Remembering and Commemorating the Great Famine and Emigration to Australia

Author: Perry McIntyre (University of New South Wales)

Between 1788 and 1868, one hundred and sixty-one thousand men and women were transported to the Australian colonies; thirty-five percent of them were Irish and more than thirty thousand arrived in New South Wales. At least a third of the Irish convicts left wives and families behind, most with no means of support. A scheme to provide free passages to families of well-behaved transported men brought these abandoned families to the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania), many during the Famine and its aftermath. While these Irish convicts and their families actively negotiated favorable outcomes which fitted into the British and colonial government’s objectives for the developing free settlements, other emigration schemes also brought free passengers to Australia. One assisted immigration scheme particularly relevant to the Famine brought 4,114 single teenage women from workhouses in every county during 1848 to 1850. For Irish people, these emigration schemes were one way that some Famine survivors were able to flee their devastated homeland. This paper examines some of the processes involved in emigration to Australia in the 1840s and the immediate post-Famine years, and provides a few examples of the personal experiences of these people in Australia and Ireland. It also looks at how Ireland and Australia have remembered the Famine and its Pacific exodus well into the twenty-first century.


Since its sesquicentenary, memorialization of the Great Famine has received a huge impetus in Ireland, the United States, and Canada. All over Ireland, plaques and memorials of varying sizes were and are still being erected in towns and villages and at gravesites, such as Rowan Gillespie’s emaciated set of bronze figures at the Custom House Quay, in Dublin (1997); three memorials erected by the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee in Sligo town (1997); and the Irish National Memorial, situated at the foot of Croagh Patrick: John Behan’s sculpture of a coffin ship with skeletal bodies intertwined in its masts (1997). A study undertaken by Emily Mark-FitzGerald, published in 2013, analyzes many, and charts the public’s reactions to them.[1] Surviving workhouses, such as those in Carrick-on-Shannon, Portumna, Donaghmore, and Dunfanaghy, have museums or incorporate local businesses or community activities within the workhouse structure.


In Australia, Famine memorialization began after the visit of President Mary Robinson to Sydney in 1995. She called upon the Irish community and Australians interested in their Irish emigrant ancestors to mark the memory of the Famine in a special way. At that time there were many active Irish county organizations in Sydney, all doing their own thing: they mainly organized small gatherings to remember life prior to emigration, which were loosely coordinated by the Irish Communications Council, headed by Mayo-born Martin Coleman. In November 1995 the county associations met to discuss the idea sown by President Robinson and, by February 1996, a sub-committee of the Communications Council elected Clonmel-born Tom Power as the chairman to discuss a way to remember the Famine in Australia, specifically in Sydney.


Many ideas and potential sites were discussed, but the site of the Immigration Barracks, which housed the first large group of orphan girls from the workhouses who arrived in 1848, was considered the most appropriate place because it was converted from a convict barrack when large numbers of these single young women arrived in Sydney. Tenders were called and a memorial sculpture by Hossein and Angela Valamanesh, with an associated soundscape by Sam Carter, was finally selected in December 1997 as the most outstanding sculptural submission to the committee. Support from the Irish government, all three layers of Australian government (federal, state, and local), Australian businesses and individuals, including descendants of the workhouse orphan immigrant girls, met the final cost of approximately 300,000 (Australian) dollars.


On August 28, 1999, St. Mary’s Cathedral, situated beside the Hyde Park Barracks, was bursting at the seams with several thousand people gathered to remember an event in Ireland from 150 years before. Descendants of the orphans, representing each county of Ireland, officiated with the dean, the bishop, and Catholic priests, supported by Presbyterian and Anglican ministers, for a modern memorial service of prayer, with descendants of the orphan girls presenting lighted candles to represent every Irish county. The crowd then moved to the courtyard at the nearby barracks, where the governor general of Australia, Sir William Deane, unveiled the monument located in the wall surrounding the barracks yard.


While the Sydney committee worked to erect the large and impressive memorial in Sydney, Dr. Val Noone and a group of historians worked to do the same in Melbourne. The ships that brought orphan girls to that southern part of what was still New South Wales until 1851, landed at Hobsons Bay, part of Port Phillip, at what is modern-day Williamstown. Thus it was decided that this was the place to erect a Famine Memorial and it was unveiled on December 6, 1998, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of 191 girls on the Lady Kennaway. The memorial consists of a large bluestone rock that serves to remember, praise, and mourn the Irish immigrants, and it acknowledges the shared history of oppression of Irish and Aboriginal people, expressing regret that the Irish had also been part of the dispossession of the Indigenous Australians. There is a plaque in both Irish and English that calls for “solidarity with all those | who suffer hunger today.”[2] For Australia, these memorials and the orphan girls who were given a free passage to Australia from the workhouses during the Famine represent the nation’s Irish heritage, which began with white settlement and the arrival of the first convicts in 1788.


