Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (4): Who were the female orphans? Their Origins.

Who were the female orphans?

FOsirelandmap[My thanks to Kathie Smith, now Kathie Mason, who drew this map for me in c.1989]

See www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/history/ which will allow you to zoom in on the map. And see http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/orphans/database/

for all the orphans who travelled by the Earl Grey scheme 1848-50.

A good while ago, in 1985, I expressed the hope that the story of the female orphans might be written from the orphans’ own point of view. A colleague pointed out to me I was still saying the same thing last year, in 2013, when I gave an address to the International Irish Famine seminar in Sydney. I’m afraid this is not my attempt to do just that. In spite of my own misgivings, I’ll try to put the young women in some kind of context. In this case an Irish one–Irish women and emigration, the Famine tragedy and the workhouse, that kind of thing. It is the background they came from; it’s what made them orphans. My big fear is that I won’t come even close to answering who the young women were. That’s a philosophical question in itself. Maybe it’s best to write something down; it can always be reworked at some future date.

I mentioned before there were precedents for the Earl Grey female orphan scheme, for example, the young women who came to Australia from Foundling Hospitals and other charitable institutions in Cork and Dublin in the 1830s or the eight thousand(?) or so who came as part of the ‘vast’ influx of Bounty migrants in the early 1840s. Uniquely among Australia’s immigrants in the nineteenth century, the Irish were to achieve a gender balance, that is, as many females came to Australia from Ireland as did males. Any shortfall was always made up by transfusions of female blood such as the 1830s women, convicts to Tasmania in the 1840s or the 5 thousand women who came to South Australia in the 1850s. (See http://tintean.org.au/2014/03/06/irish-famine-women-a-challenge-or-three/ Maybe one day we can pay equal attention to these others.

Why were Irish women so willing to emigrate? If strong family ties and the attractive image of Australia current in most Irish circles ‘pulled’ women to Australia, what were the things pushing them out of Ireland? What encouraged them to leave? In contrasting post-famine with pre-famine Irish society, some historians have argued for a greater degree of economic independence for women in the earlier period: their work in agriculture and domestic industry was so very important to the household economy. In summer months, women helped in making hay and digging turf and digging and picking potatoes. The wives of labourers and cottiers may have kept hens, ducks and pigs which they sold at profit. Their children, if they worked at all, worked on the family’s potato ground. Women were involved in domestic industry, making coats, breeches, stockings and petticoats for family use as well as the domestic putting-out system, mostly as spinners of yarn. But from the 1830s on, a downturn in economic fortunes and a lessening of economic independence must have persuaded more and more of them to leave. It is important, too, to recognize differences within Irish society and economy, between different parts of the country, between urban and rural districts, between the social classes, and between those who participated in a market economy and those confined to a subsistence  economy.

Economic conditions for those at the vulnerable end of the social hierarchy deteriorated in the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of the Famine: agricultural prices fell; the population continued to grow from 6.8 million in 1821 to 7.8 million in 1831 and 8.2 million in 1841. There was fierce and sometimes brutal competition for small plots of land upon which cottiers and labourers might eke out an existence. The domestic textile industry which had provided families with supplementary income, fell into decline.

Domestic industry was an area where females contributed to family income, as spinners of coarse yarn in the West, in Mayo, Sligo and Leitrim, and as spinners of linen yarn, especially in Ulster. But the heyday for domestic industry was over by the early 1830s. By that date, it had disintegrated in the West and in Ulster, home-spun yarn was already being replaced by mill-spun yarn. In Ulster, some women did indeed find alternative employment as handloom weavers but wages were low and falling as power looms became established in the hinterland of Belfast. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s many a single young woman left her home in Cavan or Monaghan or Louth to seek work in the mills of Dundee and Paisley in Scotland.

In the rest of the country, especially in the West and South-West, conditions for those in the bottom half of the social scale became decidedly worse. Agricultural productivity may have increased between 1815 and 1845 but falling agricultural prices and increasing population pressure pushed more and more of those at the lower end of the social scale to the margins of existence. Less and less land was available for those who wished to set up an independent household, and full-time employment for an agricultural labourer became a pipe-dream.

Allow me to turn this argument a little. If economic conditions were deteriorating for those at the vulnerable end of the social scale in the decades immediately before the Famine, then women’s contribution to the family’s well-being became commensurately more important. Their psychological support and the nurturing and protective qualities they brought to the family became crucially important. As Lyn Hollen Lees put it, “under conditions of poverty, male underemployment, and seasonal migration, a family’s survival depended on the strength and resilience of the wife and mother”.

And then came the Famine and that fragile world burst asunder.

Let me say a few words about the FAMINE. I’ll begin with a couple of quotations. The first two are from an American visitor to Ireland at the time of the Famine, Asenath Nicholson, who published an account of her travels as Light and Shades of Ireland. They are quoted in Margaret Kelleher’s great work,  The Feminization of Famine. Expressions of the inexpressible? The first is her response to an encounter in Kingstown/DunLaoghaire, near Dublin.

