The Famine Girls, a documentary by Dr Siobhán McHugh, a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Wollongong is being broadcast on the ABC’s Radio National Hindsight program this Sunday 11th August at 1.05pm, and repeated on Thursday 15th. It explores the fate of some 4,000 single young women, most of whom were teenaged orphans, who arrived in Australia under a special emigration scheme devised by the British Government designed to resettle destitute girls from the workhouses of Ireland during the Great Famine.
‘If there’s one word I have for them, it’s survivors. Every time I think of Eliza, I laugh. I say, you beat the system. No matter what they threw at you, you got through it!’
Joan Dwyer, from Sydney, is talking about her great-grandmother, Eliza Fraser, one of 4000 orphan girls aged between 14 and 20 despatched to Australia from Irish workhouses at the height of the Famine.
Eliza’s group, from Belfast, stood up for each other on board ship and spoke out against their disciplinarian overseer. Considered a bad lot, they were not even allowed to dock in Sydney, but were sent further north to Moreton Bay, to mingle with the rough ex-convicts as domestic servants and potential wives.
‘I see them as like the street kids of today’, says Dwyer. ‘Be honest about it. They were maybe not the most attractive people in the world, they might not have been educated, they’re foul-mouthed, they drink… is it their fault? They’re children. But they’re strong, they’re survivors. With the right opportunities they can be the foundation of stable families for the future.’
For more information about the documentary see: Radio National Programs/Hindsight