Irish Convicts and Free Emigrants to Australia

Although no convict ships sailed directly from Ireland until the Queen departed from Cork on March 10, 1791, there were Irish-born convicts and Irish members of the military guard from the first years in 1788.[3] A total of 30,231 Irish transportees, including 5,521 women, had arrived to Sydney by 1849.[4] They had been tried in all parts of Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as in India, Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), South Africa, Gibraltar, and Canada, places where many Irishmen served in the army.


In addition to convicts, many Irish people chose to immigrate to the Australian colonies. Besides those who paid the full fare of their passages, various assisted-immigration schemes operated starting in the 1830s, bringing skilled laborers and single women who were needed in the burgeoning colonies. Thousands arrived from Great Britain and Ireland during the nineteenth century and the British and colonial governments provided funds and encouragement to skilled mechanics and their families as well as young single women. The movement of selected groups of women commenced with a process devised by the emigration commissioners in 1831 and continued throughout the century. Initially a few women were offered passages on female convicts ships. Fifty young women from the Foundling Hospital in Cork took up passages offered on the Palambam in 1831.[5] Under a separate scheme announced in 1817, designed to reunite families with their reformed transportee spouses, at least 1,795 free Irish wives and their children successfully gained a free passage.[6]


However, even under assisted schemes to Australia, most immigrants were required to pay a portion of the fare, and at times those eligible were provided with a “bounty” that took the form of a subsidized passage: twenty pounds for mechanics and their families and eight pounds for single women. This bounty was not paid to the immigrant, however, but to the shippers and agents. In the 1830s, because of a high demand from the colonies for eligible women, emigration commissioners organized the departure of two ships with women emigrants: the Red Rover, carrying 202 women from Cork to Sydney, and the Princess Royal from London to Hobart, which offered transport to English women.[7] This “experiment” proved successful and resulted in fourteen more ships carrying single young women from England and Ireland between 1833 and 1837, four of which brought Irish women to Sydney.[8]


Only a few emigrants, such as this group of women in the 1830s, did not contribute financially toward their passages, and were supported by charitable groups, mainly in Cork in the case of the women on the Red Rover. Three other groups of Irish people emigrated at no expense to themselves: the young females from the Irish workhouses, the previously mentioned wives and families of convicts, and a group of children of emigrants whose parents were forced to leave them behind because of regulations in the early 1840s. The scheme to reunite well-behaved convicts with their Irish families when they had been transported operated in an informal way from the early years and was dependent on permission from the governor, sometimes with recommendations from Britain. A study was undertaken of the 2,047 convict men, and sixty-five female convicts, who applied for a free passage for their family.[9] Most of the women’s applications were for children left at the time of transportation, and only twenty-four of them had successful results: seventeen were Irish, two of whom had been tried in England, and the other seven were English.


In 1817, the regulations were publicized for the first time and from then on convicts had to apply for their families on a specially designed form and be approved before the process of locating the family and bringing them to Australia could begin. After the 1820s, women were not permitted to travel on male convict ships, so these free families sailed on transports with female convicts. During the period of transportation to New South Wales (1788–1840), eighty-four ships carried women convicts to the colony, forty-eight of which have been identified as also bringing free members of convict families. The cessation of transportation to New South Wales in 1840 coincided with the formation of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission, which then became responsible for all emigration to Australia. When transportation ended, the family reunion scheme and the means for free spouses of transported convicts to get to the colony also abruptly ended. However, their status in the colony as convicts did not cease with the end of transportation and applications for families continued to be presented to the governor. From 1837 to 1840, there were 307 successful applications. Between the arrival of stricter regulations in May 1833 and the formal announcement in December 1842 to terminate the scheme to send convict families to New South Wales, at least 537 men and nine women convicts applied for their families. This left families who had their passages already approved trapped with no way to facilitate their free passage because there was no suitable vessel to convey them.[10]


Poignant letters from convict relatives can frequently be found among the chief secretary’s correspondence in the National Archives of Ireland. For example, two sons of Denis McCabe—a native of Arklow, County Wicklow, who was transported following his trial in Cavan in 1821—asked, in 1821, for permission to emigrate. They wrote three times to the lord lieutenant asking to join their father in New South Wales, stating there was nothing to induce them to stay in Ireland. As well as their marginal existence, they were suffering “the shame and reproach of their fathers [sic] misfortune.”[11] Many were in dire circumstances following the transportation of their breadwinner, but the success of their reunion, like many reunions of this kind, depended on an application from their convict relative in the colony, so many were disappointed.


