Earl Grey’s Irish Famine orphans (30): what’s involved in writing orphan stories

IMPLICATIONS

St Stephen's Green, Dublin: Famine sculpture detail
St Stephen’s Green, Dublin: Famine sculpture detail

I wonder why we need to assess the contribution of the orphans to Australia. Is it just something historians do, deluded fools that we are? There have been a number of attempts already. The orphans were workhouse refuse/deadwood tipped out on poor unsuspecting colonists by British imperialists. Or were they ‘mothers to the Australian character’ whose ‘descendants enjoyed opportunities unheard of in Ireland’? There’s a great array of views about the orphans’ history on the Irish Famine memorial website that are worth pondering, at http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/events/  I wonder if speeches made at the Melbourne annual gathering in November are also available. Does anyone know?

I’ve even dabbled a little myself in the past, in the introduction to Barefoot and Pregnant?, volume one, in the magazine, History Ireland in 2000, and in the description of the Earl Grey scheme on the Irish Famine memorial website. See for example the penultimate paragraph at http://www.irishfaminememorial.org/en/history/earl-grey-scheme I’d probably still hold to these views. Elsewhere, I’ve suggested we be wary of too sentimental a treatment of the orphans’ lives.

As Tanya Evans reminded me, I even posed one of those intractable questions a long time ago; ‘were the orphans disproportionately represented among the criminal classes, in suicide records, or among the inmates of destitute and mental asylums’? One might surmise that since the orphans lacked the same family support networks as other immigrants, they were more at risk of falling on hard times. Their demographic history, too,–many of them married older men and had long years of widowhood–may have increased their chance of ending up in an institution, later in life.

On one of my research trips to Melbourne, financed by Macquarie University, i searched for orphans among prison records. In the Public Record Office of Victoria there was a Central Register of Female prisoners at VPRS 516 and a Prisoner’s Personal Description Register at VPRS 521. They were in a very fragile condition and soon became only available on microfiche, thank goodness. Here’s the sort of thing I noted down,

PROV VPRS 521 vol 1  No 7 Catherine Ellis Lady Kennaway 1848 b. 1835 5’1″slender fair complexion dark brown hair grey eyes received into gaol 1 January-14 January 1851

ditto No 129 Amelia Nott New Liverpool 1849 b. 1827 Free three convictions drunk slender fresh complexion dark brown hair grey eyes neither read nor write two small scars on bridge of nose b Jersey RC married servant 20 October 1854 For medical treatment

ditto No 133 Susan Stewart Pemberton 1850 b. 1834 two previous drunk stout fair brown hair hazel eyes reads and writes imperfectly 5′ 2½” scar upper lip and right hand Ireland Catholic single idle and disorderly 1 calendar month 15/2-15/3/1856

ditto No 833 Mary Ann Tyrell Roman Emperor 1848 1835 once before 4″8½” Ireland Catholic married

You will appreciate the kind of problem this poses. Did some orphans deliberately provide false information or genuinely forget details of their arrival? What if we find no record of their marriage? Can we be sure this really is an Earl Grey orphan? Some of the examples above would appear to be so. But how many overall went to gaol? What percentage of the total? Were they in gaol only for a short period of their lives, or often, over the years?

If we go looking for orphans in institutions, in prisons, benevolent asylums, mental hospitals and the like, of course we will find them. But what we do here, and I think I’ve mentioned this before, is add the bias of expectation to the bias of the sources we use. We distort our view of things by focussing one-eyed on this aspect of the orphans’ history.

Still, it is important that we get an idea of how many orphans experienced such a life. I encourage anyone working in this area to continue doing so. If i remember correctly, Julie Poulter is researching orphans who went to Darlinghurst gaol in Sydney, in a thesis she is doing at the University of New England. Maybe people looking at these things will be willing to share their findings? I could include what you want to say in these blog posts. At least I think that is possible. I’m not sure how many people actually read the comments at the end of each post.

