Lessons to be Learned from our Irish Past

A Feature on Famine Orphans by Ray Watson

In December 1848 the Lady Kennaway travelled up Port Phillip Bay bringing Irish Orphans to the little colony on its shores. Explosions in population and technology have both brought massive cultural shifts since then. But one theme has persisted in news stories across the years. Today, we are still every bit as suspicious of newly-arrived ‘foreigners’ and the threat they pose to ‘our values’ as were the residents of Port Phillip in 1848.

Given the current high proportion of Australians with Irish ancestry, it may come as a surprise for many people to learn about the degree of hysteria which was engendered by the arrival of the Irish Orphans. What was so foreign about them? Actually, a number of characteristics set them up for suspicion and scorn. As well as being Irish and female, almost every passenger on the Lady Kennaway was single, orphaned, uneducated, and Catholic as well. This collection of qualities represented a very fertile field for stereotypic vilification. Two very modern issues, ethnic vilification and devaluation of women, are identifiable in the public hysteria which the Orphans generated.

The Lady Kennaway off Margate…Homewood bound 1827.Adapted from Repro. ID: PY8468 of the original 1829 Edward Duncan hand-coloured aquatint PAH8468,Royal Museum Greenwich Collection.

In 1848 Port Phillip, ethnic tension was not new. Tension had existed between Anglo rulers and Irish convict labourers since the first years of white settlement in Australia. Back in 1804 Irish convicts had played a part in Australia’s own Vinegar Hill uprising. The importation of Irish shepherds for the new sheep runs in the 1830s and 1840s had also led to some friction. Public debate had started to focus on several issues: Scots versus Irish; family versus single; and male versus female migration. On these issues, two sides had been coalescing around two leading lights, the Reverend John Dunmore Lang and another Scot, Caroline Chisholm. Then 1846 had produced new tensions in the Port Phillip colony as the Irish staked a claim to share in the one, local, elected seat of power, the Melbourne City Council. Irishman, John O’Shanassy, won a seat. Then on Orange Day, riots broke out on Melbourne’s streets and subsequently O’Shanassy lost his place on the City Council.

A Year of Revolutions overseas kept anxiety bubbling along through 1848. News of Smith O’Brien’s uprising in Ireland reached the colony shortly before the Orphans landed. Focusing attention on the Irish as it did, it raised the temperature even though the uprising itself had proven to be a bit of a damp squib. The arrival of newly-appointed Anglican and the Catholic Archbishops in Melbourne also contributed to ethnic division.

Two other Orphan ships had reached Australia under Earl Grey’s British government migration scheme prior to the Lady Kennaway’s arrival. In October, these two had landed their Orphans in Adelaide and in Sydney. So there was already some reaction in those places before the Lady Kennaway’s Orphans were landed. Nevertheless, shortly before the Orphans reached Port Phillip, the Geelong Advertiserwas more concerned that Earl Grey’s scheme should operate at no cost to the colonies than it was about ethno-sectarian matters.This contrasted with comments from South Australia stating that, though Orphan migrants might be suitable for less choosy colonies, they were unsuitable for South Australia ‘even if they were nice girls.’


After the Port Phillip Orphans landed, the press reported that they appeared healthy and respectable and the Orphans commented favourably on their treatment aboard ship.

Most were quickly contracted to employers, many as maids. Yet, given that most Orphans had come fresh from Ireland’s rural backblocks and urban slums, from a workhouse regimen, and from years of Famine before that, they were not necessarily good material for presenting as gentle well-mannered servants. And in another modern twist, workplace laws would prove to be important.

The Orphans’ contracts contained a time bomb putting them in a terrible bind and making them virtual slaves to any merciless bullying employer. Employment laws made it illegal for migrants to start working a new contract before employers had signed off in cancellation of the previous one. So a ruthless employer could eject an Orphan out of his house onto the street, deny her alternative work, and then throw up his hands in horror at the thought that she might be descending into prostitution. It was a situation gauged to change the temperature for Orphans themselves from one of cold silent shame to one of hot anger, resistance, and rebellion. The Famine might have made them poor, ashamed, and rough around the edges, but it had also fired them with a steely determination that would not be easily cowed.