James McGartland from Tyrone petitioned for reunification with his wife and three young children in December 1840, following his transportation in 1835 for seven years for stealing a hat. Enclosed with his petition are letters from both his wife and his mother written in 1840, encouraging him to apply for passage for them. Both women gave wonderful information about his extended family, and told him that his brother had gone to Scotland. His mother included a rundown of the state and economy of the country, telling him that the workhouses “are commencing in this country and we would wish to be out of this country before the people will be put into it as then we will not get seeing our children.”[12] Thomas Hanbury was transported from Waterford at the end of 1829 for pig stealing, and applied for his wife and seven children unsuccessfully in 1834 and again in November 1848. One son was transported in 1837 and two adult daughters were given free passages in 1850, but the fate of the rest of the family remains unknown.[13]


Other families were affected by changes in regulations and the husband in the colony could not apply until after 1840. Hugh Bracken, transported in October 1832 with a life sentence, first applied for his wife and son in February 1843. Enclosed with his petition was an 1841 letter of support from the local minister in Sligo town, giving details of the deprived situation of his wife and child, whose only protectors were her parents who, due to their age, “would likely soon to leave her without a protector and without a home.” John Besnard Jr., the Australian emigration agent in Cork, informed Reverend Greene that the only way to help Susan Bracken was by an order from the governor of New South Wales. Despite the approval of Bracken’s petition and the inclusion of his name in a return in May 1843, his wife did not arrive under this scheme, even though Hugh repeated his plea in late 1847. An emigration order had been obtained, but the authorities failed to respond and, by 1849, they had still not located her. Perhaps she was another casualty of the Famine.[14] Similar fates befell Peter Gready and Dennis Lawler, who had both applied for their families in 1848.[15]


As this facility for family reunion was run from the Australian colonies and the transported husband had to apply for his family from there, there is not necessarily a correlation with the impact of the Famine on their families, because the time taken for approval, dispatch of the application, and location of the family in Ireland was at least a year. Therefore, the families in the most desperate situations may well have perished before they could have an opportunity to emigrate.


While the assisted passages to Australia, apart from convict family reunion, had begun in 1832 and overlapped with the final years of transportation to New South Wales that ended in 1840, emigration to Australia really took off in the late 1830s and early 1840s. By 1844, the government and bounty schemes had ceased, and it was not until the height of the Famine in mid-1847 that the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission’s work using colonial funds to select and bring suitable emigrants from Great Britain and Ireland to the Australian colonies became fully operational. Under this scheme, potential immigrants had to apply, be selected and approved. The idea was to satisfy the labor needs in the colony and it was not designed to relieve distress in Great Britain or Ireland. Despite this stipulation, forty-three percent of the total number of Irish embarked between 1848 and 1850 would not have qualified under the commissioners’ normal selection criteria, but did so as workhouse orphans, convict families, or “children left behind.”[16] Between 1853 and 1859, 82,197 Irish people went to the major Australian colonies, of whom 58,236 (seventy-one percent) were assisted.[17]


Although most immigration to Australia during the nineteenth century was run by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission, many organizations, societies, and individuals were involved and several guides were also produced. In 1823, an early guide to Van Diemen’s Land gave details of that colony for intending emigrants.[18] The Emigrant’s Friend or Authentic Guide, published in London in 1848, lured settlers to South Australia, New South Wales, Swan River (Western Australia), Van Diemen’s Land, and New Zealand, noting that 23,904 people had left the United Kingdom in 1847.[19] As well as details of each colony, this guide advised potential emigrants of the necessary outfits for the voyage, also listing the government’s emigration agents in the United Kingdom to whom they could apply. In 1869, the National Emigration Aid Society, formed three years before, published an information brochure to “encourage and assist our unemployed surplus population to cultivate and make productive inexhaustible public lands of our numerous colonies.”[20] A Presbyterian minister, Reverend John Dunmore Lang, who had little tolerance of Irish Catholics, had privately charted several ships to bring Scottish emigrants in the 1830s, and in the early 1850s one Dr. Herbert brought needlewomen from England.


Between 1838 and 1850, 104,418 immigrants had landed in Sydney and the Port Phillip district, 82,705 of whom were assisted.[21] Between 1838 and 1870, 175,981 were assisted to New South Wales, 61,898 (or forty-six percent) of whom were Irish, and, in 1855 alone, there were 2,989 Irish people assisted to Sydney.[22] Early in 1848 the British government, drawing on years of experience, began its organized emigration of young females from Irish workhouses. Irish Poor Law commissioners sent circulars to the Board of Guardians of each Irish Poor Law union asking if any young women “between the ages of fourteen and eighteen” were willing and eligible for a passage to Australia. The commissioners had to be willing to pay for an outfit of clothing for each girl and get them to Plymouth for the departure of the ships to Australian ports. On February 8, 1849, the minutes of the guardians in Cashel record the arrival of the emigration agent, Lieutenant Henry R. N., to make a “selection of inmates eligible to be sent to Australia.” The outfits were to be provided and the matron was in charge of selecting and making them as quickly as possible. William Sooly’s tender to make forty boxes (sea chests) for the emigrants, each to specified dimensions, painted oak color, at a cost of four shillings and eight pence each, was accepted. John Comans’ proposal to supply eighty pairs of shoes at three shillings and ten pence a pair was also accepted. All orders had to be completed by Saturday, February 17, giving them less than ten days to finish the task.[23]


