Home Lifestyle The Irish orphan girls who shaped Australia’s character

The Irish orphan girls who shaped Australia’s character

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It may come as a surprise to hear that the Australian national temperament was shaped by 4,000 Irish orphan girls, but Susan Ryan, the Labor politician and campaigner who died last month, spoke often of the role those gutsy, brave pioneers played in the development of her country’s character.

Indeed, the story of those young women — ‘morally pure’ orphans selected from Irish workhouses after the Famine to populate a colony in desperate need of wives — is much better known in Australia than it is in Ireland.

There, the stories of thousands of young women who were taken from workhouses all over Ireland, given a regulation kit of petticoats, stockings and utensils, along with the promise of a new life, are commemorated at the Irish Famine Memorial in Sydney.

From 1848 to 1850, they made the four-month sea voyage to Sydney under a scheme developed by Earl Grey, son of the famous tea merchant and secretary of state for the colonies. He hoped it would achieve two things: ease the relentless misery in Irish workhouses and bring hardy, humble and fertile women to the male-dominated colonies.

The Earl Grey Orphan Scheme, as it was known although many of the women were simply destitute rather than orphaned, did something else. As Susan Ryan pointed out: “[It] not only gave those girls a new opportunity for a decent life, but also created a defining influence of the Irish in Australia. Eminent scholars have written much on that topic and their scholarship has established the formative role of the Irish in the development of the Australian character.”

Their brave, dynamic spirit has echoed down through the generations, Ryan said, but in the mid-19th century, those certainly brave and often traumatised young women were not always welcome when they were corralled into the immigration depot at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney.

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James and Bridget Murray (née Ryan) James and Bridget Murray (née Ryan)

James and Bridget Murray (née Ryan)

James and Bridget Murray (née Ryan)

‘Squat, stunted figures’

In the words of one official, they were little more than “workhouse sweepings”; dirty, idle and morose. They weren’t the right shape either, and it was feared “their squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles” would wreck the prized muscular colonial physique if they were allowed to become mothers.

All the same, the new arrivals, aged between 14 and 20, soon made their way in the new world, getting jobs as domestic servants, kitchen helps or minders or marrying (despite their squatness) and trekking off into the wilds with their husbands into the isolated and inhospitable goldfields.

Some of them were even appreciated. When Limerick-born Bridget Ryan (14) arrived, her state of “health, strength and probable usefulness” was listed as “good”. She was one of the rare few who could read and write as well as sew and embroider, skills she was most likely to have learned at Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick, although she ended up in Listowel Workhouse in Co Kerry.

Shortly afterwards, she married a Scotsman, James Murray, and in December 1851 they had the first of their 13 children. Those children, in turn, had 76 children, says her great-great-granddaughter Julie Evans. She estimates that Bridget Murray has accumulated more than 5,000 Australian descendants in the 170 years since her marriage.

“That’s a big contribution to the population of Australia. And there were over 4,000 girls who came out under the scheme,” she says.

But to Julie and her cousins Barbara Farrell and Jeanette Greenway, Bridget is much more than the sum of her progeny.

“We are very proud of our Irish ancestor — and amazed that she made the journey to Australia at such a young age. If we work back from her death certificate, it seems that she was only 13 when she left Ireland and celebrated her 14th birthday on the voyage to Australia. What courage she must have had.

“Family lore tells us that she never lost her Irish accent. She died on November 10, 1909 just before her 74th birthday. Her obituary refers to her as ‘an old and respected pioneer of the district’,” of Oxley Island in New South Wales.

There’s another fascinating aspect to Bridget’s story. Her father, a soldier from Limerick, had made the journey before her, but as a convict. He was transported after his trial for bigamy in Limerick in 1837. Julie Evans came across a description of him in the register of the Neptune, which brought him to Australia: “Blind of left eye, whiskers red, three scars on left side of upper lip, large scar on right side of under lip, several scars on right side of mouth, nose long and thin, scar on upper part of same, lost right arm”.

“He must have been quite a fierce-looking character,” she says. It’s unlikely, though, that he and his daughter ever met him again.

The story is told in fascinating detail in The Kerry Girls: Emigration and the Earl Grey Scheme, a book by genealogist Kay Moloney Caball, which brings to life the experiences of the 117 young women who left from workhouses in Kerry.

“Once they got to Australia, it was all about survival,” she says.

“There is no doubt from the histories written by a number of their descendants that they were a brave, resourceful, spirited and gutsy set of women. They took on lives that demanded courage, extreme hard work, resilience in the face of misfortune, and were tough in the best sense of the word.”

When Moloney Caball started to research these women’s lives, she was inundated with requests for information from descendants. Terri Kearney, co-author with Philip O’Regan of Skibbereen: The Famine Story, tells a similar story. As manager of Skibbereen Heritage Centre, she has met many Australians who are fascinated — and proud — of their Irish great-great-grandmothers.

One of them, Geoff Cummins, has visited Ireland several times with his wife, Anne, and tells Review that they were delighted to find a baptismal register entry for his great-great-grandmother, Mary O’Donovan, who arrived in Melbourne in 1850, aged 19.

She married Michael Cummins, a Dublin master mariner, two years later. The couple moved to the Ballarat goldfields in Victoria where her husband established himself as a timber and hardware merchant. He also became a town councillor and later, as a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, an advocate for land reform. The Cummins Clause was introduced into land legislation to help poorer families.

Mary, who must have seen the most harrowing hardship at the Skibbereen workhouse as a young woman, worked to help the poor and ran stalls to fund the building of an orphanage and church. She also went further, as Geoff Cummins explains: “When an unemployed miner died by suicide, she took in and cared for the young widow and her infant child.”

She died during “premature confinement” in 1866 aged 35, but she and the 4,000-plus other Irish orphans have left a lasting legacy in Australia. As Susan Ryan put it: “We belong to them and they to us.”

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