Irish Women Migrants of the 1850s

A Summary of the Brigidfest 2018  address

L to R: Harriet Sexton Morel (Second Secretary, Irish Embassy Canberra), speakers Proessor Elizabeth Malcolm and Associate Professor Di Hall, and visiting scholar Prof. Regina Ui Chollatáin.

by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall

The featured speakers were Professor Elizabeth Malcolm and Associate Professor Dianne Hall, and their presentation was provocatively entitled ‘Brigid Need Not Apply’. They drew on research for their recently published book, A New History of the Irish in Australia, and their focus was on two Irish women in goldrush Victoria who led very different lives. One was Bridget Nolan, born in Galway, who arrived with her brother in Geelong in 1852 aged 21. The second woman, Honora Kenealy, married a publican in Glenorchy near Stawell in 1861 and had a rather more turbulent life.

Bridget Nolan was one of thousands of assisted Irish women immigrants who arrived in Victoria during the 1850s. Assisted immigrants’ lives were rather different from those of the many Irish women transported to Tasmania as convicts during the 1840s, some of whom eventually settled in goldrush Victoria too. In Ballarat, Bridget married a miner, Thomas Hynes from Clare. Bridget was obviously a woman of courage for she helped prevent soldiers from killing insurrectionists at the Eureka Stockade in 1854. Failing to strike it rich on the goldfields, Bridget and Thomas subsequently moved to South Gippsland, acquired land, ran a successful farm and brought up 11 children. Bridget survived until the age of 80, dying in 1910. She was one of the lucky ones, not suffering from the health problems that affected many Irish Famine survivors—typically pelvic deformities probably due to childhood malnutrition.

In 1861, Honora Kenealy married a successful Glenorchy publican, Robert Jenkins, following the deaths of his first two wives, both of whom were Irish women. Robert’s second wife had died of alcoholism having accidentally smothered her baby while drunk. Honora had been a servant in the hotel at the time. Glenorchy, a magnet for Irish settlers, was a community torn by strife, with a number of the town’s women known to us via police reports and court cases. In 1863 Honora had a public brawl with the hotel’s new servant, Martha O’Kane from Belfast, and was bound over by magistrates to keep the peace. She later appears to have separated from her husband and, when he died in 1875, she was left very little in his will. Martha O’Kane, on the other hand, moved to Stawell, where she ran several hotels and was widowed twice. She died a rich woman in 1902, mourned by her family and friends—and also her servants.

Elizabeth and Di offered a fascinating picture of Irish women in Victoria during the goldrush era. About 33,000 arrived in the 1850s, including 1,200 Famine orphans, plus an unknown number of ex-convicts. Given their ages and the fact that many came from parts of Ireland hard hit by the Famine, most could be classed as Famine survivors—not just the orphans. In Victoria, life was hard too, especially on the goldfields and in new goldrush settlements. The cost of living was very expensive, accommodation was primitive and crime was rampant. Married women had to cope with high infant mortality rates. Single women seeking work as domestic servants were faced with frequent ‘No Irish Need Apply’ advertisements in newspapers. Yet, most Irish women did find employment because servants were in high demand and most went on later to marry and raise families successfully. Bridget Hynes was fairly typical of such women; few were as successful as Martha O’Kane, but, equally, most avoided the troubles that plagued Honora Jenkins.

Brigidfest is an annual celebration in February over lunch of Irish and Irish-Australian women, and welcomes new additions (male and female) to its email list:

Thanks to the speakers for input into this report.