The workhouse officers were obliged to seek character references, carry out complete medical examinations and to have chosen suitable young women before Lieutenant Henry arrived. The Poor Law guardians provided an outfit of clothing to girls who indicated they were willing to take advantage of the passages offered and, following inspection by Lieutenant Henry, and the signing of a consent form by several of the Poor Law guardians and presumably the girl herself, the girls’ passage to the port of departure in Ireland and on to Plymouth was paid by the Poor Law union. All twenty ships with workhouse orphans sailed from Plymouth, and the unions were responsible for their welfare and passage to that port of departure. All the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission emigrants from Ireland between 1848 and 1870 had to cross the Irish Sea on steamers, and did so as deck passengers since the ships sailed only from Plymouth, Liverpool, Southampton, or London. Ironically, this brief section of the journey was regarded as the worst part of the emigrant experience, spurring four parliamentary enquiries between 1848 and 1854 to investigate the often frightful conditions encountered by poor passengers crossing from Ireland to England. Orphan emigrants arriving at Plymouth in late October 1849 “presented a forlorn appearance, after the discomforts of their preparatory voyage from Dublin, on board of a crowded steamer.”[24]


The Voyage from Plymouth to Australia

The next part of their voyage was totally different from the emigrant experience to North America. The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission chartered the ships and arranged the berths, the food, and the appointment of a surgeon superintendent who was responsible for the girls and all other emigrants in transit, as well as the general running of the ship. These young workhouse women represented only a small number (4,114) of those involved in the renewed assisted emigration to the Australian colonies. They were viewed as young marriageable women who would bring a stabilizing influence to rough, masculine colonial societies, while also helping fill the need for female domestic servants. Before, during, and following the immediate arrival of the Irish orphans, there are numerous instances of criticism in the Australian press of those involved in this emigration. The girls are described as immoral dregs of the workhouse, ignorant of the skills required of domestic servants, but this was not the whole story.[25] The 105 Thomas Arbuthnot women who traveled under the surgeon superintendent Charles Strutt on their settlement journey south from Sydney to Yass and Gundagai were widely welcomed. He not only accompanied them on their southern journey, but helped them find suitable employment. Ultimately, however, opposition to the female orphan scheme was so strong that it ended within three years.


The first orphan ships were the Earl Grey, which sailed on June 3, 1848, to Sydney, New South Wales, and the Roman Emperor, which sailed on July 27, 1848, bound for Adelaide, South Australia. A total of 4,114 single adolescent Irish females arrived to three Australian colonies, docking at Sydney, Port Phillip (Melbourne), and Adelaide. Earl Grey, secretary of state for the colonies in Lord John Russell’s Whig government, was the driving force behind the emigration of these young workhouse women, and it thus came to be known as the Earl Grey Scheme.


The selection criteria in Ireland were adhered to, with the shipping lists revealing that the youngest were five girls aged thirteen, all on the Tippoo Saib, the last ship to arrive in Sydney at the end of July 1850. The oldest were three recorded as nineteen and possibly also Margaret Sullivan, a young woman from a Kenmare workhouse who traveled on the John Knox in April 1850 and was noted as variously eighteen or twenty. An analysis of the ages and backgrounds of these workhouse orphans as a total group is difficult, because very little is known about the 606 girls on the three ships to Adelaide. Only the Elgin, which sailed from Plymouth on May 31, 1849, has a surviving “Certificate of Final Departure,” but it lists only names and ages.[26] No such list survives for the other two Adelaide-bound ships, the Roman Emperor and the Inconstant, and the names of orphans can only be identified from other records, including the South Australian Register newspaper, documents in South Australia including jail reports, hospital records, and detailed research by descendants and interested historians. The surviving Board of Guardians minute books for some workhouses sometimes have augmented details.[27]


No names of parents or native places are provided for the six ships to Port Phillip carrying 1,255 orphan girls. Therefore the comprehensive data for the native places and parents of the workhouse orphan girls is only readily available for the 2,232 who arrived on eleven ships to Sydney.[28] For these ships, we know that twenty-five percent of those on board could read and write, forty-two percent were illiterate, and the remainder could read only. This does, nonetheless, debunk the idea that they were all illiterate. Among the passengers, seventy-two percent are recorded as “true” orphans with both parents dead, keeping in mind that “orphan” in the nineteenth century could mean that one parent was still alive, and this was the case for almost twenty percent of the Sydney arrivals with just over four hundred mothers and 135 fathers indicated on the shipping list as still living. Thirty-six workhouse women who traveled to Sydney indicated that both parents were still alive.


