Searching for Bridget

Searching for Irish Famine Orphan, Bridget Gollagher or Gallagher: from Donegal workhouse to Melbourne Immigrant’s Home.

by Pauleen Cass

S.T Gill, Collins St. c. 1853 State Library of NSW collections

Bridget is my husband’s ancestor, who arrived in Port Philip on the barque Lady Kennaway in December 1848.

McClaughlin’s book Barefoot and Pregnant? (1991) indicates that Victorian records show she came from Donegal although the NSW Agent’s lists give her place of origin as Galway. She was hired out to Mr Edward Curr at St Hellier’s (actually St Helier’s) for £14 for six months. The book also has information, which we believed to be a type-setting problem and related to Ellen Gollagher who appears next on the passenger list. So, how to resolve some of these ambiguities?

My first port of call was the Victorian historical births, deaths and marriage indexes to check three things:

1. Confirm the marriage listed in Barefoot and Pregnant? (1991) relates to Ellen Gollagher not to Bridget, or ‘Biddy’ as she appears on the list.

2. Confirm Bridget/Biddy’s marriage based on earlier family research.

3. Determine Bridget’s county of origin, and hopefully a townland .

1.      Gallagher/Gollagher marriage to McCahery

This was checked by obtaining an 1867 birth certificate for one of the children, hoping to get more details on the parents that way. It confirmed that it was Ellen Gallagher/Gollagher who married John McCahery, and according to their daughter’s birth certificate they married in Melbourne in November 1851.

On this document Ellen states her age as 33, so a YOB of 1834, and born in Donegal. This fits with her being the orphan on the Lady Kennaway, apart from the age difference. A Year of Birth (YOB) of 1834 would make her barely 14 on arrival in Melbourne in 1848 as opposed to the stated 18 (YOB 1830). Both ages fit within the preferred range for the orphans.  Ellen and her husband lived in the Kilmore area and she is reported to have died in 1872. Is she Bridget’s sister or relation or just someone with the same surname, coincidentally being also sent from the Donegal workhouse? As yet this is unknown, and may remain so.

2.      Marriage Gollagher/Gallagher and McKenna

1gallagher (2)

Biddy Gallagher married William McKenna at St Francis’s RC church in Melbourne on 5 May 1850. Unfortunately, the record is a basic one providing no supplementary details on the couple, and contact with the archdiocese confirmed no further information is available. The witnesses were Mary Boyle and James McKenna. It is possible (likely?) that this Mary Boyle was another Famine Orphan who travelled on the Lady Kennaway, aged 17. She was also from Donegal. At the time of Bridget’s marriage, Melbourne was in a flurry of condemnation or defence of these poor Irish girls. Those who arrived on the Lady Kennaway suffered a verbal battering in the press.  They must have felt more than a little persecuted with a threatened sense of their self-worth to add to their displacement from their homeland.

My initial concern in relation to this marriage was whether we had the correct couple since some of this research was inherited from my father-in-law. However, working backwards from the known to the unknown via civil registration we confirmed it was the correct couple. Was this the same Biddy/Bridget Gollagher/Gallagher who was the Famine Orphan?

3.      Children’s certificates

Foolishly I obtained James’ and Elvia’s (Elizabeth) birth certificates from 1851 and 1853 respectively. These were church baptisms and had no supplementary parent information but did name witnesses: Robert Hogan and Sarah McKenna for James, and Patrick McGrath and Mary McKenna for Elizabeth. Did Bridget no longer have any friends to sponsor her children or did William’s relations take precedence?

On James’s registration, Bridget’s maiden name is still shown as Gollogher. Afterwards, it becomes the more common Gallagher. Interestingly the baptisms were a month or more after the births which while within church regulations, suggests they either didn’t have the fee to pay, or were not so compliant in their observances.

Fields of Donegal. Four Donegal workhouses
sent orphans to the Lady Kennaway,
Donegal, Milford, Dunfanaghy and

A further birth certificate for daughter Bridget in 1862 had the informant as a friend, Charlotte Harward of Emerald Hill. While some of the information was accurate, a new place of origin was introduced for Bridget. She allegedly came from Fermanagh, and William from Monaghan. At the time the family lived in Sutton Lane, off Little Burke Street, and William worked as a storeman.
So now as options for Bridget’s place of birth we had Galway, Donegal and Fermanagh, but wait, there’s more to come!