FAMILY HISTORIES

A similar caveat applies to my own painstaking family reconstitutions. They are weighted towards the orphans who generally lived in stable, life-long relationships here in Australia. That too may be a distortion of how we perceive the orphans’ contribution to Australian society. Nonetheless I shall continue using them. I intend appending more to this post. They are an important means of helping us write orphan family histories. And the more family histories we have, the greater the empirical data we have to assess what happened to the Earl Grey orphans in Australia. They will ‘thicken’ our description, an anthropologist might say.

SOME ETHICAL ISSUES

The common ground between family historians, professional genealogists and academic historians is sometimes a tricky one to negotiate. I particularly admire those who treat each other with tact and sensitivity. And worry that my own steel-capped boots will damage too many metaphorical shins. Yet for Earl Grey orphan histories to flourish, may I suggest cooperation is essential? Tanya Evans treats some of the issues I have in mind in her recent Fractured Families, and resolves them with what she calls ‘shared authority’. Do have a look. Yet surely we also need to identify where the professional historian’s advice influenced your personal family history?

Let me outline some of my own concerns.

  1. What’s the best way to ask family historians how they confirmed there is an Irish female orphan in their family? There was, after all, an enormous number of young Irish females arriving in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in the early 1850s. Are you sure ‘your’ Mary Kelly, Cathy Kennedy or Mary Ryan  is the one who came to Port Phillip in 1849 on the Pemberton, and you’re not just making a leap of faith?

And to extend this a bit further, how do we know that this second or third or fourth marriage is our orphan’s? Can we be sure that this is her changing her name more than once? Reading orphan descendants write about frequent remarriages and name changes has really interesting implications. Did women at the exposed and vulnerable end of Australian society in the nineteenth century have to use these survival strategies, or life strategies, in order to get by? What kind of life must they have led? My not having read much about this sort of thing before is simply a fault of my own. Has much/anything been written about it already, does anyone know? The work of Shurlee Swain comes to mind.

    2. What if I discover something a family historian may not like to hear, that that orphan descendant beat his wife relentlessly, that that one molested children or that daughter was locked away in a mental institution for more than forty years? What other disturbing factor could there be…that she was constantly drunk and abandoned her children to an Industrial school?…that she committed infanticide…that she was found lying drunk, her baby on the floor crying, neglected, hungry, lying in her own excrement? Maybe you can accept and acknowledge these things. Or maybe you are tempted to leave it out of your family history. As Alison Light put it, we don’t have to like our ancestors. But what if one person in the family objects to such things being publicized in their family history? Or perhaps there is disagreement over an interpretation you’ve made. Does that mean it should be censored, or even shelved? I’d love to hear your view.

The opposite is also the case. Let’s say you wish to extol the virtues of your pioneering family. It may be unintended but the word ‘pioneer’ carries with it a triumphalist view of history, and a tendency to ‘write Aboriginal people out’ of the story. See the essay by J. B Hirst in Historical Studies in 1978.

  3. Or what if it is as simple as someone objecting, “You can’t say that. No ancestor of mine was ever in a workhouse.” It has happened before.  It may even be an objection to something you include about the Famine. “The charge of culpable neglect of the consequences of policies leading to mass starvation is also indisputable.” (Peter Gray quoted in  D. P. Nally’s Human Encumbrances, p 226). Should one therefore cut that bit from the family history?

‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil

And tell your mother to try

To find me a bubble for the spirit level

And a new knot for this tie.’  

(Seamus Heaney, The Errand in The Spirit Level)

I saved some material on my computer sent to me by orphan descendants some years ago. I must try getting in touch again, if they are still with us, D.G., as my friend Tom Power would say. I could begin by putting together a draft of a family history, ask for their input, and  show them the draft. If they gave their consent, I could then put it into the blog. I have a sense of these orphan family histories as more of a beginning than an end.

In the meantime I’ll put up some more FAMILY RECONSTITUTIONS. I’d like to return to them at a later date to suggest ways they can be used in a family history. I’ve made a selection of orphans who went to South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. And in order to emphasize the need for cooperation, I’ve gone back to some originals where orphan descendants filled out one of my forms as best they could, and I was able to add a bit more information, having worked in BDM records.

First some family reconstitutions from New South Wales and South Australia. More to follow. Double click or pinch to make these larger.

