Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2022), Letters, Volume 30

Sir,—Anne Casey (‘“Rags and boughs”—daughters of the Great Hunger in Australia’, HI 30.1, Jan./Feb. 2022) bases her criticisms of the Earl Grey famine orphan scheme, under which girls were sent from Irish workhouses to the Australian colonies, on the later experiences of one of these women and her three Australian-born children. Catherine McNeill, a fifteen-year-old from County Roscommon, reached Sydney in 1849. She undoubtedly had a hard life, as, after her husband died in 1867, she was imprisoned for vagrancy and her children were sent to industrial schools. But between 1848 and 1850 around 4,100 teenage girls arrived in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide on 21 ships under the Earl Grey scheme. One woman and her offspring cannot possibly represent the experiences of all these women and their descendants—and, in fact, Catherine McNeill is far from typical of the orphans, or of assisted Irish female immigrants in general.

Casey claims that the lives of the famine orphans and their daughters remain a ‘largely untold’ story, but this is not correct. The Earl Grey scheme is one of the most intensively researched and widely commemorated chapters in Irish-Australian history. Dozens of books and articles have been published about it over the last 30 years; there are also a number of current websites and blogs; during the 1990s, major memorials were erected in both Melbourne and Sydney, at which annual commemorations are still held; and in 2017 President Michael D. Higgins unveiled further memorials to nineteenth-century Irish female immigrants in Perth and Hobart. Trevor McClaughlin’s pioneering book on the orphan scheme, Barefoot and Pregnant?, which includes a register of all the girls, first appeared in 1991, and today McClaughlin continues to produce a valuable blog exploring orphan family history. The orphans have also been remembered in Ireland, with a book about the girls sent from County Kerry published in Dublin in 2014 and memorials to others erected in Donegal, Cork and Mayo. In 2020 we compiled a study for the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies surveying the literature, folklore, monuments and music inspired by the famine orphans. The published article ended up being 30 pages long—a reflection of the sheer volume of material currently available.

As McClaughlin and other historians have pointed out, some of these women did experience great hardship. A number, like Catherine McNeill, were imprisoned for drunkenness, vagrancy or prostitution, while others were incarcerated in lunatic asylums or committed suicide. However, such women were not the ‘many’, as Casey asserts; rather they were a minority. She is right to describe their lives as ‘tragic’, but the lives of the majority of those arriving from famine-ravaged Ireland were not tragic. They did not endure ‘destitution and repeated imprisonment’ in Australia, as Casey alleges. On the contrary, they embraced the opportunities available to them in the colonies, as did many of their children. In 2019–21, the Irish-Australian monthly online magazine Tinteán published a series of short biographies of individual orphans written by descendants. These articles are testament to the rich and varied experiences of the girls and their Australian families. Descendants have included notable Australian writers (Steele Rudd, Dymphna Cusack) and, in recent times, a governor-general of Australia (Sir William Deane), a prime minister (Kevin Rudd), a deputy prime minister (Barnaby Joyce), state premiers (Mike Baird) and several Irish-Australian historians (Jeff Kildea, Elizabeth Malcolm).

There are other inaccuracies in Casey’s article, both with regard to the orphan scheme and Irish female immigration more generally. For instance, it is not true that, in the 1830s and 1840s, about 20% of female assisted immigrants died during the long voyage or that sexual assaults on them were commonplace. In his 2021 book The Coffin Ship, Cian McMahon compared the experiences of those who sailed to North America during the famine with those sent to Australia. Of the orphans, he wrote that they were ‘lucky’ and ‘fortunate’ because, ‘generally speaking, government-assisted emigrants enjoyed more protection en route to their destinations than did average travellers’ (p. 45). Casey claims that the orphans were ‘found to be unsuitable for domestic service’, and she highlights a hostile 1850 article about them that appeared in the Melbourne Argus newspaper. Yet most of the girls did work as servants, before many swiftly married, while the Argus’s assessments have to be treated with caution, since its founder was a Scottish-born Orangeman renowned for his anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments.

