By Siobhan O’Neill
The Irish Famine Orphan Girls Commemoration event, held at Famine Rock in Williamstown in November, marked a return to the in-person event which has been an annual commemoration since 1998.
The special guest speakers included the Ambassador of Ireland to Australia, His Excellency Tim Mawe, who was accompanied by his wife Ms Patricia McCarthy. Two other guest speakers were the newly-elected Mayor Cr Tony Briffa and Cr Pamela Sutton-Legaud, both from Creative City Hobsons Bay, the major supporter of the event.
This year, the commemoration committee searched for a new way of ‘bringing the girls to the table’, as it were, to somehow let the girls share their story with us, rather than us telling their stories. This led to the creation of special presentation titled VOICES, written by Siobhan O’Neill.
The presentation followed the journey from Famine to Australia – from Hunger to Hope – that was taken by the orphan girls of the Earl Grey Scheme. Each part represented the story of one orphan girl from each of the six ships that came to Melbourne. It was crafted in the first-person, and delivered by descendants of those six orphan girls.
The presentation was led by committee member Noeleen Lloyd, herself a descendant with three orphan girls in her family.
The featured stories included were:
- Famine – Bridget ‘Biddy’ Kildea, a 15yo from Gleneely, Co Donegal, who arrived on the Lady Kennaway in 1848 with her sisters Margaret aged 18 and Ann aged 17. Biddy told us about famine, eviction, and the spectre of the workhouse in Donegal. Her story was read by her second-great-grandniece, Alicia Burnett.
- Workhouse – Margaret Ryan, 15 years old from Roscrea, Co Tipperary. She was among the girls who arrived on the Pemberton in 1849. She told us about her lost family, life in the Roscrea Workhouse, and talk of a new scheme to send girls to Australia. Margaret’s story was read by her second-great-granddaughter, Julie Merrington.
- Earl Grey Scheme and Journey – Catherine Foran was 15 years old, and had lived in the Waterford Workhouse from the age of nine. She came to Port Phillip on board the New Liverpool in 1849. She told us of her six years in Waterford Workhouse, being chosen for the new scheme, and the epic voyage to Australia. Catherine’s story was shared by her second-great-grandson Gavan Duffy.
- Arrival and employment – Mary Margaret Hunt, a 17yo from Limavady, Co Derry, came to Australia on the Diadem in 1850. She told us about her hopes for employment, creating a successful life here, and the opportunities she envisioned in Melbourne. Margaret’s story was shared by her great-grandson, Ian Bowker.
- Building a new life – Lucy Ellis was 16 years old and from Newry, Co Down. She was one of 35 girls sent from the Newry Workhouse to Australia. Lucy arrived in Port Phillip on board the Derwent in 1850. She told us about getting settled in a new country, finding love, creating a home and raising a family on the plains outside Melbourne. Lucy’s story was shared by her second-great-granddaughter, Sue Jacques, who travelled to Melbourne from Queensland for the event.
- Legacy and Generations – Margaret O’Brien was a 15-year-old from Nenagh, Co Tipperary. She arrived, along with her 17-year-old sister Bridget, on board the Eliza Caroline in 1850, the last ship to bring girls with the Earl Grey Scheme to Port Phillip. Margaret told us about the lives she and her sister created here, both marrying Irish convict brothers, and the joys and hardships of their new life in North East Victoria. Margaret’s story was shared by her third-great-grandson, Mark McAuliffe.
While the stories featured were interpretations based on facts in the lives of the named girl in each instance, they are essentially the stories of all Irish orphan girls. In giving the girls a voice, the Irish Famine Orphan Girls Commemoration 20222 paid homage to the courage and legacy of all of these remarkable young women.
Siobhan convenes the Irish Famine Orphan Girls Commemoration Committee