Not surprisingly, many of the workhouse women arrived with only their shipmates for support. The shipping lists reveal that twenty-two percent of the Sydney arrivals had a relative already in the colony, or they traveled with a sister or had a sister also arrive on one of the other Irish workhouse emigration vessels. At least 140 of the Sydney arrivals stated that they had a sister, brother, cousin, uncle, aunt, or parent already in Australia. The evidence of family reunion and the resourcefulness of these survivors of the Famine is revealed in their family stories, which historians and descendants have been able to reconstruct. Their life stories are increasingly made available to all via the website of the Australian Famine Memorial, which is an integral part of commemorating and remembering.[29] This website is constantly updated as material is gathered from primary research in Australia and Ireland, with the cooperation of archives in both countries, in part facilitated from several grants from the Irish government through the Emigrant Support Programme. The stories of the colonial lives of these women who left the workhouses as teenagers is the historical legacy that they contributed not only to their own families but to the Australian nation and, in turn, to their homeland. Local societies, workhouse museums, and county libraries in Ireland are showing increasing interest in these women, previously thought to have been lost, either by death in the Famine or by emigration to distant unknown places.


A link between the convicts and the workhouse orphans has been made in several cases. For example, in August 1835 Patrick Connors was tried in his native Tipperary for manslaughter and sentenced to seven years transportation, arriving in Sydney in September the following year on the Waterloo.[30] In 1847, he applied for a free passage for his wife, Mary née Hanny, and their daughter Mary, who were living in Ballintoy in the parish of Nenagh. He was by then a settler working in Dungog, about 125 miles north of Sydney. Later that year permission was granted for his family to emigrate, but the emigration order was returned to the local post office, the Irish authorities being unable to locate the family.[31] That seemed to be the end of the matter, but on May 14, 1849, Mary Connors sailed to Port Phillip on the Pemberton as one of forty orphans from the Nenagh workhouse. Following her mother’s death, she had obviously found refuge in the workhouse. Mary does not appear on the disposal list with the other girls from the Pemberton, but in October 1849 her father had enquired about her from Dungog so it can only be hoped that they were reunited in New South Wales.[32]


Catherine Naughton from Tynagh, Galway, left the Loughrea workhouse and sailed on the Inchinnan from Plymouth on November 4, 1848, bound for Sydney. The Immigration Board’s list indicated that she had a father, named Edward or Edmond Naughton, living in Sydney. Her sister, Mary, also arrived as a workhouse orphan a month later on the Digby with the father again noted, but living in Goulburn. Their mother, Bridget, had died, and further research has shown that her father had been transported under the Insurrection Act of 1796 (which introduced the death penalty for persons administering illegal oaths and was replaced in 1807 by transportation for life) as a “whiteboy” in 1832, identified on the convict record as a widower with four children.[33] He remarried in Goulburn to Anne Mary Broderick in August 1843 and in 1853 sponsored the passage of another daughter, Bridget, who arrived on the Sabrina on July 10, 1854.[34] This family was fortunate to have survived conviction, transportation, and the Famine and be reunited in New South Wales by assisted immigration. As well as his three Irish-born daughters, Edward Naughton produced a new family of eight children in Goulburn, where he ran the Railway Inn, which thrived until his death in 1877.[35]


The Reunion of the Stephens Family

One of the most remarkable stories of Famine reunion is that of the Stephens family from County Wicklow. Ruth and Jane Stephens, aged fifteen and fourteen, arrived in Sydney on the Thomas Arbuthnot on February 3, 1850, simply recorded as coming from Wicklow. Both were house servants who could read and write and were members of the Church of England; their parents, John and Eliza, were living in Sydney.[36] Like all the 194 orphan girls on the Thomas Arbuthnot, upon their arrival the Stephens sisters spent five days on the ship, brought their boxes from the hold and prepared to go ashore. Like most landed in Sydney, they went to the Immigration Depot at Hyde Park Barracks on Macquarie Street.[37] Both were hired after twenty-one days by Mr. and Mrs. M. Bowerman of Macquarie Street. Ruth was indentured for three years at a wage of six pounds a year; Jane, being younger, was indentured for four years at the same rate, and both received full board and lodgings as part of their employment arrangement.


The Stephens sisters had been in the Rathdrum workhouse, and the Poor Law minute book, uncharacteristically, revealed the family link: “Two letters were read from Lieutenant Henry, Government Emigration Officer in reference to the proposed Emigration from the Workhouse of Ruth and Jane Stephens, daughters of Eliza Stephens, who has been sent out to Australia as a sub-matron in one of the Government Emigration Vessels in August last.”[38]