It is essential to acknowledge the trauma suffered by the thousands of Irish girls confined in workhouses during the famine, including those shipped to the Australian colonies by the British government with the twin aims of reducing workhouse numbers and providing wives for the largely male settler population. But to portray these women solely as victims fails to do them justice. We must recognise their agency, for in the face of poverty and prejudice the majority of them took control of their own lives and flourished in the colonies.—Yours etc.,


My observations with respect to the Earl Grey famine orphan scheme are not based on ‘the later experiences of one of these women and her three Australian-born children’. My comments are based on my research dating back to 2017 into the lives of the 193 inmates of Newcastle Industrial School in New South Wales (1867–71), which has revealed a previously unobserved prevalence (28.5%) of Irish daughters of famine-related immigrants incarcerated in the institution, a high proportion of whom were daughters of Irish famine orphans. My remarks on the hostility they faced ‘fuelled by inflammatory press coverage’ is echoed by writers including Malcolm and Noone themselves—‘Anxieties over class, gender, ethnicity and religion are also very evident in attacks on the Earl Grey scheme’—and align with observations by others, including David Fitzpatrick, Siobhán O’Neill, Benjamin McHutchion and Kay Moloney Caball. O’Neill, for example, wrote for the Irish Times: ‘Some orphans suffered exploitation and abuse from unscrupulous employers, and many fell on hard times. All were subjected to rampant discrimination, as anti-Irish sentiment grew with the arrival of each ship.’ Malcolm and Noone have also written: ‘Adding to the stresses of the voyage and dramatic cultural change, the orphan girls, like many Irish immigrants, were confronted on arrival in Australia with anti-Irish prejudice, but in their case, it was especially intense’, which again is consistent with my observations.

On the subject of how their skills were perceived, in the context of the Irish orphans and other Irish female assisted immigrants to Australia, David Fitzpatrick wrote: ‘by comparison with those British settlers who were induced to immigrate at public expense, the Irish seldom boasted occupational skills’. O’Neill observed that ‘the girls were widely criticised in the press and often subjected to abuse in the streets … Criticisms ridiculed their appearance, aptitude, abilities and moral fibre.’ A fuller discussion is contained in my own peer-reviewed writing, which is pending publication, and which was well beyond the allocated length for my History Ireland piece.

The ‘largely untold’ story to which I refer is not, as Malcolm and Noone suggest, that of the Irish famine orphans as a whole. It is the story of the Irish famine orphans (and Irish famine-affected families) whose daughters were incarcerated at Newcastle Industrial School for Girls. Aside from my writing on this subject—published in the Irish Times, by Swinburne University Melbourne and as part of an international art exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Newcastle school, recorded by an ABC radio broadcaster—my History Ireland article is, insofar as I am aware, the only other publication identifying or acknowledging this cluster of Irish famine-affected girls and their mothers. My lengthy peer-reviewed writing awaiting publication acknowledges the rich repository of writing on the Irish famine orphans, citing all of the sources noted by Malcolm and Noone and many others.

The ‘destitution and repeated incarceration’ that I mentioned is in reference to the families of ‘Irish’ girls incarcerated in Newcastle Industrial School, as noted above. As recorded in my History Ireland article and in my articles for the Irish Times, these girls and their mothers—including those who had arrived as Irish famine orphans—endured significant hardships, repeated incarcerations and many brutalities within their internment. As stated earlier, this research relates to children of Irish orphans and children of Irish families who emigrated in famine-affected years; the mortality rate for children on the voyage to Australia at this time was one in five, as documented, for example, by Ralph Shlomowitz and Robin Hanes. My commentary on the reception and prejudgment faced by the orphans and other Irish immigrants in the colony at the time, including the inflammatory press coverage, is supported by many writers (some noted above) and was given as context regarding the difficulties which affected outcomes for the families of the Irish Newcastle inmates.

Malcolm and Noone’s suggestion that I sought to portray these Irish girls solely as victims is inconsistent with evidence presented by my body of internationally published work supporting women’s rights. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly recognise these girls’ and women’s agency. As I observed in my article, Catherine McNeill—who was shipped to Australia at fifteen, married to a man 30 years her senior and later widowed with six young children—showed remarkable fortitude and resourcefulness in doing what was necessary to survive and provide for her family. I also noted that the Irish inmates of Newcastle rebelled repeatedly against their conditions, eventually forcing the closure of the institution. These are not girls and women without agency. They are fighters and survivors and I sincerely hope that this newly piqued interest in their stories will prompt significantly more research and recognition of their resilience.



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