In a report by the Emigration Commissioners
about the girls despatched on the first two ships they were described as “wanting in orderly and tidy appearance” which attribute characterised English female immigrants, and “generally short and not at all well-looking”, . . “better calculated for milking cows or undergoing the drudgery of a farm servant’s life than to perform the office of a lady’s maid.”

In view of the reports about them it was decided that the Irish workhouse girls should be allocated to separate ships as “their habits and manners make them very unacceptable companions for English migrants.”

Their homes broken and their parents dead, the adolescent Irish orphan girls faced new hardships when they arrived. Maligned as “useless trollops”, “barefooted little country beggars”, “easily given to the gratification of their desires”, they battled to carve out a new life in the city and the bush.

The scheme was quickly brought into disrepute when it was claimed in Australia that the girls were found to be “violent and disorderly” and some were alleged to be little more than “prostitutes and beggars.” They were caricatured in the local press as ugly, lazy, unintelligent, uncivilised or as agents of a Papal plot to subvert the Protestant nature of Colonial Society! Whilst, back in Ireland, the nationalist press condemned the scheme as nothing more than “white slavery”.

The first such ship to arrive, the Earl Grey , on 6/10/1848 carried 150 women from Northern Ireland and attracted much criticism; in particular from the vessel’s Surgeon Superintendent, Dr. Henry Grattan Douglass. He reported that in the selection of orphans sent out on that ship a “gross imposition had been practised upon the Emigration Commissioners”; that instead of “girls educated in the Orphan Schools in Ireland”, the females placed under his charge had been “early abandoned to the unrestricted gratification of their desires, and left to conceive as erroneous an idea of the value of the truth, as of the necessity of personal restraint”; that there were among them those who “boast of the prolific issue of their vices; that expatriation had been held out to them as the reward of the workhouse”; and that “the professed public woman and barefooted little country beggar have been alike sought after as fit persons . . . ere they were sent as a valuable addition to the Colonists of New South Wales”.

In response to these charges, the Governor of New South Wales, made a report to London on 19/12/1848 stating “notwithstanding that fifty-six of these orphans were girls of the most abandoned character, who set a very pernicious example to the remainder, more than two-thirds conducted themselves, both during the voyage and after their arrival in Sydney, in an extremely satisfactory manner; and as I took the precaution of shipping those of an objectionable character at once for Maitland and Moreton Bay (Brisbane) . . . . I have every confidence (the others) will prove themselves . . . creditable members of the community”.

The fifty-six girls isolated from the others became known as the Belfast Girls and there were accusations that the Irish Government’s selection of “improper women” was shabbily hushed up, and that Dr. Douglass “who had taken his duties seriously, was dismissed as a busybody and a prude, without reason.” It was generally felt that a “great injustice (had) been done to the Colony”, and later discovered that some of the ‘girls’ had long since passed girlhood, a number of them having emigrated under assumed names, and two of them being married women who had run away from their husbands!

The Irish Poor Law Commissioners were desperate for the scheme to succeed and anxious that the acceleration of the programme not give rise to careless selection of orphans. Local guardians were urged to select only girls of unblemished character and sound health, and this policy seems to have been applied conscientiously as complaints regarding the girls who continued to arrive during 1849 and 1850 were relatively few.
But the good character of the later girls was not enough to overcome resistance to the scheme. Despite the fact that the first parties of girls were quickly accepted by the settlers and absorbed into the community, the Australian authorities, bending to local pressures, decided that they had had enough Irish orphans and that the scheme should be terminated.

The final group of Irish workhouse orphans was dispatched in April 1850. And what did the orphan emigration scheme contribute to the overcrowding of Irish workhouses. Very little. When the last ship sailed, it left behind 104,000 children, orphaned or abandoned. These in later life would become statistics in the court and prison records as they passed out of the workhouses into the only lives they had been fitted out for by their workhouse experience. In light of what happened to most of these lost children of the famine years, the ones who made it to Australia were the lucky ones!

* * * * * * * * *

I am sorry that this is such a meagre account of what must have been a dreadful period in Irish history; but there seems very little information or interest left in the minds of old people after that time. In fact, there was a sort of conspiracy of silence on the part of their parents and grandparents about it all. Much the same as returned prisoners of war of the Japanese after World War II, and the more recent war in Vietnam, were reluctant to talk about their experiences. As if it was all too painful to remember or impossible to describe without encountering scepticism for exaggerating the facts.

* * * * * * * * *

Catherine was beside herself with anticipation and apprehension. The Emigration Commissioner's agent was coming to select ten only suitable girls for the next shipment of female orphans to Australia, and her name was again on the list. Twice before she had been passed over with the quite audible comment, “miserable bag of bones”, but this time she felt confident. An edict had been issued by the Commissioners that the next intake had to comprise girls of “good character and sound health.” As a consequence, she and nine other ‘candidates’ had been on extra food rations for the past month and had been scrubbed-up and given clean workhouse garb for the occasion. In fact, she was now a sturdy, healthylooking young lady of 14 years.

The other nine girls were:

Name Age District Religion
Mary Brennan 15 Boyle Catholic
Margaret Dolan 15 Boyle Catholic
Ellen Gilligan 17 Boyle Catholic
Jane Higgins 17 Boyle Catholic
Mary Kevaney 16 Boyle Catholic
Mary McGarry 15 Boyle Catholic
Catherine Mullaney 17 Boyle Catholic
Jane Reynolds 14 Croghan Catholic
Mary Stafford 17 Boyle C of E

This time for Catherine and the others it was going to be now or never for a contingent was being assembled for the eleventh Irish orphan ship; and after the twelfth ship the scheme was terminated.

That terrible time, four years ago, when she and Martin had been discovered half-starved, filthy, and feverish in a mud-filled ditch near Croghan was now all but forgotten. They had both been taken to the workhouse at Boyle and had been there ever since. Although boys and girls were strictly segregated, she knew Martin was still in the boys’ section and would try to pass a message to him before she left. One other advantage of the workhouse, apart from keeping them alive, had been that they had both now received some rudimentary schooling, with the consequence that she could read and Martin could now both read and write.

With her departure imminent she managed to dictate a message for Martin to a sympathetic dormitory mistress.

25 March 1850
Dear Beloved Brother,
I am sending you theas fue layns by hand of Mises Kerigan* and I hope you are in gud helf. I hav gud nues, I am been sent awe (away) to Austrayla on the next ship. Mises Kerrigan ses I will be a servant to a grand lady and be paed wages with reel money. I promiss to saev my money and send for you soon.

Mises Kerrigan ses the peepel in yr sectiun giv a gud account of you and I here you are a vere religes boy.

Dear Martin, doant evr think I will forget you tho a long wae from home.

I remane yr evr loving sister,

(Name fictitious) (Catherine’s ‘letter’ has been compiled using the language and spelling found in the few surviving examples of Irish emigrant letters.)

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28th March 1850. Catherine and the other nine girls from Boyle workhouse were bundled into a carriage, each dressed in their new finery, and with their individual wooden boxes of belongings strapped on the roof, taken by land to Dublin and sea to Plymouth which was the port of embarcation for all the emigrant ships. The cost of getting them there, victuals included, was around one Pound; and their passage to Australia, two Pounds. All paid for by the Poor Law Commission, which was glad to be rid of them and so reduce the overcrowding in the workhouses.


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