As early as February 1849, Mary Burns was in court on a charge from her employer. She set the scene by accepting a penalty of one-week’s solitary confinement rather than submitting to her employer’s demands. By March 1849, complaints that less than one in ten Orphans was satisfactory had started rolling in to the pro-Orange Argus. Orphans were often before the police bench charged with insolence and bad conduct. Among an ascendancy which valued obedience above all else, the Orphans’ conduct seemed intolerable.

The result was a full-scale war evoking all kinds of comments about the Orphans appearance and character from male commentators, magistrates and politicians. They could be ‘rather good looking’ or too ‘thick waisted’ to represent Ireland’s fairest. They were ‘poor creatures’ and ‘worthless characters.’ They had men with whom they formed ‘improper connections’ ‘hovering about the premises.’ Orphans with stylish clothes or cash in their pockets were assumed to be, ipso facto, guilty of larceny or prostitution. In courts, magistrates lectured Orphans on how they had been mistreated by the Orphan servants in their own employ.

In March 1850, the Argus was suggesting that mating Orphan products of workhouse degradation with Pentonville exiles would produce a colony of criminals. The Green Irish-Catholic side was becoming active in counter-attacking what it saw as Orange anti-Irish-Catholic slander. At a large public meeting, the Argus’ views were challenged, the Orphans’ virtue was defended, and charges of immorality and stupidity refuted.

Now the centre of the campaign was moving to the Melbourne City Council, still the ‘de facto’ heart ofrepresentative government in Port Phillip. There, at the April meeting, Alderman Kerr ranted against the Orphans. Melbourne’s Daily Newsreported that Kerr’s address was ‘besotted sectarianism.’ He had vilified the orphans saying:  ‘A more useless and more depraved set were not to be found’ and ‘their personal appearance rendered them ineligible to fill the ranks of prostitution.’ But the DailyNews report also challenged some of the extravagant claims made in support of the Orphans. Most Orphans could not read or write. Nor could most be recommended as keepers of books. Soon, another giant meeting was called to support the Orphans.

Unknown-1When Kerr’s anti-Orphan migration resolution finally came up for debate in council on 25 May 1850, the massive public opposition had taken effect. At the council meeting, there was no seconder for Alderman Kerr and he immediately resigned from the council in a win for the pro-Irish party.

When news from London told how Earl Grey himself had demolished Dr. Lang’s charges that Mrs. Chisholm had used undue influence, it seemed that the campaign had climaxed and that the pro-Orphan party had been victorious.

Yet that was not an end of things and the orphans’ daily lives continued to be bruised by their contracts.In September 1850 there was news of a Mrs. Daly being charged with beating her Orphan employee. It appeared that no number of wins in court would completely halt verbal and even physical assault on the orphans. In an 1851 case, a court freed six Orphans from contracts despite their employers’ charging them with insolence and disobedience. But the report of that Orphan win in court completely negated its positives by making the disparaging insinuation that the Orphans’ fashionable attire was ‘of itself, an instructive lesson.’

Finally, 1852 brought forth a remarkably vindictive climax to Irish Orphan vilification. In a sneering verbal caricature which claimed to be educative and humorous, an Argus reporter used a pseudonym as exoneration for a scurrilous attack. ‘Biddy’ was a ‘poor, simple, ignorant Orphan girl’ who looked like ‘an unripe potato just dug from the ground.’ When she arrived in Geelong, she ‘could make no friends and was so stupid, lazy, and dirty’ that she had been dismissed by the family employing her.

Aboard a steamer just the other day, the reporter had seen how Biddy’s fortunes had changed. Her perfumed ‘potato face’ now was wrapped around with extravagant clothing and gold adornments, ‘the very perfection of a lucky, thoughtless, gold-digger’s bride.’ From Biddy’s previous master, he had learned that the ‘deluded’ wretch had married a ‘faithless wicked partner’ known to the police and lately was consorting with ‘the most abandoned people of both sexes.’ The couple’s offspring would surely be criminals.

