Lately in my blog I’ve been encouraging family historians to write a history of their Irish orphan ancestor. I’ve even been cheeky enough to ask how discovering an Irish Famine orphan in their family tree has affected them. Here is the latest response I’ve received. I’ll be including it in my blog too. It’s from Kaye Schofield who wrote that brilliant story about Bridget Hopkins in last month’s magazine. I love the way Bridget still talks to Kaye.
How has Bridget Hopkins affected me?
By Kaye Schofield
The question posed was: How has ‘your’ orphan affected you. This was a question I had not thought about, and I was not convinced that it was even a question worth exploring. I wondered what the point of it was and pushed it away, but it was persistent. I finally succumbed to the siren song, and here is my answer.
I have known the name of my great-great-grandmother Bridget Hopkins for around 15 years but she was just another one of those many family ghosts who floated around in the background of my own very busy and peripatetic life. Some 5 years ago, Bridget became the subject of my first serious family history effort. She was a demanding subject who did not yield up her secrets readily.
I started with the usual official reports: Select Committee on Poor Laws; Poor Law Boundaries Commission; Poor Law Commissioners’ Reports; Papers on the State of the Unions and Workhouses in Ireland and the like. Anyone who has ever read a parliamentary report will understand how much is omitted and how colour and movement is erased by the officialese. As the Great Famine in Galway and Connaught more broadly began to take a form in my head, I had a creeping sense of shame that I had lived so long and not really thought about it in any way beyond the superficial. Bridget urged me to seek a greater contextual understanding of the circumstances that likely led her to her admission into the Castlerea workhouse in County Roscommon.
I dived into a range of Irish historians such as Cormac Ó Gráda, Alan Fernihough, Christine Kinealy, Brendan Ó Cathaoir, Ciarán Reilly and David Fitzpatrick as well as Colm Tóibín’s marvellous essay Erasures. I became interested in the political economy of the Great Famine as well as its social dimensions and impact. I read various theses of variable quality and realised that writers from Ireland, England, Australian, Canada and the United States bring very different perspectives to the Great Famine, emigration and immigration. I read accounts which challenged the notion of women as passive spectators or victims of the Great Famine and emphasised female agency. I read the debates about whether the Great Irish Famine was an example of genocide and the arguments that the Great Famine was an Irish Holocaust. I found the powerful poem “What Shall I Wear, Darling, to The Great Hunger?” by Paul Durcan and other such creative works that have been described as famine satire, and read discussions about whether the Great Famine was a suitable subject for satire anyway. Navigating my way through such complex debates was challenging and I wondered why I was doing this at all, since it would take a lifetime of study to really come to any seriously informed point of view. After all, I was just an amateur skating over the surface of a relatively brief if totally transformative period in Irish history to write up ‘my’ Earl Grey orphan.
Bridget then suggested that I take a break and go really local. I have been a fan of oral history since I first read the work of Studs Terkel in the 1970s so I did not take much urging. I found the Irish Folklore Collection and began searching for all things Galway, Roscommon and Castlerea. Eventually I came across the book Famine Echoes– Folk Memories of the Great Irish Famine: An Oral History of Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy by Cathal Póirtéir. I remember distinctly the very moment when I read the recollections of the son of Johnny Callaghan, a baker in the Castlerea workhouse during and for many years after the Famine, and who had worked alongside his father. Amongst other things, he recalled ‘The Black Room’ where the sick were allowed to die, after which the corpse was allowed to slide down boards into the pit beneath and lime was put over the corpse, along the boards and along the wall of the gable. This caused the wall to go black and gave the name to the ‘Black Gable’. When I first read this, I paced up and down my hallway, muttering to myself that surely this cannot be so? Vivid images of Bridget’s parents, grandparents, brothers or sisters sliding down boards into a lime pit kept recurring. I was rendered speechless with deep rage.
From that moment, I became hyper-aware of all things Irish, past and present. In trying to recover her memory, Bridget has taught me to notice all the big things like the Corn Laws and also the small things like the properties of Indian maize and the Lumper potato when in combination with buttermilk. She led me to look at the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, the landlord system, resident and absentee landlords, Catholic and Protestant landlords, the Gregory clause, evictions, clearances and emigration and to find out about Richard D’Arcy of New Forest, the landlord of Glen village where I believe Bridget came from. She sent me searching through the fine print of Irish and English newspapers for any sliver about the Castlerea Poor Law Union and its Castlerea workhouse. She thought I should know more about Lieutenant John Henry R. N., the Emigration Agent for the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission who selected her in September 1848, along with 19 other orphan girls, for emigration to the Australian colonies and whether he was decent or not (yes, I think he was).
Having led me a merry dance around both the wood and the trees, I finally felt I had a good enough but certainly not perfect feel for Bridget’s time in Ireland. But before I could put pen to paper, I had to know everything I could about the ship Digby that carried her to Sydney. Then with my forensic skills now sharply honed, I laboriously ploughed my way through the next 66 years of her life, dealing with the tedium of publican’s licenses in Bathurst, the seemingly endless array of boarding houses in Bourke, and marriage, divorce and bankruptcy laws in NSW.
All this research took the best part of six months and only then did I feel I could start writing, which took another six months. Much of my research never actually made its way into my written accounts as I tried to focus on a narrative that others might find accessible and interesting. The research was not wasted, just living in a backroom.
Researching Bridget has occupied a big chunk of my life over recent years, teaching me a good deal about the history, geography, economics and politics of Ireland and of NSW. I have become somewhat obsessive about getting the details right while placing them in a wider context, endlessly fearful of the banal or trite which can come with too little knowledge. And just when I think I have got everything just so and write it up and put into the public domain, Bridget throws me another curve ball and it all starts again. I feel sorry for my 15 other great-great-grandparents. They are all getting short shrift unless, that is, they too are Irish.
Kaye Schofield has very recently retired after a 55-year career in education, initially in schools and then tertiary education and later advising on Australia’s international development programs in the Indo-Pacific. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees and an honorary doctorate in education. Her DNA ethnicity estimate is 46% Irish. Her passion for family history is relatively new but her original training in history and geography has proved helpful. Her family is a little bemused by but grateful for her obsession.
Trevor McClaughlin is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team