…and reader, if you have never seen a starving being, may you never! In my childhood I had been frightened with the stories of ghosts, and had seen actual skeletons; but imagination had come short of the sight of this man…[he] was emaciated to the last degree; he was tall, his eyes prominent, his skin shrivelled, his manner cringing and childlike; and the impression then and there made never has  nor ever can be effaced.

The second occurs late in Ms Nicholson’s account,

Going out one day in a bleak waste on the coast, I met a pitiful old man in hunger and tatters, with a child on his back, almost entirely naked , and to appearance in the last stages of starvation; whether his naked legs had been scratched, or whether the cold affected them I knew not, but the blood was in small streams in different places, and the sight was a horrid one.

The third quotation is from The London Illustrated News of late December 1849.

Sixteen thousand and odd persons unhoused in the Union of Kilrush before the month of June in the present year; 71, 130 holdings done away in Ireland, and nearly as many houses destroyed in 1848: 254,000 holdings of more than one acre and less than five acres put an end to between 1841 and 1848; six-tenths, in fact,  of the lowest class of tenantry driven from their now roofless and annihilated cabins and houses…The once frolicsome people–even the saucy beggars–have disappeared, and given place to wan and haggard objects, who are so resigned to their doom, that they no longer expect relief. One beholds only shrunken frames scarcely covered with flesh–crawling skeletons, who appear to have risen from their graves, and are ready to return frightened to that abode.

 It is not my intention to be melodramatic. But sometimes I wonder if family historians understand what exactly their female orphans were fleeing.

For some images see http://viewsofthefamine.wordpress.com/

The history of the Great Irish Famine is a massive and controversial subject, made all the more so by excellent works of scholarship that have appeared in the last twenty years. I don’t wish to become embroiled in these, just now. Let me instead try to identify some things historians agree on.

    • In the autumn of 1845 Ireland’s potato crop was partially destroyed by blight, phythophthora infestans. The potato was the staple foodstuff of a large proportion of the population, particularly the cottier and labouring class. [I remember reading in Salaman’s history of the potato, I think it was, of the adult Irish labourer who ate a stone (14lbs or 6.3 kg) of potatoes per day. That and a glass of buttermilk was all he needed nutritionally. Some even allowed the nail on their thumb to grow long–as a tool for peeling potatoes.] In the harvest of 1846 and 1848  destruction of the potato was widespread. In 1847. there was partial failure but so few potatoes had been planted that year the effect was catastrophic. Two or more harvest failures in a row, and there were more partial failures in 1849 and 1850, brought unspeakable misery and death. [In my last years at Macquarie University I and a colleague directed a reading course on comparative famines for M.A. students. Central to the course was the work of the Nobel prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, particularly his theory of entitlements. I won’t go into that here. But do have a look at his Poverty and Famines. You can download it here https://www.prismaweb.org/nl/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Poverty-and-famines%E2%94%82Amartya-Sen%E2%94%821981.pdf  Suffice it to say that for Sen, and for nearly everyone nowadays, famine is  about more than absence of food and starvation.
    • The biggest killer was not so much starvation as diseases of one kind or another–typhus, dysentery, relapsing fever, scarlatina, scurvy, tuberculosis, secondary infections like measles and smallpox, and from 1849 cholera as well. Given the squalid living conditions of so many living in ‘fourth-class’ housing (a one room mud-walled cabin), overcrowding, poor hygiene, and the the lack of running water and sewerage system, it is not surprising that contagious diseases could spread with such deadly effect. Gathering in crowds at soup kitchens, at the gates of a workhouse, at a port of embarkation or on a public work scheme only made that contagion easier. Relapsing fever and typhus, for example, though it was not known then, spread by means of body lice. Dysentery and diarrhoea which killed so many in 1847, 1848 and 1849 are spread by direct contact with a sufferer, by water polluted faeces and by vectors such as flies. Historians estimate that between 1 and 1.2 million people died in the famine years before 1851 and about 1-1.4 million emigrated.  And they continued to emigrate thereafter; the famine had opened the flood gates of Irish emigration.
    • The response of the British government was inadequate.  Soup kitchens, the importing of Indian corn or maize, comparatively little financial aid (9 million pounds as against 55 million pounds for the Crimean War a few years later) was never going to be enough.  Seemingly pointless public work schemes for the listless and hungry who were paid a pitiful wage, the introduction of the quarter-acre clause to an amended Poor Law in June 1847 (anyone holding more than a quarter acre of land would be ineligible for poor relief) with its concomitant increase in evictions only compounded the problem. Government was prepared to sacrifice vulnerable people on a callous ideological altar. [Perhaps readers may not put it quite so starkly as this. Others may reflect upon governments claiming they are Christian yet willing to lock asylum seekers in a concentration camp/aka detention centre.] The apportioning of ‘blame’ and assessing the responsibility of the British government is one of the most hotly debated areas of dispute. Like most other Irish historians, I would not use the term ‘genocide’. In my view there is not enough evidence to show there was an ‘intention’ to commit genocide. Still, it’s worth having a look at the final chapter in David Nally’s Human Encumbrances.
  • Historians do agree the impact and effects of the famine varied greatly from region to region (and indeed class to class). The basic, rather crude fault line is between West and East. Where exactly it lies depends on what you are examining; the distribution of fourth class housing (one room mud-walled cabin), death rates during the Famine, which Poor Law Unions received most from soup kitchens and outdoor relief, which Board of workhouse Guardians were dismissed during the Famine,  etc. etc. For more information on this and a more nuanced identification of fault lines, see the wonderful Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, edited by John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy, Cork University Press, 2012, ISBN 9781859184790. I would recommend anyone interested in the Great Irish Famine have this work in their library. Generally speaking, it is clear that Mayo, Galway, Clare,  or the provinces of Connacht and much of Munster were most affected by the Famine.