Ruth and Jane had initially been escorted to Dublin by the schoolmaster of their workhouse, who was going to the city on leave and was charged with seeing the girls onto the steamer bound for Plymouth. Their mother, Eliza, had received a passage as a sub-matron on a previous orphan ship, the Lismoyne, which left Plymouth on August 22, 1849. She not only received a free passage under the scheme for wives and families of convicts, but she was paid a small gratuity for acting as sub-matron during the voyage—surely benevolence at its most generous. Aged thirty-seven, Eliza Stephens was noted on the shipping list as the daughter of Isaac and James Markes or Marks (both dead); her husband, John Stephens, was living in Van Diemen’s Land.[39] John, a blacksmith, had arrived in Hobart on the Tory in March 1847, following a sentence of ten years’ transportation for stealing cows. His physical description identifies him as five-foot-nine, aged thirty-four, fresh complexion, large head, brown hair, no whiskers, oval visage, high forehead, brown eyebrows, grey eyes, large nose, large wide mouth and medium chin.[40] His facial features closely resemble those depicted in the surviving photograph of his daughter, Ruth. When the Stephens sisters arrived on the Thomas Arbuthnot the authorities located their parents in Tasmania, so they spent a short time in Sydney, before being re-located to Tasmania, despite being given employment as indentured servants.[41] Because they were free, these young workhouse immigrant women could leave their employment if circumstances were suitable, and going to Van Diemen’s Land with their mother to be reunited as a family group seems to have been accepted.


Not all the workhouse orphans fared so well in the colony as Catherine Naughton and the Stephens sisters. A select committee report into Irish female immigrants in 1859 has an appendix listing 254 of these orphans with a summary of why their employment apprenticeships (indentures) were cancelled. Offences range from unspecified “bad” or “improper conduct”, “absent without permission,” “general misconduct,” and “refusing to work” to “charges of ill-treatment” either by them or to them. In most cases, the charges were dismissed or the indentures cancelled and the girl was sent to the country.[42] Christiana Wynne, who had been in the South Dublin workhouse since at least April 1847, before emigrating in December 1848, charged her employer, J. L. Faucett of George Street, Sydney, with assault two months after her arrival in Sydney.[43] The case was dismissed, but she was sent far away to Moreton Bay, where by mid-1850 she married William Darling. She managed their farm on the banks of the Brisbane River, which although initially granted to him, was transferred into her name. She had eleven daughters and when she died in 1892 her estate was valued at 3,313 pounds; perhaps a measure of her success as an immigrant.[44]


Mary McCarthy from Galway arrived in Sydney in February 1850, aged eighteen, with a mother still alive back home. She was employed from the Hyde Park Barracks by Miss J. A. Rossiter, a milliner, on Fort Street, Sydney, at eight pounds a year, but three months later Mary’s indentures were cancelled for “disobedience and neglect of duty, her wages ordered to be kept from her until she behaves better.”[45] It seems she, too, was sent to the country, because in August 1851 she married George Cooper at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Bathurst, about 125 miles west of Sydney. The detail their home life is unrecorded but it is known that she had three children with him between 1853 and 1857, after which he disappeared.[46] In 1858, Mary married Edward Jacob Young, also at Bathurst, with whom she had eleven children.[47]


Then, in 1872, during a violent argument, Mary stabbed and killed her second husband. She was sentenced at the Mudgee Quarter Sessions on March 16, 1872, to the relatively short time of six months’ imprisonment for manslaughter, and sent to Darlinghurst jail in Sydney.[48] Following her release, she raised her children alone in Sydney. But this was not the end of drama for poor Mary—in 1887, aged fifty-five, Mary Ann, now calling herself “Edith,” was discovered in a dying condition by her daughter, Mrs. McNabb. An inquest took place and on December 20 the Herald reported that she had died from an overdose of chlorodyne, a widely available medicine used for treatment of insomnia, neuralgia, and migraines.[49] Composed of “a mixture of laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), […] cannabis and chloroform, it readily lived up to its claim of relieving pain, as a sedative, and for the treatment of diarrhea.”[50]


Whether she took an overdose on purpose is unknown, but her initial battle with authority and the disappearance of her first husband followed by what seems to have been an experience with a violent second husband, coupled with her struggle to support her many children, obviously lead to some kind of personal crisis. She is buried in the scenic Waverley Cemetery not far from the memorial to the 1798 Irish Rebels. Mary McCarthy’s name is one of the four hundred etched on the glass panels of the Sydney Famine Memorial, names selected to represent all the workhouse orphans and, by extension, all who died during the Famine or were forced to leave, including modern-day refugees as well. Many of the names are ancestors of those who made a donation to the erection of the memorial, or helped the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee in the years before it was built in 1999, while some names have no such ties to the present, a reminder of the transience of memory.[51]




Thus the Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine in Sydney was erected with the hope that the young Irish Famine orphans would be seen as representative of all refugees, particularly women who come to Australia. Refugees in the broad sense of the word: people who are driven to leave their native lands through some form of persecution, whether it be from natural disasters or political upheaval. It is an Irish and community sculpture, inspired by President Mary Robinson’s plea to the Irish diaspora to remember the Famine, inaugurated by Robinson’s successor, President Mary McAleese, on September 2, 1998, and unveiled by the governor general of Australia, Sir William Deane, on August 28, 1999. As well as contributions from Irish clubs, associations, societies, corporate bodies, and individuals in Australia and overseas, major funding came from the Australian federal government, the Republic of Ireland, the New South Wales government, the City of Sydney and the Lands Titles Office. As Tom Power, chairman of the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee, so eloquently remarked at the unveiling, these workhouse orphan girls are “a continual reminder of the many terrible realities, similar to the great famine of Ireland, occurring in the world today and which cry out for our compassion and concern.”[52]