What such pompous self-righteousness indicated was that the era when an isolated colony’s ascendant gentlefolk could focus on segregating themselves from criminals and on profiting from their servant underclass was ending. On 1 July 1851, Port Phillip had been separated from NSW and named Victoria. About this time too, a tide of gold seekers flooded in from all parts of the world. That tide had swept across the community with an indifference to creed, race, and class. It dispersed Orphans into the community making them a less easily-targeted group. The passing of that tide’s surge revealed a new community in what had become a new state.

In these changes, some Orphans were lost among those nameless people flushed by the gold-tide down some sink hole of history, never to be seen again. But many Orphans married and settled into the community surviving for many years through multiple child births and the traumatic vagaries of economic and seasonal cycles. Nevertheless, throughout the rest of their lives, these survivors would find that at any moment the scabs of their Orphan battle wounds could still be ripped off by a shot from a partisan press guerilla still fighting the old campaign.

Punch (Melbourne), 18 July 1872, pg. 4.

Melbourne Punch’s Noblesse Oblige cartoon in November, 1885 is one such late shot of bare-faced envy and anger at the growing acceptance of Orphans by colonial society. But there are other more poignant shots as well. In 1872 Melbourne Punch had published The Irish Emigrant cartoon. Any matronly Orphan might see it as a dual portrayal: one, herself as a newly-landed, ridiculed, rough, potato-faced young woman; and two, her same Orphan self now sheathed inside the camouflaging skin of a matronly, respectable-looking mother. A dual self, an orphans’ fate! Until death, Orphans had always to face the possibility of some new stressful reminder of their former vilification popping up unexpectedly to add to their now-normal burdens of financial, seasonal and family strain. In that situation, it is likely true that more than one Orphan’s mind became addled by the crossed wires of ‘mental decay.’

Today, the Orphans have passed from sight. But their experiences live on in their story. And in Australia, a large physical Irish presence is maintained in the persons of their descendants and those of other Irish migrants. By empathising with the Irish Orphans’ story, both Orphan descendants and the legions of others who are sprung from Irish migrants should better understand how bombastic political vilification can produce noxious fruit. Looking at what happened to the Orphans, we can reach two general conclusions worthy of consideration by all present-day Australians.

Despite the gloomy naysayers’ predictions to the contrary, children of successive generations of Irish descent have not become a race of criminals. That fact should be noted, especially by current critics making similar predictions about what the future holds from our newest migrant groups. The other conclusion is that, in an era where we are fairly quick to pin a lifetime of trauma onto a particular set of experiences, it is important to think about the possible consequences for individuals targeted today in gender or ethnic based attacks. For the Orphans, vilification anxiety was but one among a number of possible causes of infirmity in old age. And cessation of vilification may not have completely allayed their anxiety. The only way of ensuring such anxiety is totally blotted out is prevention. And that could be an overwhelming task.

1a7a7c6eb6be03fd7fcfaadfeab44203.jpgBut linking the Orphans’ story to an old Irish tradition may suggest one small helpful and manageable step. On Christmas Eve it was an Irish tradition to place a light in a window as a sign to a homeless Joseph and a pregnant Mary that those inside wished to offer them food and shelter. In memory of the Orphans, perhaps the millions of Irish-descended Australians might be persuaded to re-adopt that tradition from this Christmas forward. That would be a sign of compassion gleaned from the Orphans’ pain. And all those millions of little lights together might throw a powerful preventative beam on the plight of all refugees who today wander homeless in a dark world.


The story of these Irish Orphans can be read online in fuller detail with full citation at the National Library of Australia’s Trove. See The Pivot Tree (online) – Magazine of the Geelong Family History Group, Irish Orphans’ Battles,pp. 18-26. see: https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-705906993/view

© Raymond K Watson 2018

Ray Watson’s most recent publications are in family history. He has written over many years on an extensive range of topics in education and psychology. In he has traveled extensively in Australia, Ireland and England and is the author of Stories from a Starry Summer Night (2013)

5 thoughts on “Lessons to be Learned from our Irish Past

  1. When I was a child we used to spend Christmas with our grandparents in Carlow. I well remember my grandmother putting a lighted candle in the window on Christmas Eve… what happy memories the above story evokes. During her term of office the first female President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, started the beautiful tradition of keeping a light in one of the windows at Aras an Uachtaran for all Irish immigrants returning to be with their families…. a beautiful tradition still being carried out today.

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