Next certificate was that for son Patrick born 1865. This time Bridget was the informant and she mercifully gave her place of birth as Donegal and William’s as Fermanagh. They were still living in Sutton Lane and her age is fairly consistent throughout to give a YOB of 1833/1834.

Without buying every possible certificate this reassured me (1) that she was almost certainly the Famine Orphan and (2) her home place was Donegal. She also lists four children as deceased before the registration in April 1866: Mary, James, Giles and Bridget.
The online indexes do not show all of the named surviving or deceased children as stated on certificates, even using the broadest search parameters and wildcards.

4.      Death of Bridget McKenna nee Gallagher

We inherited this death certificate from my husband’s father and it tells a sad story. Bridget died in the Immigrants’ Home in Melbourne on 12 December 1882, almost to the day 34 years earlier when she was admitted to the Immigrants’ Depot. The cause of death was alcoholism and while she was stated to be married, no further details were available. She had been 31 years in Victoria (an error of three years) and came from Limerick! So now we have Limerick, Galway, Fermanagh and Donegal as potential places of origin!

At this point I became concerned that we also had the wrong death. A search of the indexes from 1870 to 1930, using Bri* not Bridget, gave only one option in the right age range. From the scarcity of the data on her death certificate it appears she was alienated from, or was ostracised by her family. Another small anomaly is the age on her certificate: she is shown as 51 so YOB of 1831.

5. A problem with alcohol


I found two entries for Bridget, one in 1864 and one in 1882. The admission sheet for the 1864 gaol entry reads like a parody of everything said about Irish immigrants in cynical cartoons: 5ft 3.5inches, sallow complexion, black hair, black eyes and eyebrows and she had a scar over her left eye. Her visage, chin, mouth, and nose were all described as ‘large’ and her forehead as ‘low’. She was 32 years old, had no trade, was illiterate, a Roman Catholic, and married. She weighed 15st 9lbs (99kg). She had arrived on the Lady Kennedy in 1842 which I believe to be an error for the Lady Kennaway. Previously Bridget had been admitted to gaol, for 48 hours in May 1863, and one month in February 1864. Her conduct while in gaol was good. She was discharged on 22 February 1865.
On her final admission on 20 March 1882, details are both better and more limited: She was born 1833 in Donegal, had sallow skin, brown hair and grey eyes. She was 5ft 4ins tall. She was illiterate, a servant, and Roman Catholic. She was sentenced to six months hard labour for vagrancy and sent to Melbourne Gaol. A month later she applied to move to Geelong Gaol (why?) and remained there until given her freedom on 12 September 1882. Just three months later she would die in the Melbourne Immigrants’ Home.
Searches of Trove brought up several court reports where she was charged with drunkenness and usually fined five shillings. Throughout she was still bearing children. The family problems become clear when her husband William took her to court in 1865 for insolent conduct, habitual drunkenness, and neglect of her family.


Bridget’s husband, William McKenna, died in Melbourne in 1910. He is confirmed as the husband of Bridget Gallagher but this time his place of birth is Monaghan.

Katie McKenna

We have searched various surviving workhouse books in Galway and Donegal but have learned nothing more about her nomination for the Famine Orphan scheme, her emigration, or her family.

This is a brief summary of the rather sad life of a Famine Orphan. How can we know what pushed Bridget down the path to alcoholism and vagrancy? Did her family in Australia support her and stay in touch with her? There are still avenues to explore which over time may unearth more evidence, perhaps primary documents that will clarify some of the ambiguities. It is likely we will only know the shadows of her life – perhaps the light is the existence of many descendants.

Pauleen Cass has been researching her own families since 1986, including several Irish branches. In this story she has explored the sad life of Irish Famine orphan Bridget (Biddy) Gallagher, the great-great grandmother of her husband Peter. Pauleen has a blog at


4 thoughts on “Searching for Bridget

  1. Love your detailed research and your way of telling the story…
    Always interesting . I wonder what Bridget would think about her story being of interest to so many generations later?

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