Through the work on the individual histories of these Earl Grey workhouse orphan girls and outreach education programs, which help sponsor the education of a refugee girl at one of three tertiary institutions in Sydney, the Commemoration Committee contributes to Irish-Australian history and, in a small way, to global peace and harmony.[53] These programs encourage the education of modern-day refugee women at Macquarie University in Sydney and Western Sydney University by a small financial grant and a certificate each year. It is hoped that, in time, a scholarship to fully fund a three-year undergraduate degree will eventually come about at Western Sydney University, which is situated in an area of large settlement of recent immigrants. The Commemoration Committee also regularly donates money to the refuge program at Mamre House, run by the Catholic Diocese of Parramatta, and donations to the Western Sydney University bursary fund and Mamre House are fully tax-deductible for Australians.


[1] Emily Mark-FitzGerald, Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013).

[2] See “Irish Famine Memorial” (web page), Monument Australia, accessed March 1, 2017,   

[3] For example, see biographies of the convicts, crew members, and military persons involved with the first and second convict fleets in Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989); Michael Flynn, The Second Fleet: Britain’s Grim Convict Armada of 1790 (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1993).

[4] See “Irish Convicts to New South Wales 1788–1849” (web page), ed. Peter Mayberry, accessed March 1, 2017,  

[5] List of 50 free girls arrived by the Palambam, 1832, State Archives & Records Authority of New South Wales (formerly State Records New South Wales, and hereafter cited SANSW) 4/2115.2.

[6] Perry McIntyre, Free Passage: The Reunion of Irish Convicts and Their Families in Australia 1788–1852 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2011), 74, 9, 115.

[7] Elizabeth Rushen and Perry McIntyre, Fair Game: Australia’s First Immigrant Women (Spit Junction: Anchor Books Australia, 2010).

[8] Elizabeth Rushen, Single & Free: Female Migration to Australia, 1833–1837 (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2003); Elizabeth Rushen, Colonial Duchesses: The Migration of Irish Women to New South Wales before the Great Famine (Melbourne: Anchor Books Australia, 2014).

[9] Perry McIntyre, “‘Deserted and Despised Innocent Sufferers’: The Immigration of Free Families of Convicts to New South Wales 1788–1852, with Particular Reference to the Irish” (PhD diss., University of Western Sydney, Nepean, 2005); published as McIntyre, Free Passage.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See “Letter from Dr Edward Trevor, [supervisor of convict transportation, Cove, County Cork], Dublin, concerning sea transport for convicts’ families and female convicts,” 4 Aug. 1825, 1825/11913; “Memorial of Sandy and Thomas McCabe, Virginia, County Cavan, requesting free passage to travel to New South Wales, to join their father,” 14 May 1826, 1826/13780; and “Memorial of Sandy and Thomas McCabe, Ardlow, County Cavan, seeking free passage to New South Wales, where their father is a convict,” 6 June 1826, 1826/13803, Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers (hereafter CSORP), The National Archives of Ireland (hereafter NAI), accessed Jan. 14, 2018,

[12] Application for free passage for family of James McGartland, Colonial Secretary Correspondence, August 10, 1840, SANSW 4/2550.1, 40/9269. [Ed. note: For the archival material listed here and below, we have followed the referencing style used by SANSW. For interested researchers, reference numbers in these citations should be understood as follows: regarding above example specifically, “4/2550.1” is the specific bundle within SANSW’s collection, and “40/9269” is the specific letter or document within that bundle. The “40/” represents the year of the letter’s composition, and “40/9269” is the specific letter within 1840.

[13] Michael, aged nineteen, arrived per the St. Vincent in 1837; see SANSW 2/8277. Honora, aged twenty-nine, and Denis arrived per the Anglia in 1850; see SANSW 4/4919.

[14] Hugh Bracken arrived per the Portland in 1833; see SANSW 4/4017, fiche 685, p. 214; petition of 7 February 1843, SANSW 4/2550.1, 43/2864 and 43/3421; SANSW 4/1111.4; SANSW 4/3691, reel 1953, 86; petition of 21 October 1847, SANSW 4/2762.1, 47/8453; Colonial Office (hereafter CO), 386/154, no. 124; SANSW 4/2941, 51/6997 and M8885.

[15] Peter Gready arrived per the Elphinstone in 1838; see X641, fiche 735, p. 206; Dennis Lawler arrived per the Backwell in 1835; see X637, fiche 714, p. 144; petitions of 14 January 1848, SANSW 4/2799.1, 48/650.

[16] Richard E. Reid, Farewell My Children: Irish Assisted Emigration to Australia 1848–1870 (Spit Junction: Anchor Books Australia, 2011), 140–41.

[17] Ibid., 14–15.

