Mary and Elizabeth Hayes, twins aged 18 years old, were two of the 18 young girls who walked from the workhouse on the outskirts of Athy to the local Railway Station on an April morning 166 years ago. Just two years previously as Ireland and its people were experiencing the worst excesses of the famine the Great Southern and Western Railway opened a branch line to Athy. The journey time from the South Kildare town to the capital city took approximately 1½ hours where previously the same trip by canal passenger boat took almost 10 hours.
For the Hayes sisters whose parents John and Mary were dead, the train journey to Dublin was the first of many new experiences they would have over the following three or four months. They were just two of the 55,000 or so young inmates of Irish workhouses whose total inmate population in 1847 came to approximately 120,000 persons. The cost of keeping so many in the workhouse system fell on the local landowners of each Poor Law Union area. Inevitably as the Great Famine came to an end those same landowners considered how best to empty the workhouses of the families and especially the young orphans whom it was believed would continue indefinitely to be dependent on public relief.
At the same time the New South Wales legislators were pressing the British authorities to reintroduce State sponsored emigration schemes to encourage emigration to the Australian colonies. Earl Grey who was secretary to the colonies is generally credited with initiating the Orphan Emigration Scheme for Irish workhouses. Under the scheme which was adopted by the Irish Board of Guardians young girls who were inmates of the workhouse system were selected to be sent to Australia. The intention was to reduce the financial burden on the landowning classes in Ireland while at the same time addressing the gender imbalance of the new Australian colonies.
Here in Athy the Board of Guardians held meetings such as that held in Narraghmore and reported in the local papers where the ratepayers were encouraged to adopt the Orphan Emigration Scheme. Their approval was required as the Board of Guardians had to provide the emigrant orphans with clothing etc and pay for their transport to Plymouth from where they would embark on their final journey to New South Wales.
The Athy Board of Guardians adopted the Orphan Emigration Scheme and the first contingent of orphans comprising 18 girls ranging in age from 17 o 19 years left the Athy workhouse in April 1849. Each girl was provided with a wooden trunk and in it clothing, needle and thread, a Douay Bible, a Certificate of good character and a Certificate of good health.
The young girls walked to the railway station while their trunks were brought by horse and cart. For young girls so poor as to be admitted to the workhouse I can assume that the train journey to Dublin was for all of them the first and only time they travelled on the Irish railway system. They then travelled by steamer to Plymouth, a journey which took 36 hours and which because it was an open deck vessel was regarded as the worst part of the long journey to Australia. On arrival at the Baltic wharf in Plymouth they eventually transferred to the sailing ship Lady Peel which reached Sydney after a journey of almost 3 months on 3rd July 1849. I was in Plymouth a few days ago and stood on the wharf from where the Athy Workhouse orphans embarked so many years ago. Not too far away and also in Plymouth was the wharf from where many Irish convicts were also shipped to Australia. These included those whom John Butler, Justice of the Peace for Athy, who when writing on 2nd April, 1848 of the 100 prisoners held in Athy jail referred to the 16 prisoners under sentence of transportation.
The young girls on the Lady Peel were accommodated in Sydney’s old convict barracks known as Hyde Park Barracks where a few years ago the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales unveiled a memorial to the Irish orphan girls. From there the girls were indentured to local families for up to three years of service. In time they became free agents and started new lives in the colony where there was already a strong Irish presence.
Over the two years of the Orphan Emigration Scheme 4,114 orphans between the ages of 14 and 20 years were sent from Ireland to Australia. The last ship to arrive was the Maria which docked in Sydney Harbour on 1st August 1850 and amongst its passengers were a further 17 orphan girls from Athy Workhouse.
In June 1849 as the first ships were en route to New South Wales a total of 1,528 inmates were living in the Athy Workhouse and the two auxiliary workhouses in Barrack Street and Canalside. At the same time 1,102 local persons were in receipt of outdoor relief. The numbers affected locally by the famine are staggering and it is equally hard to accept that 1,205 persons died in the workhouse during the famine, while the town of Athy lost approximately 1,000 persons during the same period.
We will remember those unfortunate men, women and children of Athy and district and the young orphan girls who were sent to Australia when we gather in St. Mary’s Cemetery on the Famine National Commemoration Day in May.