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fobanks
fomarymcconnellearl grey
fobooth
foburt
fomdevlin
fobellromanemp
fohellenelgin
fotaafeinconst

To be continued…

key to blogs is at http://wp.me/p4SlVj-oE

EARL GREY’S IRISH FAMINE ORPHANS (29):Where to from here? Telling orphan stories and some issues involved

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

Dublin Famine sculpture

Dublin Famine sculpture

 

 

When I came to the end of my last post I wondered if I should write a conclusion to the whole series. Maybe something on the Earl Grey Irish Famine orphans’ contribution to Australia. Was H. H. Browne correct in his assessment? Were the orphans of little use, and ‘distasteful’ to the majority of colonists ? Or did they make an valuable contribution? Along with convict women, they became ‘mothers to the Australian character’?  However, if they are set in context beside the c. 9,000 single Irish females who immigrated to New South Wales in 1840-41, the 5,000 who came to South Australia in the mid 1850s, or the 70% of female government assisted migrants to Victoria in the 1850s, we might gain a more realistic picture of where they stand. This is not to deny the orphans their unique position as destitute famine refugees. Nor the particular hardships they faced.  To do this might require me going back over everything,– to reorganize, rewrite, polish, and rewrite again. Maybe a publisher would be interested in  a small print run.

But then I remembered what I’d written in earlier posts (4, 13 and 19) about histories of individual orphans. Could we reconstruct their experience at local level in Ireland and match it with the same detailed local history in Australia? Could we put together life histories of individual orphans, maybe even inter-generational family histories? Or compare their experience in different regions–the Illawarra and Hunter Valley in New South Wales, around Ipswich in what was to become Queensland, the goldfields of Victoria or Clare Valley in South Australia, for instance? And what do we do with the ‘lost’ souls, the Mary Littlewoods or Georgina Mulhollands or the Mary Ryans we cannot find?  http://wp.me/p4SlVj-p7 outlined some of the problems we’d face.

How to tell the orphans’ stories raises all sorts of issues: properly navigating copyright issues and acknowledging one’s debt to others; how best such family histories might be integrated into a larger historical context. I particularly liked the way Kay Caball wove orphan family histories into her Kerry Girls. Elizabeth Rushen and Perry McIntyre put information about individual Red Rover (eary 1830s) women into an Appendix in their Fair Game (Anchor Books, 2010). Doing something similar would only enhance my little history of the Irish Famine orphans–should I have the talent or the energy. But don’t hold your breath. I wouldn’t want to trespass on people’s privacies.

——

One work I’ve lately been taking inspiration from, is the delightful Common People by Alison Light (Penguin, 2015). Let me try to understand why. It’s a book that shows me just what family history can be, maybe even should (?) be like.

I’m a sucker for good writing whether it’s Ames talking to Jack Boughton at the end of Gilead (Marilynne Robinson); or a black crow and Morrigan at the end of Gun Street Girl (Adrian McKinty); or whether it’s lyrical writing, full of pathos, or hard-headed, clear, honest and direct as it is in Common People. Here’s how Alison Light writes about the death of her great-grandmother Sarah Hill, in Netherne Asylum, in 1911.

The Register of deaths confirmed the information on her death certificate: she died on 18 June from ‘exhaustion’ after sixteen days of mania…

There were far more questions than answers. ‘Mania’ is deemed a ‘mood disorder’, generally characterized as a state of wild, feverish elation, a hyperactive state of restlessness and often irritability, which leads to sleeplessness. But in the nineteenth century ‘mania’ was an umbrella term…In fact nothing about Sarah’s mania or her death ‘from exhaustion’ could be taken for granted. If she died of heart failure after a fortnight’s frenetic activity and no sleep, she was also likely to be near starvation. Those who were raving were hard to feed, words pouring out of their mouths so that they could take nothing in. Might Sarah have survived in a private asylum in her own comfortable, quiet room with the special care of the best doctors…? As with her sojourn in the workhouse as a child, the adult Sarah had arrived in a public institution at perhaps the worst time in its history.” (pp.166-67)

Her transparent, in your face, honest presence throughout the book is a real breath of fresh air for someone like myself who was trained to distance oneself and write history essays and theses in the third person. We were taught objectivity may not be achievable but it is always worth striving for. Laudable aims, I’m sure. Yet Alison Light’s presence–she’s everywhere–makes her work very personal. It gives a piquant sharpness to her book which makes it interesting to readers other than her immediate family and like minded ancestor hunters.

