Tracing stories of the Famine

During the Great Famine, dozens of teenage girls left the workhouses of Laois bound for Australia. Their emigration was part of a British government scheme to provide the British colony with wives and domestic servants, and to rid the workhouses of ‘dead weight’.

During the Great Famine, dozens of teenage girls left the workhouses of Laois bound for Australia. Their emigration was part of a British government scheme to provide the British colony with wives and domestic servants, and to rid the workhouses of ‘dead weight’.

Beginning with a list of fourteen names, students at Portlaoise College recently carried out a local history project to find out more about these girls. The students wanted to tell the story of ordinary people forgotten by history. The story they uncovered is an important story about unimportant people - ordinary Laois girls. They were the neighbours, family and friends of our own ancestors five generations ago. In this, the year of the Gathering, at a time when emigration is once more a sad fact of Irish life, it is a story that should be told.

The story of these orphans was uncovered by seven 3rd history year students at Portlaoise College. The project is called ‘Mountmellick Workhouse Famine Orphan Emigrants: 1849’; it is currently on display at Portlaoise Library.

It is a sad fact of Irish history that we know little about the experience of those who suffered and died during the famine. Nationwide, the population dropped by about two million in five years. However, we do not know exactly how many perished and how many emigrated. Workhouse records are often missing or incomplete. Many victims never made it to the workhouse at all, and many do not have marked graves. Furthermore, the experience of those who suffered most during the famine is lost because, in their death struggle, they leave barely a trace on the written record. Some were illiterate; all were very poor and many left behind no surviving family to remember them. Official history has always neglected the poor, but in the case of the Great Famine even folklore, poetry and song sometimes fails us. The famine was simply too painful to remember.

The inspiration for the project came from a list of twelve names of girls who emigrated from Mountmellick workhouse in 1849. The list was taken from the Laois Genealogy site online. The students’ discovered that these names had come from a famine memorial in Sydney, erected after a 1995 visit by the then president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. President Robinson urged the Irish community in Sydney to commemorate the famine. Four hundred names are inscribed on the granite wall of the monument at Hyde Park Barracks, previously a prison, where the orphans were housed while waiting to be indentured into domestic service. The names of all twelve girls on the original list are there. Pictures of the monument can be viewed on Descendants of Irish emigrants in England, the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere have been very active in collecting historical data and piecing together the story of Irish emigrants. The students decided to try to follow up on the story of these girls here in Laois.

The fourteen girls on the original list are Ann Bergen, Old Derrick (?) Elizabeth Bergen, Old Derrick (?) Ellen Dowling, Newtown; Mary Doyle, Mountmellick; Mary Dunphy, Abbeyleix; Rose Flemming, Ballyadam; Alice Keefe, Ballilone (Ballyroan) Anne Kennedy, Arles; Mary Miller, Cloneslie (Clonislee) Bridget Muldowney, Ballnikill (Ballinakill) Catherine Pender, Towlerton; Power Catherine, Annicart (Amicart?) Eliza Whelan, Abbeyleix and Mary Lyons, Arloo (Arles) The names were taken from ship’s records and so spellings of place names are sometimes incorrect.

The girls emigrated under a British government scheme called the Earl Grey Scheme. Earl Grey was the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The Earl Grey Scheme was designed to hit two birds with the one stone: deal with a severe shortage of women in the British colony (men outnumbered women in rural areas of by eight to one) The scheme would also deal with ‘surplus’ girls in the workhouses of Ireland. In Ireland, one of the problems facing the guardians of the workhouses and local rate payers was how to deal with ‘permanent dead-weight’; young women, with little prospect of marriage, or employment were a worrying financial drain (there were twice as many able bodied females as males in the workhouses of Ireland) Therefore, in Ireland a decision was made that only girls would qualify for the scheme. The scheme was not popular in prosperous Britain, but in Ireland, the first year of the scheme, 2,219 girls emigrated from Irish workhouses with another 1,056 the following year. By the time the Scheme was terminated in 1850, 4112 girls had left Irish workhouses for Australia.

To qualify for the scheme, ‘orphans’ had to be between fourteen and eighteen years of age, industrious, of good character and free from disease. They were also required to have the 3Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) Ships records reveal that not all the Laois emigrants met these criteria.

One of the most interesting discoveries the students made is that, although designated orphans, many of the girls still had one, and sometimes two parents still alive. One example is Mary Breen, Queen’s County. Ships records tell us that this 16 year old Roman Catholic girl sailed to Melbourne in 1849 on board the Pemberton. Both parents were alive at the time, Daniel Breen and Ann Brennan. The loss of one parent deemed the girl an orphan. Once they entered the workhouse the girls were regarded as legal wards of the Poor Law guardians. There is nothing in the documents to suggest that parents and relatives were consulted.

Shauna Techera and Jenny Whelan worked with the ship’s records online. The records often listed the address, the religion, age and parents (living or dead) of the emigrants. The ships that carried the ‘orphans’ were Lady Kennaway, Lismoyne, Lady Peel, The Pemberton, William & Mary, Maria and Tippoo Saib. These ships record yielded over 40 additional names. The full list is on view at Portlaoise Library.

