A Letter from Ireland:
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Did Your Irish Australian Ancestor Follow the Black Velvet Band?

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland. The weather is behaving quite well here in Cork at the moment. It’s dark by 7.30pm at this time of year but we are having some nice bright days. I hope the weather is staying nice and clement wherever you are today.

I’m settling into a nice cup of Barry’s tea, so I do hope you’ll join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself – and we’ll start into today’s Letter from Ireland. Last week, Maggie Heffernan of New South Wales in Australia sent the following note:

Heffernan is my married name and our first Heffernan in Australia was William who was sent out to Australia for 7 years for committing perjury in 1848, he was an ‘exile’ – a more politically correct term for convict!  William arrived on the same ship as 2 John Heffernan’s, a father & son who were convicted of sheep stealing, I am in contact with a descendant of these two men and to this day we can not connect the two families.

I hope some of the above information may be of interest and maybe some of your members may be able to help me in finding out more of my Irish heritage.

Regards, Maggie Heffernan.

Maggie is just one of the 2.1 Million Australian citizens who identified themselves as being of Irish ancestry in the 2011 census. When I hear from our Australian readers, there is often at least one story of “transportation to a penal colony” in their ancestry. These stories are often colourful, unjust and well-recorded in the record books. We have lots of songs that capture the sentiment and hardship of many of these forced transportations. Songs like “The Black Velvet Band” which was made popular by the Dubliners. Maybe you know these lines?

Before judge and jury next morning Both of us did appear A gentleman claimed his jewelry And the case against us was clear

Now seven long years transportation Right down to Van Dieman’s land Far away from my friends and companions To follow the black velvet band

But, before we have a look at Ireland and Australia at the time of William Heffernan, let’s look at the surname Heffernan itself.

The Four Tribes of Owney. 

Maggie’s Irish surname – Heffernan – is one of those names that did not change much with anglicisation. It comes from the Irish “Ó hIfernáin” which derives in turn from the first name “Ifernan”. This is a descriptive first name – and a rather fierce one – which loosely translates as “small demon from hell”. A useful description when you want your reputation to ride before you in more war-like times!

The Ó hIfernáin family came out of what is now County Clare, around the village of Corofin. One branch of the family headed east to an area in modern county Tipperary that became known as Owney. There, they established themselves as one of the main families of the area – becoming one of the “Four Tribes of Owney” – alongside the Lynch, McKeogh and Callahan families.

Over time, they in turn were displaced by the Mulryans – but the family name is still located to this day in the east of County Limerick, west Tipperary and the original homeland in County Clare. Maggie’s ancestor William, who left from Tipperary – was probably connected alright to his fellow Heffernan passengers, but that relationship may have been from centuries in the past. I’m also sure that many more Heffernans left this part of Ireland for Australia over the years 1791 to 1853.

Seven Long Years Transportation. 

With the end of the American War of Independence, Britain needed a new destination for the convicts that were selected for transportation. The colony of New South Wales (which included much of modern Queensland) was selected as a good alternative. Legislation was put into place in 1786 that allowed Irish courts to choose transportation to N.S.W. as a sentencing choice.

The first Irish convict ship  left for N.S.W. in April of 1791 and between 1791 and 1853, approximately 30,000 Irish people were transported to N.S.W. The last ship to carry convicts left Kingstown, near Dublin, and arrived in Australia on the 30th of August, 1853.

Of course, it wasn’t just Ireland that provided Australia with her convict labour over all of this time, about 165,000 convicts were transported from England, Scotland and Ireland combined. However, much has been made of the seeming trivial offences that could get you into trouble in the Irish courts – and there seems to be some truth in this. One observer noted that English law in Ireland seemed to be the most severe for minor crimes:

A man is vanished from Scotland for a great crime, from England for a small on, and from Ireland, for hardly no crime at all.

The Irish were sent almost exclusively to New South Wales and by 1837 about 30% of the N.S.W. population was Irish and Catholic. The vast majority of these were convicts, freed convicts or the children of freed convicts.

This flow of convicts to the colonies was a much-needed source of labour in a land without infrastructure and cultivation. From the beginning of the transportation system,  a convict  arrived in N.S.W. and was assigned to a specific farm owner – the more dangerous prisoners were sent directly to work on road gangs. Seven years was the typical duration of a sentence, but of course many did not have the option of returning to their homeland at the end of that period. Also, a system of “probation” was in place, which allowed a man to be eligible for conditional freedom after 4 years for good behaviour.

The typical Irish man who arrived in N.S.W. was from a farm labouring background back in Ireland. He rarely had a trade or marketable skill. On release, it was going to be through the hard work of farming that he established himself in his adopted country. The trend emerged that Irish convicts, once obtaining freedom, took up land grants all over N.S.W., Queensland and the other newly established Australian States.

I’ll finish with a note I received from our good friend Des Dineen (who lives in Melbourne, Australia). He pointed out that “a large proportion of Irish migrants to Australia in the mid 1800s came from Tipperary, generally from a 40 mile radius of the Rock Of Cashel.”

That was news to me – and very interesting – as it brings us full circle to Maggie Heffernan’s opening letter about her ancestor. It appears that William Heffernan was one of the many Tipperary residents who were forcibly removed from their homeland hundreds of years ago – and somehow survived and thrived in the land that Maggie and her family are proud to call home today.

Was your ancestor transported to the colonies? What was their story?

That’s it for this week – as always, do feel free to leave a comment below to say hello, share an Irish surname or story in your family. We leave you with an original video from The Dubliners – with the wonderful Luke Kelly in fine form belting out their own rendition of “The Black Velvet Band”:

Slán for now – Mike and Carina : )

  • Bonnie RYAN Sauter says:

    Trying to find information on the surname Brassill who immigrated to the States in mid 1800’s.

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