I…hoped that my speaking voice would anchor the reader as we moved through time (p.xxiv)…I find that her people had long been on the move (19)…I need a larger-scale atlas as William travels back into his childhood (19)…In the wake of my father’s death I took to tinkering about in the Portsmouth Record Office (70)…I feel tender towards those who refused to conform…cocking a snook…at squire and parson (117)…If anywhere can claim to be my ancestral home it is the workhouse. Somebody in every generation fetched up there (233)…I now know that nothing about a graveyard can be taken at face value (252)”.

What lifts her book to a wider audience still, is her self-reflection, and examination of why so many people research their family’s past. A reader must be made of stone not to stop and think about her ‘meditations’.

My first instinct in writing Common People was to find the people who had been missing from my past. I wanted…to rescue them…from sheer oblivion (p.xxv)… When my father was very ill with cancer, I went in search of his mother’s grave. It was an odd, possibly morbid thing to do. Family history begins with missing persons—missed in both senses of the word. But when do we register an absence as a loss? (p.11)…Family is never one organism but fissiparous, endlessly dividing itself. In a family tree everyone seems connected, but in life families ‘fragment’…People want to know where they came from but they also want to know where they could have gone and why their branch of the family did not go there (93-4)…Genealogy has long fostered grandiloquent forms of family romance and been a source of reassurance to antiquarians, cranks and snobs…humble aspirants elevate themselves…believing there was once a family pile or manor in the past…If the creation of a nation rests on its ‘foundation myths’, family legends too, handed down the generations, are also the stuff, like dreams, of which we make ourselves (130)”.

Can you see yourself in any of this? Common People is full of such reflections challenging readers to ask themselves what exactly do they want, and why?

What appeals to me most of all about her book is how she does her damnedest to put her family into historical context. She is willing to cast her net widely, not only into nooks and crannies but over the big-picture historical context, as often, and as much as she can. Sure, in any family history there are dead-ends and blind alleys and people you’ll never really know but if you merely want a family tree, lives shrunk between dates in brackets, you’re missing the sweetest thing of all.

Any family history worth its salt will go further and ask questions about ‘economic forces’, politics, religious and social conditions, and the like. Alison Light invites us to take ourselves into ‘history’, with its different interpretations and debates and argumentative soul; make our family members more than ‘singular’ and unique but representative of something larger. Her book is also about working-class Britain ‘on the move’ during industrialisation in the nineteenth century; her ancestors act as ‘intermediaries between the living and the dead’ charting an unglorious story of poverty throughout much of the twentieth as well. (Many of these phrases are hers. I do them less than justice).

——–

We may regret that we don’t have the same wealth of resources at our disposal in Ireland or Australia–not the same access to census data, or county histories, or a tremendously rich array of local social histories, as Alison Light had for Common People. But don’t despair. I’m sure there’s plenty we can use. I’m not the best person to ask about this. Maybe others can make some suggestions?

I was pleasantly surprised when I had a quick look at my books, a library that’s been brutally downsized in recent years. I’d consider myself a very limited Australian historian but look what I found…some brilliant histories of ‘localities’,

Grace Karskens, The Rocks. Life in early Sydney, Melbourne U.P., 1997,

Don Watson, Caledonia Australis. Scottish Highlanders on the frontier in Australia, Vintage, 1997,

Mark McKenna, Looking for Blackfella’s Point. An Australian History of Place, UNSW Press, 2002,

 

a couple of fascinating ‘primary’ sources,

J. S. James, The Vagabond Papers, ed M. Cannon, Melbourne U.P., 1969,

William Kelly, Life in Victoria 1853 and 1858, Lowden, 1977,

 

and a couple of others you may need more than once,

G. Blainey, Black Kettle and Full Moon. Daily Life in a Vanished Australia, Viking, 2003 and

Gerald Walsh, Pioneering days. People and innovations in Australia’s rural past, Allen & Unwin, 1993.

