 Marianne Howe female 16 yrs old no calling Protestant very old clothes South City Kevin St. entered 10 October 1848 left 13 January 1849

South Dublin No. 1079 Mary Bruton female 17 yrs old single servant RC old clothes S. City Engine Alley entered 16 October 1848 left 13 January 1849.

and in Northern Irish Registers. [ In some of these I was able to trace the number of times female orphans entered and left the workhouse, when their mother or father died and what happened to their other siblings, the Devlin and the Littlewood families being two such examples. To describe just one of these, in April 1842 shortly after it opened and three years before the Famine struck, a 39 year old widow Rose Devlin came into Armagh workhouse with three of her children, Margret 9 years old, Patrick, 6, and Bernard, 4.  After four months stay she and her children left, only to  re-enter three months later but this time her fourth child, Sarah Ann, 12, had joined them. On nine different occasions throughout the 1840s this little family group re-entered Armagh workhouse, sometimes for as short a period as a month, at others as long as six or ten months, until two of their number Sarah Ann and Margret left to join the Earl Grey in Plymouth. Ten years later Sarah was to sponsor her brother’s immigration to Australia.  Ideally I would have liked a lot more time to examine different volumes of the Registers and thereby do a more thorough job tracing the workhouse history of Earl Grey female orphan families. Maybe some of you could do so for your orphan ancestor?]

Here is a little family akin to the Devlins in that they were a-typical long-term residents of Armagh workhouse. They appear in the first volume of Armagh’s Registers.

Armagh No. 12 Charlotte Wilcocks female 10 yrs old deserted by father no calling Protestant no disability healthy resides Armagh entered 4 June 1842 left 4 October 1849

No. 13 Jemima Wilcocks female 9 yrs old deserted by father (the rest ‘as above’ when the two sisters left to join the Diadem in Plymouth)

No 14 Edward Wilcocks  male 13 yrs old (as above) totally disabled left the workhouse 17 November 1842.

(Here’s a little appetiser for later posts, should I ever get that far. It’s a family reconstitution for Charlotte in Australia. About 300 of these reconstitutions are the basis of the demographic information I’ve written about elsewhere. Workhouse Register reference numbers that I’d found appear alongside an orphan’s name in Barefoot, information which was later uploaded to the first version of the following website. The new version of the website continues to be improved and developed all the time. www.irishfaminememorial.org  Keep watching there.)

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Magherafelt  No 1900(?) [my research notes are not as legible  as they should be] Cathy Hilferty female 17 yrs old single never in service RC with fever clean Ballymeghan entered 3 April 1846 left 19 May 1846

No. 2080  Cathy was back in again less than a week later, this time described as a servant but ‘out of service’ having entered 22 May 1846 and left 11 June 1846.

She came into the workhouse later that year described as a 16 yrs old labourer who was out of employment but clean from Ballymeghan, entered 13 November 1846 left 4 August 1847.

Then in 1848 she came back in with her widowed mother and siblings. Ellen Hilferty was described as a 50 year old widow mendicant RC healthy 2 children (in fact 4) no means of support Killyfaddy entered 18 November 1848 left 15 August 1849.

Cathy this time was 18 yrs old and her siblings William 15 yrs, Nancy 11 yrs and John 9 yrs. Like Ellen they entered 18 November 1848. William left 4 December 1848, Nancy and John 15 August 1849 with their mother. Cathy left 30 October 1849 en route for Plymouth to join the Derwent.

Enniskillen No 2065 Letitia Connelly 14 yrs old orphan RC Ballyreagh Salry entered 2 February 1848 left 26 October 1849 to join the Derwent. Letitia did very well for herself marrying a store-keeper and astute business man, William Hayes.

Enniskillen  No. 3048(?) Alice Ball 15 yrs old Protestant Enniskillen 4 July 1847 left 1 march 1848

No 3078 Alice Ball  14 yrs old orphan Protestant Enniskillen 30 August 1848 left 3 October 1849 (to join the Diadem). Alice was later to commit suicide in Melbourne.

My hope is that further local studies of workhouses may be realised; there are already good examples–Roscrea, Cork and Lurgan– in the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine as well as excellent local studies for the four provinces of Ireland. Perhaps these might be used as models? National School records might help us understand the local area too.

Post Script

Perhaps someone can help?

Were these vessels part of the female orphan scheme?

  • There are a number of vessels carrying a small number of female orphans which are not officially recognised as being part of the Earl Grey scheme viz. the William Stewart,  Mahomet Shah and the Martin Luther (?) to Port Phillip and the Subraon to Port Jackson.  At least three of them sailed before the scheme was officially underway. Are they easily identified on the shipping lists of these vessels? Were they from Irish workhouses or other charitable institutions and houses of industry? I wonder if  authorities in London and Dublin sent them by subterfuge, as it were, testing the waters for the later female orphan scheme. It certainly didn’t work in the case of the Subraon.

Why did so many come from Enniskillen workhouse?

  • If I might refer you to the map at the beginning of the previous post, have a look at Enniskillen. It is second only to Dublin and Skibbereen in sending the largest number of orphans to Australia. How do we explain this? Was the region particularly hard-hit by the Famine? Did the workhouse accept young women from surrounding areas in Donegal, Tyrone and Leitrim? They aren’t very close and entry to a workhouse was usually only open to inhabitants of the local Poor Law Union. Names of townlands and electoral divisions were painstakingly recorded when entering a workhouse.  Maybe the answer is in the administration of the workhouse itself? Late in 1846 and in March 1847 reports from visiting Poor Law Commissioners castigated Enniskillen workhouse for its ‘miserable state of filth and irregularity’. In 1847 the death rate was 95 per thousand and may have been higher since no books were kept for eight weeks when fever was raging in the house. In 1848 the death rate dropped to approximately 10 per thousand and by 1849 had fallen to 2 per thousand. In March 1848 the elected Board of Guardians of Enniskillen Poor Law Union were dismissed and two professional Vice-Guardians appointed, Messrs John Gowdy of Monaghan and Edward Hill Trevor of County Down at a salary of £250 per annum. Before long the effects of the new broom were in evidence; inefficient officers were dismissed, doctors were appointed as vaccinators for various districts; new arrangements were made to improve the cleanliness of the workhouse; inmates were given a change of bed sheets every fortnight and a clean shirt each week. In the months following the appointment of Vice-Guardians the administration of the Union was put on a sound footing; cooked food was substituted for meal ‘in the several relief districts throughout the Union’; workhouse schools  became part of the National Schools system and £800 was borrowed from the government for a new workhouse building. Was it this that determined so many orphans originating in Enniskillen? Sufficient numbers of the right age, an efficient administration with money for orphans’ clothing and transport to port of embarkation, at just the right time.  All the orphans from Enniskillen left towards the end of 1849. What do you think? Maybe a reader has more information or another explanation?

Just a couple of family reconstitutions to finish, Jane Hogan and Cathy Durkin. There must be a way to improve the quality of my family reconstitutions. These two are ok.

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