Irish Famine Women – a challenge or three

A FEATURE by Trevor McClaughlin

This is the text of a paper delivered to the seminar held as part of the  International Irish Famine Commemoration in Sydney 23-25 August 2013. the-potato-famine-memorial-in-dublin-ireland

Sul a gcuirfidh mé tús leis an léach seo, ba maith liom a chur in iúl an meas mór atá agam ar muintir na Cadigal don náisiún Eora, agus na shinsear a thánaig rompu a bhí i bhfeighil an dúthaigh seo.  

(Before I begin I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Cadigal people of the Eora nation, of elders past and present, on which this event takes place.)

One of the most striking achievements in Irish scholarship during the last eighteen years or so is the sheer range and depth of works on the Great Irish Famine. After years of relative neglect the sesquicentenary of that tragic event seems to have opened the scholarly floodgates. Yet surprisingly, there seems to be no major study of women during the famine. It’s as if a big piece of the jigsaw is missing. There are a number of excellent small pieces but no comprehensive study of Irish Famine women. An exemplary work, the closest yet to what I have in mind, is in fact a work in comparative literature; Margaret Kelleher’s The Feminization of Famine: Expressions of the inexpressible (1997).

Professor Kelleher claims that ‘where the individual spectacle of a hungry body is created, this occurs predominantly (tho’ not exclusively) through images of women’ (p 8). Think about that for a moment. If I say ‘Famine’ to you, what mental image comes to mind?…..

For me, it’s an image of Sudanese and Somali women who appeared  on our television screens last year. Victims of famine and drought, those women decided to take their hungry and sick children and walk for miles and miles in search of help.

It is an image that is echoed in the very moving stream of consciousness essay by Connell Foley at the end of that brilliant  Atlas of the Great Irish Famine, (Cork University Press, 2012, p 678)

…and if you are a woman subsistence farmer in a remote part of the Congo or Niger and you have five extra mouths to feed because your brother died of HIV and you are looking at the sky and you are looking at your land and you are calculating if there will be too little rain too late or too much so that your basic crop will be ruined and you do not know how you will feed your children or pay for some medicines but you get up every day and you do what you can…  [quoting Beckett] ‘ You must go on…I can’t go on…I’ll go on.’

And for the Irish Famine, it’s James Mahony’s London Illustrated News’ images of women. You probably know  ‘A Woman Begging at Clonakilty’, for money to bury her dead child (February 1847), or ‘Bridget O’Donnell and her children’ recently evicted from their holding near Kilrush. (December 1849).

Yet looking at my own research notes, what struck me  is not women’s victimisation –but their agency, their stoicism and determination in the face of catastrophe –and the variety of their coping strategies. Women were the leaders in workhouse riots and protests in Cork, Limerick and Tipperary (Board of Guardians Minute Book records) asserting their entitlement to better treatment and better food. In 1848, 600 women rose en masse in Cork workhouse and attacked the visiting Poor Law Inspector, ‘having armed themselves with stones, tins and bottles.’ In Nenagh, women were the ‘leading characters…dashing saucepans, tins and pints of stirabout to the ground and smashing windows.’ In Limerick, in April 1849, there was a riot of women screaming and throwing pints of ale at workhouse officers. These women were probably in the second of  Professor Lawrence Geary ‘s three famine phases, the protracted period of ‘Resistance’ which came after the initial ‘Alarm’ phase and before the final phase he calls ‘Exhaustion’.  The second phase, according to Professor Geary,  saw the slow disappearance of community generosity and focus shifting away from ‘family’ to personal survival.

Women have always been given due/proper attention by historical demographers. Women’s age at marriage, their marital fertility rate and their mortality rate are crucial to any study of famine demography.