 

I’m sure there are plenty more. Your local librarians, local historians and Archivists will be only too pleased to help you. See for instance two recent ones I mentioned in an earlier post, Libby Connors, Warrior, Allen & Unwin, 2015 and Tanya Evans, Fractured Families. Life on the margins in Colonial New South Wales, UNSW Press, 2015. Tanya with the help of family historians skilfully recounts the history of Jane Kelly per Digby in chapter five.

And what if we approached from a different direction? By travelling in the footsteps of the people you’re interested in? Here’s a link to Peter Higginbotham’s great website.

http://www.workhouses.org.uk/Ireland/

Go to Ballyshannon workhouse or whatever is left of it today and make your way to Dublin’s North Quay. Then, since there is no longer a boat to Portsmouth, take the ferry from Rosslare to Holyhead. You are experiencing a similar route to the one your orphan ancestor took. I travelled on that ferry a few times many, many, years ago. I’m not sure what it’s like today.

And in Australia, it may be impractical to travel as orphans did with Surgeon Strutt, by cart, over Razorback, southward to Yass and Gundagai. But you get the idea. Take the journey nonetheless.

Go to the workhouse ‘your’ orphan came from and travel to Dublin or Cork. Follow her footsteps as much as you can after she arrived in Adelaide, Sydney or Melbourne. It’s an experience worth having; you are trying to relive her ‘history’. Is that too crazy? I’m sure you will have other and better ideas. Perhaps you’d share them?

I travelled to a distant town

I could not find my mother

I could not find my father

I could not hear the drum

Whose ancestor am I?

(Edward Brathwaite, The New Ships in Masks, Oxford U. P. 1970)

My thanks to the late Lionel Chapman for the family photograph at the head of this post. It has Johanna Kelly in a wedding photograph in 1907.

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Earl Grey’s Irish Famine Orphans (19):Telling Orphan stories, authenticating photos

 ANOTHER ASIDE;

some orphan pics and stories

Some years ago I jotted down notes for an essay provisionally entitled, “Telling Stories: Irish Famine orphans in Australia”. Here’s a small extract: I was jotting down things at random.

It soon became apparent there were a number of interesting historiographical issues to confront.

  • How should we fill in the silences and the gaps in our orphans’ stories?
  • What do we know about these family photographs? Are they authentic?
  • How can we test and verify oral testimony, family stories and the like?
  • Were these women ‘pioneers’ or is this word too value-laden, too triumphalist? Perhaps ‘female white settler’ is a better, more ‘neutral’ description.
  • What was these women’s relationship with Aboriginal people, one of the most common gaps or silences in family histories? Fiction it may be, but Kate Grenville’s Secret River at least addresses this shortcoming.
  • How exactly should we flesh out the historical context of the orphans’ lives in Australia? How might we take account of changing historical circumstances during the nineteenth century and beyond?
  • How did they cope with illness? What was their material life–their dress, their dwelling, their work and their economic condition?
  • How are we to ‘situate’ them in a particular place?
  • What do we know about their emotional makeup, their relationship with their spouses, their children and their grandchildren, and their friends and neighbours?
  • And if we have no direct evidence of any of this, should we make a guess? And how then, should we decide whether that guess was an informed guess, a starry-eyed guess or pure fiction?

I did set the project aside, thinking, ‘Get a grip’,  that’s far too serious; it will  discourage anyone thinking of writing their orphan history.

You can imagine how pleased I was to see two recent books that addressed some of these concerns. The first is by Libby Connors. Her Warrior was launched a month or two ago. It’s about a great Aboriginal leader, Dundalli (Wonga Pigeon). I’m very much an admirer of Libby’s sense of justice, and her extraordinary ability to see things from both an Aboriginal and European perspective.  The second is by Tanya Evans. Her Fractured Families was launched last week (June 2015). Focussing on the Benevolent Society of New South Wales, Tanya has worked closely with family historians. I’m really looking forward to reading it. I suspect she’ll make me reconsider what I said in an earlier post about orphans’ ‘success’ and whether coming to Australia was the best thing they could have done. If you go to www.amazon.com you can sample excerpts from both books. Just  go to ‘Books’ and type in the author’s name and click on their book. May I  suggest you ask your local library to acquire a copy or two? Good historians need all the encouragement they can get.