I mention this last point for a number of reasons.  The Famine was indeed a national tragedy but its harshest impact was reserved for cottiers, labourers and some of the small  farming class. It was also regionally selective. Conditions in Sligo and Ballina, Tuam or Loughrea were different from Nenagh, Tipperary and Cashel and different again from Antrim, Ballymena or Carrickmacross. The memories and experience of the 110 orphans from Skibbereen in West Cork,  (85 of whom went to Adelaide on the Elgin in 1849 and 25 to Melbourne on the Eliza Caroline in 1850) or  the 30 from Kilrush in County Clare (who went to Melbourne on the Pemberton in 1849)  would have been very different from the young women who left workhouses in Antrim, Belfast or Banbridge (who went to Sydney on the Earl Grey in 1848 and the Diadem to Melbourne in 1850.  A  female orphan who came from Skibbereen  (Ellen Fitzgerald) or Kilrush (Bridget Miniter) or Ennistymon (Ellen Leydon) or Enniskillen (Alice and Jane Byng),  or Armagh (Mary McMaster)  obviously had  different experiences of their workhouse and of the Famine.  In some workhouses and Poor Law Unions, demands proved too much of a strain, rates were not collected, officers emigrated, died, were corrupt or inefficient and dismissed, the administration of the workhouse all but collapsed. In others, medical attendants, nurses, chaplains, Matrons, porters and Masters worked tirelessly, often at great personal cost, to combat the effects of famine and disease as best they could. Let me say some more about workhouse experience in the next post.

old chapel lane skibbereen

[Ideally, and in the long run, I’d like to see more stories of individual orphans which compared their detailed Irish experience at a very local level with their detailed similarly ‘local’ Australian one. Many of the public records that have survived reflect the managerial concerns of those required to administer British Imperial policy. To the extent we identify with those concerns we place ourselves at some remove from the female orphans themselves and thus may be less inclined to see things from their perspective.]

Another reason to stress regional differences and to recommend the Atlas is that they remind us our map showing the origins of the orphans (see the start of this post) is not necessarily a reflection of the severity of the Famine. There is some evidence in the map to indicate the depths of the catastrophe among cottiers and labourers in the infertile West and the high incidence of disease and calamitous mortality or the prevalence of eviction and excessive destitution in the same Western districts. Some of the orphans did indeed come from Sligo, Ballina, Tuam, Loughrea, Newcastle, Kanturk , Killarney and Skibbereen. But given the severity of the Famine in the West we may have expected more orphans to have come from there.  Perhaps our map is more likely an indication of Poor Law Guardians’ willingness to avail themselves of the opportunity presented by Earl Grey and the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners.  I’ll keep an open mind about this. The cartographer in the Atlas, Mike Murphy,  presents the map of the orphans’ origins in a different way from the one in this post. From his map it is clear the majority of the orphans came from Connacht and Munster.

 Let me try to come a bit closer to the female orphans by way of general background to their Workhouse experience. Later I’ll be more specific; I’ll place some of them firmly in a particular workhouse.

[The best place for your researches, I would suggest, is Peter Higginbotham’s great website  http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Ireland/ Start there, then click on “Workhouse Locations” in the left hand column and a Summary list of Unions appears. Beneath it is a list of Irish counties. Click on the county you want and the names of workhouses in that county appear. Among the brilliant things the website contains is an indication of the records that have survived and a bibliography of works to consult. For example, http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Enniskillen/  or http://www.workhouses.org.uk/DublinNorth/ This last one actually has Workhouse Registers for the period we want, though specifics aren’t mentioned on the website.]

to be continued