Of particular interest here is that  more men than women perished during the famine. Women had what Kate McIntyre calls ‘a female mortality advantage’. An interesting twist to this is David Fitzpatrick’s suggestion, that  – since women were in effect the principal guardians of comfort and succour, the primary suppliers of care and affection, they became the holders of the only entitlement, love, that may have been inflated by famine (p 67). The mere thought of trying to examine the history of affection during the famine will no doubt be the stuff of nightmares for traditional historians.

If the evidence collected by the Irish Folklore Commission is to be valued, it should be valued on its own terms. There is some debate about the  reliability of that evidence, since it was collected  long after the event itself. It is all too easy to dismiss. But I think we should learn to appreciate the skills of oral historians and the sophisticated ways they assess their source material. Such evidence can tell us something of what it was like to have been there (see O’Gráda, Black ’47). Why were women in the oral tradition perceived as suffering the worst of consequences?  If the folklore evidence is to believed, women during the famine had a good reputation  as providers of charity. The renowned Peig Sayers recounted to the Commissioners the story of a Kerry woman, Bridie Shehan, who tied her dead daughter to her back with ropes, and carried her to the local graveyard where two men helped her bury her daughter. When Bridie made  her way back home, her neighbour, Nora Landers, called her in and gave her seven of her own precious seed potatoes. [ O’Grada’s Black ’47, 200-01]

A female outsider, an American visitor, Asenath Nicholson, a widow, who wrote about her travels through  Ireland, also has a well deserved reputation for  charitable good works. It is from her that we learn of an Irish Famine woman’s task of closing the door on her family’s grave. If I may quote from her work, Annals of the Famine in Ireland,

A cabin was seen closed one day…when a man had the curiosity to open it, and in a dark corner he found a family of the father, mother and two children, lying in close compact. The father was considerably decomposed; the mother, it appeared, had died last, and probably fastened the door, which was always the custom when all hope was extinguished, to get in to the darkest corner and die, where passers-by could not see them. Such family scenes were quite common, and the  cabin was generally pulled down upon them for a grave (p 85).

Clearly then women were very much present in famine times. They were there in the workhouse,  rioting against their treatment and poor quality food. They were there inside the cottier’s cottage, their domestic domain, when the pile of potatoes on the table grew smaller and smaller and decisions had to be taken as to who got what, and how much. They were there around the family hearth when the decision was made to send their sons and daughters abroad,  or to decide if the whole family should emigrate. And women were most probably there, at the very end when they could still close the door to their cottage, their family grave.

This then is our first challenge: a full blown study of Irish women’s role during the famine.

What part did women play in Irish society and economy? What work did they do in the fields, at sowing  or at harvest time? Did they help dig ditches, gather sticks, dig turf, feed cattle, pigs and poultry or groom horses by lantern, late on a winter’s night? Was their work confined to a kitchen garden, washing, weaving, cooking, sweeping the yard and cleaning the house?  How did all this differ from class to class or region to region before, during and after the Famine?

What exactly was women’s role in family life? Were women the chief providers of affection? What was their sense of moral value? Were they protectors and promoters  of religious belief? Did they act as guardians of oral tradition and transmitters of language and culture?  Did the Famine overturn traditional family structures and throw traditional mores into disarray? Did women have to find and procure food for themselves and their desperately hungry children by whatever means, travelling miles, begging, and stealing if needs be.  Without an understanding of women’s role, may I suggest to you, our knowledge of the famine will always remain incomplete?

Our second challenge then is a full-scale, comprehensive study of Irish-Australian Famine women. The important thing, as before,  is that we view these women through the lens of the Famine.

When I was preparing Barefoot & Pregnant? in the 1980s I was concerned about identifying people who knew an driochsheal, people who had first hand experience of the ‘bad life’, the ‘bitter time’ of the Famine. The young women who came here as part of the Earl Grey scheme were exactly what I was looking for. These young women obviously are essential to any study of Irish-Australian famine women.