Some orphan photographs

Let me upload some orphan photographs descendants kindly sent me some time in the past; a new generation of descendants may be interested to have them. I’ve accepted these at face value, knowing how difficult it can be to authenticate and describe the provenance of every family photograph in one’s possession. I recently inherited a collection of photos from family members, myself, only to realize I have no idea who most of the subjects are. There are sites such as www.myheritage.com/old-family-photos  that may help. But I’ve never used any of them.

I do understand that family historians are very creative when it comes to pursuing their history. The very long view provided by DNA analysis looks fascinating. I’ve even had a Canadian friend find distant relatives by studying photographs and identifying common physical features. So, if someone wants to look at orphan photographs and see profound sadness in their eyes, or put words into their mouths, I have seen things I’ll never forget, and will never tell you, it’s not for me to say, you can’t do that.

The first photographs are of Bridget Hartigan (1834-1914), originally from Newmarket in County Clare. I received them from Roy Dunstan many moons ago. They tell a story in themselves.  Bridget was one of the Thomas Arbuthnot orphans who travelled overland with Surgeon Strutt and was hired out at Yass. She had the gumption to complain about her treatment at the hands of her employer, and to marry twice. She is pictured here with her second husband William Hine, a miner at Vaughan, and later a successful newspaper owner.

Bridget Hartigan/Downey/Hine and daughter Caroline c. 1862

Bridget Hartigan/Downey/Hine and daughter Caroline c. 1862

Bridget Hartigan in the early 1880s taken in Melbourne

Bridget Hartigan in the early 1880s taken in Melbourne

Bridget Hartigan aged 77 photo c. 1911

Bridget Hartigan aged 77 photo c. 1911

I must confess this middle one looks like it’s been extracted from the one below.

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Bridget Hartigan with d.Caroline, granddaughter Ruby and gt.granddaughter Carrie. Photo taken 1912

This next is of Catherine Kean also from County Clare and also by the Thomas Arbuthnot. Sometimes details of where the photograph was taken can help authenticate it and tell us more about its provenance. Catherine married Michael Featherston whose brother Luke also married a Famine orphan, Maria McDermot per Lady Peel.

focathykeanthoarb

fomarycasserly1885

Mary Casserly or Cassidy from Longford with her daughter Rosanna c. 1885. Mary daughter of Patrick Cassidy and Ann Skelly came from Newtowncashel, in Longford. She was baptised 4 February 1833 and died near Reefton on the South Island of New Zealand in 1895. Her name is on the Irish Famine Monument in Sydney as Mary Casserly.

foMargtdriscoll jhnknox

Painting of Margaret Driscoll from Cork per John Knox. She married Henry Hill in Berrima in 1862 and died in Newtown, Sydney aged 74. Large numbers attended the funeral for this “prominent Catholic woman”.

 

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Mary Kenny from Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny per Lismoyne. Mary Kenny’s photograph was sent to me for volume one of Barefoot way back in the late 1980s. Mary married Henry Johnson a sailmaker, later a lighthouse keeper at South Head in Sydney.

And finally, one of Mary Anne McMaster from Rich Hill, Co. Armagh. She died at Deep Creek, Wynard, Tasmania, 28 December 1914. For more information see the Irishfaminememorial.org website http://irishfaminememorial.org/orphans/database/?surName=mcmaster&firstName=&age=0&nativePlace=&parents=&religion=0&ship=7

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Mary Anne McMaster per Diadem

I do have some more pics but I’ll keep them for another time. If anyone does have a photograph they would like me to upload, please feel free to send a copy.

That should be enough for now. Let me get back to wrestling with the reasons for the Earl Grey scheme coming to an end. It looks simple enough; a clamouring opposition in colonial Australia and embarrassing questions in the House of Commons in England was enough to finish it off. But I suspect there is more to it than this.