A Letter from Ireland:
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Do You Have Irish Famine Orphans in Your Family Tree?

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Do you have any Irish Famine Orphans in your family tree? In this letter, we share a reader letter recalling the story of two of her Irish ancestors who arrived in Australia as part of the Earl Grey Irish orphan emigration scheme.

Famine Memorial Sydney
Mike sitting beside the Irish Famine Memorial, Sydney.

Céad Míle Fáilte and you are very welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. We do hope you are keeping well wherever you are in the world today!

We’re just going through Storm Ciara (a great Irish girl’s name – pronounced “Keera”) but it looks like it will blow onto the UK before the day is out and will be followed by some brighter weather.

I’m settling into a nice cup of Barry’s tea – and I hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter from Ireland.

Before we begin the letter – one all about Irish famine orphans – a reminder (as if you needed it) that St. Valentine’s Day is coming up later this week. But, did you know that the Saint has some very strong connections with Dublin (you can actually visit him there on your next visit) and we captured his story in this podcast episode from some time ago.

Now, on with today’s letter…

One Story of Irish Famine Orphans.

When the Irish famine came to an end in the late 1840s, the workhouses were full to overflowing with those who were destitute, sick and unable to work. Over 4,000 orphan girls were removed from these workhouses and sent to the Australian colonies where they were to become domestic servants and wives to the many bachelors and widowers who arrived in the colonies over the preceding decades. These orphan girls are the ancestors to hundreds of thousands of people across Australia today. In this letter we hear from Paula Cavanough – and she shares the story of two of her Irish ancestors who arrived in Australia from Ireland as part of the “Earl Grey Scheme”. Over to you, Paula….

Paula: I am looking forward to my Irish ancestors being featured in the Letter from Ireland…but who do I choose? I have been doing family history for many years and have taken my Irish heritage back to when and where they arrived in Australia and a little beyond that. I travelled around Ireland on a tour back in April, 2016 and absolutely loved being there.

Mike: Nice to meet you, Paula! I think we will choose two of your ancestors – they had one specific thing in common, they both arrived in Australia from Ireland after the Great Famine. They were just two of about 4,000 “orphan” girls aged between 14 and 18 who made the same journey.

Paula: My great, great grandmother was Bridget Mary Geoghan born about 1832, the daughter of Patrick and Mary from Lorrha, Tipperary County.  She came on the Tippoo Saidarriving in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on 29 July 1850. She was one of the 4000+  young girls sent from Irish workhouses under Earl Grey’s Famine Orphan Scheme.  She was described as “18 years old, her religion was Roman Catholic, a house servant, could read but not write and had no relatives in the colony” at the time. The Orphan Emigration Scheme commenced in Oct 1848 and was wound up due to intense opposition from the Australian colonists in Aug 1850.

Another great, great grandmother was Ellen Green born about 1834, the daughter of John Green and Margaret Greenwood from Abbey/Glenabby, Waterford. She also came out under the Earl Grey Scheme, arriving on the Maria on 29 Jun 1850 in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.  She married an Englishman and ex-convict, Henry Osborne, in 1853.  They had eleven children producing numerous descendants.  Ellen died on 10 Apr 1907 in Hobby’s Yards, New South Wales.

Mike:  Thanks for that Paula. The surname Geoghegan (the more common spelling in Ireland – and pronounced “Gay-gun” here) is found across Connaught and the midlands of Ireland, down into north Tipperary. The surname Green(e) is sprinkled across many parts of Ireland – it came to prominence due to the proliferation of the Irish word for the colour green in many old Gaelic surnames as well as being a possible Norman, English or Scottish surname. Lots of possibilities there!

The Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme.

Also, thank you for that summary on the Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme! As the famine came to an end in the late 1840s in Ireland, the various workhouses that dotted the country were overflowing with destitute families, orphans, the sick and the poor. Earl Grey (the secretary for War and the Colonies at the time) came up with the idea of shipping just some of the young women occupants of these workhouses to the Australian colonies as domestic help and wives for a population that had a substantial male majority.

Irish Famine Memorial, Sydney

Quite a number of workhouses agreed to the scheme – although it might surprise people to know that quite a number of these young women were not orphans at all, but left the remainder of their destitute families behind them in the workhouse.

The scheme lasted just two years before hitting the substantial political headwinds in Australia that you refer to – the scheme was seen as just another way that colonial overlords “dumped” their most lowly and unwanted citizens.

The Irish Famine Memorial, Sydney, Australia.

When we visited Sydney in 2018, one of our highlights was visiting Hyde Barracks – remodelled as a temporary holding facility for the newly arrived Irish, orphan girls. We lay down on their hammocks and wandered the rooms they would have lived in following a four month voyage from England.

The Entrance to Hyde Barracks, Sydney.

Just outside the barracks is a striking memorial that captures the names of all known Irish Famine orphans who travelled to the Australian colonies throughout the duration of the Earl Grey scheme.

Carina Tries a Hammock.

Paula: The Irish girls were relentlessly vilified in the newspapers of the day. Bridget died on 13 Feb 1892 in Sydney aged 60 years.  She married an Englishman, Henry Waddups in 1852.  They had seven children with only two of those children marrying and producing quite a number of descendants in Australia today.

Mike: The girls typically married men many years their senior – went on to have many children, but were often widowed in the late 1800s at a time when Australia was entering a difficult economic time. We have been struck by just how many Australians chase their lineage back to these 4,000 young women – you are not the first to contact us with such stories!

Paula: I am curious about their lives in Ireland before they emigrated. I can read things online but the nuances of time and place and family connections are harder to tease out. I need help with who their parents were and where they actually lived. I know a lot of the old names have evolved into different ones today.

Thank you and kind regards, Paula Cavanough.

Mike: Thank you Paula. You need to ask specific questions over in The Green Room to tease out the Irish families of these girls. One of the key things is to discover the exact workhouse that your ancestors left from in Ireland. It is entirely possible that they are mentioned in that workhouse’s records.

Names on the Irish Famine Memorial, Sydney

On the life and times in Ireland at the time they emigrated – you must remember that they had just lived their young lives experiencing one of the worst famine atrocities the world had ever seen. On top of that, they had ended up in a Workhouse – often with no family support. They were in the most dire of circumstances – I would guess that while many of the women had a hard time on their arrival in Australia, they were presented with opportunities to have a life that they had not experienced back in Ireland.

While I would be delighted to chat more about the times in Ireland that these women left behind, I can also recommend the work of Kay Moloney Cabal – who runs the site MyKerryAncestors and wrote a book that looked at the circumstances and life of just some of these Earl Grey orphans who left a number of different workhouses in north Kerry in the mid 1800s.

You can also find out about that Irish famine memorial in Sydney – and much more on the listed Irish Famine Orphans here.

That’s it for this week. Do feel free to share the stories and surnames in your Irish family tree in the comments section below.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.

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