But I think it is now time to cast the net more widely –to include, perhaps, some of the landlord assisted immigrants from the Monteagle estates in Limerick or the Shirley estate in Monaghan, for example. Or at least, the young women who came from workhouses in Clare and Cork to Hobart on the Beulah and Calcutta in 1851, or to Sydney, on the Lady Kennaway  from Cork workhouses in 1854. These Lady Kennaway women were the occasion of a  fascinating political brouhaha here in NSW from the mid to late 1850s.  The untoward remarks of the NSW Immigration Agent in 1855 so aroused the ire of the Irish community that they  petitioned for a government enquiry into ‘Irish Female Immigrants’. The report of that enquiry along with minutes of evidence was  printed by the Legislative Assembly  in 1859.

Let me give three  examples to show what can be done—first, Irish female convicts transported to Tasmania, second, government assisted family migrants to NSW and Victoria, and thirdly, the immigration of  between four and five thousand single females to South Australia in the 1850s.

At the beginning of the 1840s, about 1,000 Irish convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land each year. By the famine years, the annual intake had risen to 3,000. The transportation of female convicts, unlike that of males, did not stop during those years. ‘Tasmania thus bore the brunt of Irish famine misery’, says Professor Richard Davis (p 9). Not everyone would agree. Rena Lohan, a postgraduate student, in her study of Grangegorman, the women’s prison in Dublin, for example, found that most of the prisoners were already hardened criminals. Any link between Irish female convicts and the famine is tenuous, she argued. As always, the issue is complex and open to debate.

Were Irish judges  more lenient in their sentencing during the famine? Knowing the difficult circumstances people were in, were they more prepared to accept as a defence, that crimes were committed ‘on grounds of want’? One such was the Exchequer Baron, John Richards who was willing to send convicts to Tasmania especially when he learned they had nowhere to go and would be without support when their prison term expired. Needless to say, not all judges and juries agreed on this matter. There was no consistent policy.

Did more women commit more crimes in order to be transported? Can we establish a strong link between  the famine and the types of crimes they committed? Among the crimes recorded against the names of Irish women arriving in 1849 and 1850, for example, we note, ‘stealing a turkey’, ‘stealing a sheep’, ‘stealing a cow’, ‘stealing fowls’, ‘killed her child by a bandage, a little girl one month old’, ‘house burning’, which in itself carried a life sentence. Do we really need to distinguish between  ‘intention’ and crimes born of desperation? Yet what of those women with criminal records stretching before the famine years?

Assuming we can identify female Famine convicts, what became of them in Tasmania? Were they different from other convicts? Were they less likely to re-offend?  Were they less likely to be rebellious or to ‘resist’ the convict system, more likely to be ‘accommodationist’,  and willing to accept their lot? Or did Australian conditions rather than their Irish famine background determine what became of them? The issues are complex. Yet Tasmanian convict records are so rich it should be possible to answer many of these questions.

A second category of Irish-Australian famine women might include those who came here as part of their family’s emigration strategy. Richard Reid’s excellent work, Farewell my Children (Anchor, 2011), draws attention to the quite elaborate ways families in Ireland used Government assisted schemes to come to Australia during the famine years and the years immediately after. Maneuvering the intricacies of bureaucratic regulations, filling out forms, collecting the required references from householders, from their local priest or magistrate or doctor, waiting for notification and arranging to join a ship in England, required skill, patience and detailed planning. Working the system, bending the rules,  required a different kind of skill.

As family members discussed their emigration prospects around the hearth, in the domestic sphere, I am sure Irish women made their voices heard. One can surmise how influential women’s strength and determination and emotional clout  was, in deciding how the family’s emigration strategy would be played out. Strikingly, Irish emigration to Australia in the nineteenth century was to achieve a gender balance. But in the famine, and years immediately following, many more women than men arrived as government-assisted immigrants.

Dr Reid emphasises that it is a mistake to think of these young women, or the young sons and daughters in a family, being thrust into the unknown. They were often supported by an extensive and intricate network of family, friends and neighbours, sometimes stretching back to earlier convict days or bounty emigration schemes, sometimes needing a network to be established anew, set-up from scratch. We might ask did daughters play as important a role as sons in establishing these networks, not just for their own nuclear family but for their extended family and other members of their local community as well? Or were they less likely than men to nominate family and friends or manipulate Remittance regulations to their own advantage?

