Irish Girls – Stunted Figures, Thick Waists, Clumsy Ankles

Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Mr Jimmy Deenihan is to travel to Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney, Australia on Sunday to lead the ceremonies for the 2013 International Commemoration of the Great Irish Famine. Here he hopes to meet descendants of Irish orphan girls who travelled to Australia between 1848 and 1850, during the great famine period of 1845-1851.

More than 4,000 women and girls left from Irish workhouses aged between 14 and 20 years old, during the years between 1848 and 1850 under the Earl Grey Scheme.  Like the young unemployed of today’s Ireland many went to Australia in search of hope and a new beginning. The difference between today and back then is that today, to our shame, those leaving our shores for Australia are highly educated, while back then those leaving were made up of abandoned, or orphaned children, many untrained, without in many case the ability to read or write.


The rotting Hulk of “Inconstant,” wrecked at Wellington, New Zealand in 1851 & which had previously transported young girls from workhouses in Tipperary to Australia.

To call them orphan girls in this period of Irish history (1845-1851) perhaps is an inaccurate statement, for it was quite common for Irish destitute families to leave their children abandoned at the gates of local workhouses, the parents fearing they could no longer care for them. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century here in Ireland, poverty was widespread. It was estimated that over two million were nearly destitute and at levels of starvation.

Workhouses to assist those starving arose from the July 1838 British Governments “Act for the Effectual Relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland,” and some 130 such buildings throughout Ireland were eventually established between 1840 and 1845, with each building depending on local population, to accommodate somewhere between 2000 and 700 persons. One such building, now demolished, was the former Hospital of The Assumption, here in Thurles, Co Tipperary.

The Earl Grey Scheme

The ‘Earl Grey Scheme,’ was an operation carried out between March 1848 and 1850. Earl Henry George Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, specifically set-up this scheme to send orphaned or abandoned girls from workhouses in Tipperary, Roscrea, Ballina, Tullamore, Dublin, Cork, Skibbereen, Mountmellick, Newcastle, Mullingar and Loughrea, amongst others north of the country like Belfast, Cookstown, Dungannon and Magherafelt.  Thus, encouraged and partially forced emigration became Grey’s brain-child, primarily designed to meet an Australian demand for domestic servants and marriageable young women. In the eyes of the then so called Imperial social engineers of this time who supported his plan, these Famine orphans were being observed as young marriageable women who would bring a somewhat stabilising influence to an existing rough male colonial society. Grey believed he could alleviate the worsening problem of overcrowding in Ireland’s famine filled workhouses, while at the same time solving Australia’s problems of a shortage of labour and an imbalance of the sexes.


From the very first arrival via the ships “Roman Emperor,” “Maria,” “Inconstant,” “Ramilies,” “Earl Grey,” and “Elgin” between 1848/49 and for years afterwards these young girls would confront often angry, heated, local Australian hostility.  Hatred centred on their being young, their complete and utter incompetence, their lowly workhouse origins, their total inexperience in any form of household service and possibly also their being Irish.

The 1850’s onwards was also the period when native Aboriginal people were being forced into reservations. Those who believed they had an inside tract on social mores, began eroding Aboriginal traditional ways of life through the banning of Aboriginal names and their traditional customs, while perceiving the need to keep Aboriginal people, a primitive race doomed to extinction, separate from their superior white population, while their race died out. Aboriginal people lost all basic human rights such as their freedom of movement, labour, custody of children and control over personal property.

According to one official Sydney source these arriving Irish girls; were most reluctant to learn, displayed dirty and idle habits, along with miserable and unmanageable tempers. Even worse, in the case of any possible births through anticipated marriages to existing colonists, these girls threatened to endanger the then dynamic colonial physical type, displaying as was stated their “squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles.”  One Australian newspaper reported that these Irish orphans looked to be a tough bunch with most of the Belfast Irish Orphans identified as being purveyors of bad language, demonstrating mutinous behaviour and warned that the colony would soon become known as a community renowned for thieves, bastards and prostitution. This negative reaction would eventually bring this pauper immigration scheme of Grey’s to an end by late 1850, but not before at least 22 such girls had been removed from Co Tipperary.

One Australian Newspaper was partly prophetic in its reporting, as by the 30th September 1850 Adelaide was alleging that some of the girls which arrived on the “Inconstant,” were operating as prostitutes,  e.g. Namely  Margaret Dehee from Donohill, Co.Tipperary, together with Margaret Bryan, Hetty Eliza Corrigan, Ann Curran, Essy Dale, Mary Dorgan (Doran), Ann Fulham, Eliza Graham, Mary Maher, Ann Malone, Eliza Marr, Isabella Martin, Catherine McMahon, Theresa Nevins, Catharine Riardan and Rose Ward.

Some of the girls arriving on the ship “Earl Grey,” from Belfast were also alleged to have been already active Irish prostitutes e.g  Georgina Mulholland aged 22, Mary McConnell aged 19, Margaret Cassidy aged 19 and Mary Black aged 18.

On this same ship was also Mary Little aged 16, who had initially entered the Armagh workhouse destitute, as part of a full family group, but who had all since died in Ireland. Now in Australia she would be employed by one Mrs J.C. Curtis of the North Shore and later found smashed in the face by her employer, fainting from the loss of blood.  Many others like Mary Ann Flynn, Ann Boyle and Isabella Carson would claim they received little or no wages from their new employers.  Margaret Devlin from Keady, in Armagh, would be seduced and impregnated by William Small of Clarence River, son of her new employer Thomas Small.

During his trip this weekend, Minister Deenihan will officially launch the “Atlas of the Great Irish Famine,” at the State Library in Sydney, and speak at a seminar on the Great Irish Famine in Parliament House. According to Mr Deenihan’s own statement this trip will celebrate the tremendous impact that Irish emigrants have made to their adopted homeland of Australia.

Perhaps someone hopefully will give Minister Jimmy Deenihan a history lesson before he ‘prostitutes,’ himself in the name of Irish Tourism, at the currently impoverished Irish taxpayer’s expense. Perhaps he should keep his remarks to people like Joseph Benedict (Ben) Chifley, 16th Australian Labour Party Prime Minister of Australia, son of a blacksmith, whose parents emigrated from Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary. An alternative could also be the iconic Edward (Ned) Kelly, (1855 – 1880) a symbol of Irish Australian resistance against the then Anglo-Australian ruling class and son of John (Red) Kelly, latter born near Moyglass, Co. Tipperary, latter county grossly ignored by this Minister and aided by his Tipperary Fine Gael and Labour colleagues, with regard to tourism, since his rise to Ministerial Office.

Finally with regard to our 19th century “Orphan Girls,” little has changed since back then. In the past four years, over 300,000 people have emigrated from Ireland; 40% of these were aged between 15 and 24, yet we see no dedicated minister with any responsibility for emigration policy for our Irish youth, latter now rejected and cast adrift to find employment in foreign ports.


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