Another ship, the infamous Inconstant was subject upon arrival to an official investigation into abuse of passengers by crew. We know that it carried 22 girls from Mountmellick Workhouse. Unfortunately the Inconstant records do not record the address and so it is impossible to know which of the 209 girls on board came from the Mountmellick Workhouse. British parliamentary debates at the time reveal that there was mistreatment of girls on several ‘Earl Grey’ ships.

The girls were supplied with a box containing 6 shifts, 2 linen collars, 6 pairs of stockings, 2 aprons, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 pair of stays, 2 gowns of warm material, 1 pair of sheets, 2 short wrappers, 1 pair of mittens, 2 flannel petticoats, 1 bonnet, 1 stoat shawl and cloak, 2 towels, 2 handkerchiefs, 2 bars of soap, combs, brushes, needles, thread and anything else the matron deems necessary. They set off by horse and cart for the nearest Irish port. From there, they sailed to Plymouth, England, and then on to Sydney or Melbourne. Anglicans were given Bible and Prayer Books for Anglicans, Psalm Book for Presbyterians and Prayer Books for Catholics. The ship’s records reveal that two of the Laois girls were Church of England.

In March 1848 a memo was sent to 166 workhouses requesting lists of suitable girls for Earl Grey Scheme. In January 1849, Emigration Commission Officer Lieutenant Henry R.N.visited Mountmellick to select girls for the scheme.

Gavin Maher examined the maps of Poor Law Unions and established that some of the ‘orphan’ emigrants were from Abbeyleix Workhouse. During the famine, there were two Poor Law Unions in Laois which meant two work houses: Abbeyleix and Mountmellick and the townslands of Laois were served by one or the other. Donaghmore, today an excellent museum, did not open as a workhouse until the famine was over.

What did these girls leave behind? It is impossible to learn much about their individual lives, but what we can say with certainty is that they left behind a county devastated by famine. The Great Famine is the greatest social catastrophe in our history. Here in Laois, the population dropped by between 27% and 28%. This is significantly higher than other counties in the midlands and as bad as most counties on the west coast of Ireland. The census records that in 1841 the population of Laois was 153,930. By 1851 it had dropped to 111,664. Letters from a local relief committee to the Relief Commission in Dublin show that as early as the first year of the famine, 300 men and the 500 women and children who depend on them, were actually starving in the Barony of Maryborough.

To piece together something of the lives the girls left behind, Colm Fitzpatrick and Eoghan Roche researched conditions in Mountmellick Workhouse. The workhouses were built for the poorest people; they were prison-like and harsh. Families were segregated, men women and children. In Mountmellick, the adult dormitories were on the first floor, men on the right, women on the left. Children were accommodated in the attic. In many workhouses, work was done and meals were eaten in total silence. As the workhouses became overcrowded they became breeding grounds for relapsing fever and typhus. Mountmellick Workhouse was built to cater for 800 persons. At the height of the famine it catered for 1500. We know that there was a serious outbreak of disease in Mountmellick in 1847. The students used the original plans of the Workhouse architect George Wilkinson to make a 3 dimensional floor plan. The model clearly shows that even stairs, access to the outside and yards were segregated.

Did the girls want to go? Did they have a choice? The harshness of life both inside and outside the workhouse was certainly a push factor. The contemporary Leinster Express section, ‘Emigrants Guide’ gives us insight into the pull factors. It describes Australia as ‘a beautiful country... producing nearly all the European and many tropical fruits... gardens... vineyards..... beautiful flowers.’ The Leinster Express at the time describes conditions in Laois as ‘frightful’.

The ship’s records online sometimes include details of what happened to the girls in Australia. Many married and had large families of their own. What kind of welcome did they receive? The scheme soon got a bad press in Australia. The Irish ‘girls’ were much maligned in the Australian press as immoral dregs of the workhouse, unskilled and ignorant. Coming from extreme poverty, the girls would not have few of the necessary skills for domestic work in Australian homes. There was fierce local resistance to what Australians believed was a flood of Irish immigrants. The Australian gold rush was beginning to solve the problem of population there and there was no longer a need for assisted emigration. Another factor which made the Earl Grey Scheme unpopular was the fact that the Australian middle classes were going up in the world and wanted to shake off their historic connection with workhouses and convicts. Nonetheless, many of the girls went on to marry and have families of their own.

• This project was the winning entry in the second level project category at this year’s School Heritage Competition, an annual competition for primary and secondary school students, run by Laois Heritage Society in partnership with Laois Education Centre. The students involved were : Colm Fitzpatrick, Eoghan Roche, Dolapo Ayantola, Shauna Techera, Jennifer Whelan, Shane Murphy and Gavin Maher.

The project impressed the judges with the depth of genuine historical research. Its findings provide us with an insight into what life was like for our own people during the famine

If you are interested in finding out more about these local girls and the county they left behind, the full project is on display at Portlaoise Library.