If I might illustrate the complications of this family emigration planning further, with an example form the work of an excellent family historian in Victoria, Anne Tosolini. (I’ve used this example before in an article published in Descent in September 1999 (p.137).)

Siblings and cousins (sons and daughters) of the Frehan and Gorman families came here from the parish of Lorrha in Tipperary between 1849 and 1854, some of them  to Port Jackson and some to Port Phillip. They were to regroup in Melbourne during those years, the men renting and purchasing properties in neighbouring streets in Richmond, close to people who had been their neighbours in Lorrha. The women, however, settled some distance away, in Geelong. When they married, and their husbands later selected land, they were scattered throughout different parts of Victoria, – their strong bonds of kinship thus becoming slowly and perhaps more easily weakened. Was there a ‘gendered’ difference in the colonial experience of the first generation of migrants? Did the women adapt more readily? Were women more willingly acculturated? Were they more independent in their choice of marriage partners? Was the regrouping of their family more likely to be ‘transitional’ than that of Irish men? These are  questions about women’s role in their family emigration strategy that can, and still need to be addressed.

My third example of Irish-Australian Famine women is the four to five thousand young women who sailed into Port Adelaide in 1854, 1855 and 1856. Boatload after boatload of young single Irish females — by the Europa, the Grand Trianon, the Nashwauk, Aliquis and Admiral Boxer, for example — came to South Australia in the mid 1850s as part of what I would call ‘ their flight from famine and its aftermath’. The Famine had opened the floodgates. Like the Earl Grey female orphans, they too might be considered famine refugees.

So many came in such a short time, so many were allegedly ill-suited to the work required of them, so many demanded food and accommodation in immigrant depots, and so many had been sent to Adelaide under false pretences (they had been told in London they could easily walk to Melbourne and Sydney) that South Australian government authorities established a government enquiry into what they called ‘Excessive Female Immigration’. Luckily for us they did so. In the minutes of evidence to their report we  hear the voice of some of the young women themselves. The women called before the enquiry were asked why they came here. Their answers were what we would expect: ambitious, independent, hopeful, banal.

When on 15 February 1855, Frances McDowell was called in and examined, the interrogation went like this:

What induced you to come out here?—I do not know.

Had you received letters from friends? –I have no friends in Australia.

Did you think you would benefit yourself by coming to this Colony?–I was induced by the published statements to think that I might do well here. (p 32)

Some of these women were part of a network already here, and soon left South Australia to join their family and friends in Sydney and Melbourne. But my general impression is that the majority did not belong to such a network. Until there is an  in-depth and thorough study of these women, our conclusions should remain tentative. This surely is a tempting research project for someone living in Adelaide.

Some excellent work has already been done on aspects of this so-called ‘Excessive’ female immigration – by Cherry Parkin, Eric Richards, Ann Herraman, Stephanie James, Marie Steiner, to name a few. After acknowledging the initial troubles these young women had, – some walking 16 miles in the heat of the day, barefoot, to go to a situation, others returning to depot sunburnt, blistered, overworked and cast out after harvest was finished, some found crying, disappointed, despondent and depressed at their prospects—the view of most Australian writers is that these Irish women were generally well cared for and absorbed successfully into South Australian society. Areas of thickest Irish settlement …such as Paddy Gleeson’s Clare Valley were the first to accept and absorb them. The Seven Hills marriage registers demonstrate just how quickly they were  accepted.

Other writers, outside Australia, are  less upbeat. To quote from two: ‘The young women settled in badly and most left as soon as they could’(Donal Nolan ‘Celtic-Irish’ / ‘[t]hose sent into the outback as agricultural labourers barely survived.'(D Akenson, Irish Diaspora: A primer, p.175).

