A New Stage in the Saga of Irish Famine Orphans

Book Reviews by Val NoonekerryGirlsA

With the sixteenth annual commemoration at the Famine Rock, Williamstown, Victoria, set for Sunday 24 November, Val Noone has written a timely review of two new books about the Famine orphans.

Kay Moloney Caball, The Kerry Girls: Emigration and the Earl Grey Scheme, Dublin, History Press, 2014. 192 pp.

ISBN 13: 9781845888312 ISBN 10: 1845888316

RRP: $24

Anthony Begley, From Ballyshannon to Australia: Memories of Famine Orphan Girls, Donegal, Ballyshannon Town Council, 2014. 60 pp.

RRP: $14

The saga of 4000 Irish orphans who were transported to Australia by the British government during the Great Famine has taken a new twist with the publication of two books this year, one in Kerry and one in Donegal, about the less well known Irish end of the story.

Investigation of their lives before departure for Australia

In The Kerry Girls: Emigration and the Earl Grey Scheme, Kay Caball has investigated the stories from baptism to departure of 117 Kerry girls from the workhouses of Dingle, Kenmare, Killarney and Listowel, who were included in what is known as the Earl Grey Scheme. Records during the Famine years are sketchy but, with a tower of work, Caball has found enough about the local girls to hold our interest and widen our horizons.

From County Donegal, Tony Begley has traced 19 orphan girls and a community group has erected a fine memorial to them Ballyshannon – both aspects are covered in his new book, From Ballyshannon to Australia: Memories of Famine Orphan Girls. Thanks to David and Clare Ross for giving me a copy of this publication.

Contrasting the mass graves and the trip to Australia

Caball’s well-documented and illustrated book includes 17 case studies, which draw on family histories at the Australian end. She shows that over half the 117 Kerry orphan girls in the scheme were not orphans, that 112 of them were Catholic and 5 Protestant, that some 20 came from Dingle workhouse, 25 from Kenmare, 35 from Killarney and 37 from Listowel, that they came on four ships, Thomas Arbuthnot, John Knox, Elgin and Tippoo Saib. There are a few typos, some 1800s dates have turned into 1900s, and John Dunmore Lang gets a change of first name, none of which affect the value of the book.

Caball’s book introduces the reader to landlords such as Lord Ventry, noting some of the seventeenth-century land grabs. She contrasts the fate of the transported girls with that of the 200 people from the Listowel workhouse, more than half of them under 15, buried in the Gale Cemetery, and that of the 2,665 buried in the Teampall Bán mass grave.

While recording that Dublin-based Nation saw the scheme as ‘one of the most diabolical proposals ever made or conceived since Cromwell’s time’, Caball weighs the pros and cons before concluding, on balance, that ‘there is no doubt that the Earl Grey Scheme was an opportunity for most of the girls who were ‘selected’ in Dingle, Kenmare, Killarney and Listowel. Although she reports some tragic outcomes in Australia, she judges the Kerry girls to have been ‘a brave, resourceful, spirited and gutsy set of women’.

Jimmy Deenihan, the Irish government minister responsible for Famine Commemoration, has personally backed Caball’s book. He is due in Melbourne in mid-November in his new portfolio of minister for diaspora affairs.

The world of the Ballyshannon workhouse

FromBallyshannonAIn From Ballyshannon to Australia, Anthony Begley, who has previously written important and detailed works on Donegal including during the Famine, looks at 19 orphans who went from Ballyshannon workhouse to Australia on the Inchinnan at the end of 1848. They came from surrounding places such as Belleek, Kinlough and Mulleek in the counties of Fermanagh, Leitrim and Donegal.

A strength of his booklet is its account of conditions in the Ballyshannon workhouse. As noted by other writers, Lieutenant John Henry played a central role in choosing who would be selected to go to Australia. From this booklet it seems that the Ballyshannon girls were to go to South Australia but they indeed landed in Sydney. The Ballyshannon Town Council has built a memorial to the girls with their names on plaques set in a stone courtyard.