[18] [Benjamin Godwin], Godwin’s Emigrant’s Guide to Van Diemen’s Land, More Properly Called Tasmania (London: Sherwood, Jones & Co., 1823).

[19] The Emigrant’s Friend, or Authentic Guide to South Australia (London: J. Allen, 1848).

[20] National Emigration Aid Society, Information on Assisted Emigration (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c. 1869).

[21] N.8, Return showing Assisted & Unassisted Immigration, 1 January 1838–31 December 1850, in Report from the Select Committee on Immigration, 6 July 1852.

[22] Figures compiled from various immigration agents’ reports, in Richard Reid, “Aspects of Irish Assisted Emigration to New South Wales, 1848–1870” (PhD diss., Australian National University, Canberra, 1992), vol. 2, 4, 30–31.

[23] Cashel Poor Law Guardian Minutes, BG/52/A9, 8 February 1849, 179.

[24] Reid, Farwell My Children, 42.

[25] For example, The Goulburn Herald & County of Argyle Advertiser, 23 September 1848; “Legislative Council Report on Irish Orphan Emigrants,” The Argus (Melbourne), 28 August 1850; Adelaide Advertiser, 16 November 1861.

[26] “Certificate of Final Departure,” South Australian Archives 49/17.

[27] Trevor McClaughlin, Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, vol. 2 (Melbourne: Genealogical Society of Victoria, 2001), 397–402.

[28] The commissioners’ official number is 2,220 but the numbers on the ships amount to 2,232.

[29] “Irish Famine Memorial: Sydney” (website), accessed March 1, 2017,   

[30] SANSW 4/7078.

[31] SANSW 4/2762.1, 47/6730; SANSW 4/2941, 51/6997; emigration, registers of correspondence, CO 386/154.

[32] The Pemberton, SANSW 4/4916; immigration correspondence, 26 October 1849, SANSW 4/696.

[33] Shipping list of the Inchinnan, arrived in Sydney on 13 February 1849, SANSW 4/4909; shipping list of the Digby, arrived in Sydney on 2 April 1849, SANSW 4/4908; convict indent of the Eliza, sailed from Cork on 10 May 1832, 4/4017, SRNSW.

[34] Immigration Deposit Journals of 1853, SANSW 4/4576; shipping list of the Sabrina, SANSW 4/4940.

[35] Correspondence to Dr. Trevor McClaughlin from descendant, Pat Astill, 13 May 1986.

[36] Immigration Board’s list for the Thomas Arbuthnot, SANSW 4/4786.

[37] Governor FitzRoy’s dispatch no. 127 of 1850, Mitchell Library A1256 CY2056.

[38] Poor Law Guardian Minute Book, Rathdrum, 13 October 1849, 53–54, Wicklow County Council Archives.

[39] Immigration Board’s list for the Lismoyne, SANSW 4/4786.

[40] Archives Office of Tasmania, CON 33-1-85_00191_S.

[41] Eliza and John Stephens had a daughter, Hannah Eliza, born in Hobart in May 1851, indicating that Eliza and her daughters left Sydney for that colony soon after the arrival of the Thomas Arbuthnot on 9 August 1849.

[42] Appendix J, “Return of Cases of Orphan Female Apprentices whose Indentures were cancelled by the Court of Petty Sessions at the Water Police Office,” Report from the Select Committee on Irish Female Immigrants, proceedings of the committee and minutes of evidence, NSW Legislative Assembly, 2 Feb. 1859 (hereafter Appendix J).

[43] South Dublin Indoor Register BG79/G/3 no. 1955 and BG79/G/4 no. 3415; Appendix J, no. 11, 29 June 1849.

[44] NSW marriage of 1850, 774/36; correspondence with descendants.

[45] Appendix J, no. 119; Miss Rossiter, milliner, 256 Pitt-street south; private residence of J. C. Rossiter, Upper Fort-street, Sydney Commercial Directory for the Year 1851, W. & F. Ford, Lower George Street, 1851, 35, 119–20; register 2, nos. 259 and 291, report on case, SANSW 4/4715.

[46] NSW marriage of 1851, 459/97; NSW birth of Maria in 1853, 716 39; NSW birth of Jane in 1855, 4616 42; and NSW birth of George B. in 1857, 503 159.

[47] NSW marriage 1264/1858.

[48] Photographic Gaol Register, Darlinghurst Gaol, SANSW 3/14030.

[49] NSW death 1862/1887; Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1887.

[50] Wikipedia (website), s.v. “chlorodyne,” accessed January 27, 2018,

[51] For more on the many materials presented in this article, please also see Perry McIntyre, “The Irish in Australia: Remembering and Commemorating the Great Famine,” in The Famine Irish: Emigration and the Great Hunger, ed. Ciarán Reilly (Dublin: The History Press, 2016), 181-92.

[52] Souvenir Booklet to Mark the Unveiling of the Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine 1845–1848, 28 Aug. 1999.