A Tribute to the Irish Famine Orphan Girls

Announcing a tribute video in lieu of postponed activities at the Famine Rock, Williamstown.

By Siobhan O’Neill.

The Derwent at Port Philip, SLV, Ref 1728676, Image H4000

In 1850, a 16 year old girl name Lucy Ellis stepped onto Australian soil. As an Irish Famine orphan girl, Lucy had already seen much of life’s hardships. Over the next four decades in her new home she would witness the making of Australian history, including European impact on the Indigenous people, the world’s richest Gold Rush, bushranger exploits, the exploration of Australia’s interior, the rise of trade unions, booms and busts. One of over 4000 girls brought here from workhouses (poorhouses) across Ireland, the Lucy Ellis story and that of all Irish orphan girls would take its own place as an important part of Australian history.

Of 20 ships bringing Irish orphan girls to Australia, six came to Melbourne: the Lady Kennaway (1848), Pemberton and New Liverpool (1849), the Diadem and Eliza Caroline (1850). The Earl Grey Scheme brought girls aged 14-19 from Irish workhouses during the Great Hunger. The scheme was devised to reduce numbers in the overcrowded workhouses, to provide a supply of domestic servants, and to bring females to help populate the new colony where men significantly outnumbered women. Created by Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, the scheme ran between 1848 and 1850. The Great Hunger (1845-1852) would claim more than one million lives and force over a million more to flee starvation, evictions, disease or death.  

Video Tribute 2022

Due to the pandemic causing the postponement of the annual event last November, the Irish Famine Orphan Girls Commemoration Committee has produced a second video tribute to remember the orphan girls sent to Melbourne. It features an insight into the Newry Poor Law Union (workhouse) by local historian Hugh McShane. Some 35 girls were sent to Australia from the Newry Workhouse. One of those girls was Lucy Ellis, a native of County Down. 

Lucy came here aboard the Derwent. The ship had departed Plymouth on 9 November 1849 and arrived in Port Phillip (Melbourne) on 25 February 1850. Of 136 souls, 124 were Irish orphan girls.  On arrival Lucy was sent from the Depot in Melbourne to work in Bacchus Marsh. She would marry Richard Martin in 1851, and they had a family of nine children. Lucy died in Bacchus Marsh in 1891 and is buried in Hopetoun Historic Cemetery. She has many descendants and her great-great granddaughter, Sue Jacques, graciously shared moments of Lucy’s story and photographs of family members, Lucy’s legacy to her new home. 

Famine Rock commemorative plaque 

Back In November 2021, a small group of descendants met privately to lay flowers at Famine Rock in Williamstown. David McKenna, of the Celtic Club Culture and Heritage Committee, took the opportunity to visit Famine Rock and witnessed the memorial. 

‘It was hauntingly beautiful. People dropped by and moved on, only to be replaced by descendants of the girls and passers-by. Flowers were respectfully placed under a plaque in honour of the 1700 girls who were sent from Ireland’s workhouses during the Great Famine to the little known colony of Victoria’, he said.

Narrated by Jane Holmes of 3AW, the tribute video also features a Special Address by His Excellency Tim Mawe, recently arrived Irish Ambassador to Australia. Performer Nicola O’Haire shares her own learning journey about the courageous young girls of the Earl Grey Scheme, as she prepares to record Brendan Graham’s hauntingly beautiful ballad, Orphan Girl.

Music from Maria Forde, Vince Brophy, Felix Meagher and Cora Browne helps to convey the tragedy of the Famine and the many triumphant stories of survival. And Cora Browne’s vocals further underscore the emotive Laying of Flowers, with a montage of images of the ceremony from past years. 

We are honoured that Finbar Furey has again generously supported the video tribute with his exceptional musical talent. This time he is joined by son Martin Furey. Their instrumentals add an immense poignancy to the moving Roll of Honour of orphan girls’ names.

The video was posted on Friday 25 February, marking the 172nd anniversary of the Derwent’s arrival, and the first footsteps of young Lucy Ellis on Australian soil. Video link: https://youtu.be/lfsLYOBvzeQ

The annual event and the tribute videos are supported by the Creative Cities of Hobsons Bay. Conditions allowing, the event will return to Famine Rock, Burgoyne Reserve, Williamstown in 2022.

Siobhan O’Neill
Irish Famine Orphan Girls Commemoration Committee 

3 thoughts on “A Tribute to the Irish Famine Orphan Girls

  1. This ceremony near Melbourne resembles the Holocaust memorials held by descendants of the lost ones.

  2. My great grand mother was an Irish orphan who arrived in Sydney on 12 January 1850. She travelled on the barque “Panama”. She ended up in Winton, Queensland.
    I am very proud of her.

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