In a tone similar to Caball, Begley writes that ‘the stories about the orphan girls are mainly in Australia as the lack of records surviving from the Famine period in Ireland means that it is difficult to piece their early lives together. These girls were indeed largely forgotten when they emigrated.’

However, he is hopeful that ‘as the information on the Famine orphans is examined by families searching for their ancestors, more of their stories will unfold and some of the accounts in this book will have to be revised and revisited. The accuracy of information on the orphan girls requires close scrutiny as it was possibly given orally by a next of kin.’

Girls who broke the silences

Thirty years ago when Patrick O’Farrell wrote his big book on The Irish in Australia, he said that ‘the great disaster of the Irish Famine has largely passed Australia by’.  And silences about the Famine are common in the memories of most Irish Australian families – as happens among people who have suffered massive traumas. Over the past 30 or so years, the orphan girls have cut a path through such confusion.

In 1991 Trevor McClaughlin’s ground-breaking book, Barefoot and Pregnant? opened a window on the Australian segment of the Famine, which, as Caball reminds us, was ‘a human tragedy of staggering proportions’. McClaughlin’s description and analysis of the Earl Grey Scheme threw new light on our history but his list of the orphan girls and their government records was a breakthrough of exceptional importance.

If McClaughlin’s title was tough, Richard Reid and Cheryl Mongan’s was gentle, namely A Decent Set of Girls. Caball and Begley makes good use of both books. Indeed, because a percentage of the girls on the Thomas Arbuthnot came from Kerry, Caball has drawn especially on the valuable Reid and Mongan volume with its diary by ship’s surgeon Charles Strutt and its follow-up on the large number of the girls who settled in the Yass district. Family historians also contribute much to her pen pictures.

Surprised by the Earl Grey Scheme

Caball confides: ‘I grew up in Listowel, County Kerry, and went to school just 96 years after the Famine. My school was a few hundred yards from where the Listowel Union Workhouse was situated. Yet I never heard of the Earl Grey Scheme until two or three years ago.’

This calls to mind the experience of Richard Olive of Port Melbourne. A couple of years ago, in the afternoon of the day when he had discovered that his great-grandmother came to Australia from Ireland as a 15 year old, without her parents, on a ship full of young girls, he was driving his granddaughter Eva, aged 12, home from school. He shared his discovery only to have her comment knowingly, ‘Sounds to me like she was an Earl Grey orphan’.

Richard, astounded, knowing his Australian history quite well, but never having heard of Earl Grey, beyond a cup of tea, enquired: ‘A what?’ Eva answered: ‘An Earl Grey orphan. I’ve just read a fantastic book about them.’ The book was Bridie’s Fire, a 2003 novel by Kirsty Murray.

Murray’s superb fiction has a striking overlap with Caball’s book. Bridie O’Connor of the title, born in County Kerry on the Dingle peninsula up the hill from Dunquin, lost her parents and two siblings in the Famine, ended up in a workhouse and came to Australia under the orphan girls’ scheme. Having read Caball’s book, Murray’s novel looks even better.

Indeed, Evelyn Conlon’s striking 2013 novel, Not the Same Sky about Strutt and the Thomas Arbuthnot women also intersects with Caball and Begley’s books. Moreover, I see in Begley’s book that in 1997 Sionbhe Lally of Donegal wrote a novel called The Hungry Wind about the Ballyshannon orphan girls. A logical step now would be for a shrewd writer to come forward with a survey and analysis of what the total body of new work on the Irish Famine orphan girls adds up to.

The Kerry Girls is available from The Book Depository for just $18.94. From Ballyshannon to Australia is available from Ballyshannon Town Council for $14.00, postage included. They make a fascinating contribution to the history of Irish migration to Australia in the nineteenth century and are very good value.


Val is a prominent historian of the Irish in Victoria.

One thought on “A New Stage in the Saga of Irish Famine Orphans

  1. Val, these are very generous reviews, Perry McIntyre, Chair, Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee

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