Who exactly were these young women? Which parts of Ireland did they come from? Where did their confidence, – or desperation, come from? What became of them? Were they being realistic in their expectations?  Were they disillusioned? In fact, the same sort of questions may be asked of all of our Irish-Australian famine women, whether family emigrants,  workhouse women,  foundling orphans, convicts or convict families.

Is it possible to view them through the lens of their famine experience? Or at least try to view them from their own perspective? Look at their history through their own eyes, follow in their footsteps?   This is my third challenge.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Finding out about the famine in our subject’s locality and even surmising the impact it might have had on our subject’s psyche, and subsequent life, are approaches we may need to take. It especially means our not accepting official sources at face value. They provide only a limited and slanted view of things –which is not that of the women themselves. Dig deeper. Read the sources ‘against the grain’. If necessary, we may have to rearrange the mental furniture we normally use in studying the past.

In the end, our sources may never allow us to get ‘inside the head’ of individual women. We may never get close enough to know them ‘in the round’–except perhaps through intelligent creative fiction, like Evelyn Conlon’s Not the same sky (Wakefield Press, 2013).

Finally, our challenge is also about taking care with the language we use. Language is a loaded gun. If I may explain this  by means of a few phrases: ‘the Atlantic slave trade’, the ‘Holocaust’ and ‘pauper immigration’.

My first full-time university appointment in the 1960s was in the West Indies. For me, a phrase such as ‘the Atlantic Slave trade’ is  a Pandora’s box, full of memories and meanings. But at its core is the 12 million people bought and sold like chattels, bought and sold like pieces of farm machinery or livestock, people denied their humanity.

One of the last courses I taught at Macquarie University before I retired included the Holocaust, the industrial mass murder of 6 million Jewish people and millions of others. It was a subject that  troubled me greatly. I found myself insisting upon saying Jewish people as a means of recognising the victims’ humanity. Without that recognition of our common humanity, it can happen again and again, as it did in Cambodia, in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.

Even a seemingly innocent phrase such as ‘pauper immigration’, still current in some quarters when writing about the Earl Grey famine orphans — has different layers of meaning. It carries a class interpretation. It implies that some immigrants are of less value than others, and hence, as human beings. Many of the young famine orphan girls who came here were bilingual, especially those from the west of Ireland. They spoke both Irish and English. The Irish word bochtán (poor person)– contains within it recognition of the poor person’s humanity in a way that the phrase,  ‘pauper immigration’ (Madgwick, chapter X) does not. As those young women accommodated themselves to their new Australian circumstances they lost that language, and that world view; they lost that way of looking at the world. I recommend an essay on this very subject by Mairead Nic Craith, Legacy and Loss,  towards the end of that brilliant work,  Atlas of the Great Irish Famine. p.580.

Is minic a ghearr teanga duine a scornach  (it’s often a person’s tongue/language cuts his throat)

Careful as you go. Mind your language.


 John Crowley, William J. Smyth and Mike Murphy (eds.),Atlas of the Great Irish Famine,  Cork University Press, Cork, 2012.
Margaret Kelleher, The Feminization of Famine. Expressions of the Inexpressible, Cork University Press, Cork, 1997.
Patricia Lysaght, “Perspectives on women during the Great irish Famine from the Oral Tradition”, Bealoideas, 1996-7, pp.63-130
Cormac O’Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory, Princeton UP., 1999

Trevor McClaughlin August 2013

Trevor is the author of Barefoot & Pregnant? Irish Famine orphans in Australia (1999 and 2001). He taught History at the University of the West Indies, Essex University and Macquarie University for many years. He is now retired and tries to emulate Geraldine Doyle’s husband, affectionately known as ‘Horizontal’.

3 thoughts on “Irish Famine Women – a challenge or three

    • Indeed he did and it’s very little known. There is some fascinating, and terrible, history about the Irish in Barbados. Would you be the man to write about that for us?

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