Irish women – the making of Australia!

Today being Australia Day, it seems appropriate to also commemorate those who might have had more influence than any on forming the Australian character – and that’s the women of Ireland!

It’s well recognised that the Irish have had a disproportionate influence in the development, character and history of Australia. This is not due to their numbers – in the great age of immigration between the middle of the 1800s and the first world war only about a third of a million Irish went to Australia. Rather it’s down to the women!

In this period, when men overwhelmingly represented most nationalities coming down to Australia, remarkably there was an almost equal gender balance among Irish immigrants. Irish women – and as mothers at the heart of their families – shaped the next generations of Australians and therefore Australia itself. (Just think of Ellen Kelly, a free emigrant from the west of Ireland, and her impact on her son, Ned!)

Ellen Kelly, mother of Ned, aged 79 with two of her grandchildren

This influx of Irish women was partly due to the policy of removing many orphan girls from Irish workhouses in the 1840s and 1850s who were then brought to Australia to work as hired help and to adjust the huge population imbalance between the sexes.

In my first few months in Australia I visited a most interesting exhibit on these Irish girls in Hyde Park Barracks. It described the voyage for early emigrants to Australia and their division into segregated holds: girls over 12 – even if travelling with their families – were classified as women and slept two together in a sleeping space six foot by three. They were allowed one canvas bag to hold their essential items while the rest of their luggage was stowed away in trunks to which they had access once a month to change their clothes which after four weeks in a sweaty, stinking hold must have been quite essential.

During the more significant 21 of the 39 years of the programme, of the women billeted in the barracks on arrival,  just over 200 were from Wales, 2,500 were Scottish, 5,500 were English but 13,500 were Irish. The Irish girls were often orphans in their mid teens taken from the workhouse who were unable to read and write (many didn’t even speak English being Gaelic speakers).

Very few personal stories are traceable as the only documents available are police records, birth, marriage and death certificates and any letters that the few literate women might have received or written. Reading these, it seems that most suffered acute loneliness.

One young woman wrote several letters to the authorities trying to locate a relative whom she thought was in Australia, but nothing came of it. Without a friend or relative or anyone to show some kindness to her from one end of the day to the next, she said, she found it difficult to go on and saw no future other than an early and sorrowful death.

Another young woman, a 20 year old from Galway, boarded the Australian bound ship in London two months pregnant and five months later, near term, she arrived in Sydney. She was housed in the barracks until she gave birth and when the infant was two and a half months they were sent out into the colony. She couldn’t be put into service with a young baby and what work she ended up doing wasn’t known. (On reading this story, the strict prohibition on other passengers and crew mixing with the young women when they were taking air on deck made much clearer sense.)

The scheme of extracting young girls from workhouses was scrapped in 1850 as it was leading to strong anti-Irish sentiment in Sydney; too many of the women were seen to be falling into prostitution, crime and alcoholism.

In the early 1980s the barracks were renovated and countless items which the women had owned or used that had slipped between the floorboards or had been dragged away by the rats to pad their nests were discovered: cutlery, bottles, coins, pins. Many bloodied pieces of rag used as tampons had been slipped through the floor boards by the young girls in their shame. Sent 12,000 miles away from home, their lives seem to have been ones of unbearable fear and loneliness. They too are among the countless skeletons in Australia’s capacious closet.

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