Jeff Kildea, an Australian historian, lecturer and author, will be in Ireland later this month for the launch of the first volume of his two-volume biography of ‘Hugh Mahon, Patriot, Pressman, Politician’. Mahon was a native of County Offaly and who on emigrating to Australia became one of the most controversial politicians of his time. A former Land League activist while in Ireland Hugh Mahon was imprisoned with Charles Stewart Parnell in 1881. In Australia he served as Minister for External Affairs during World War 1 but was later expelled from parliament as a result of his aggressive campaigning for Irish independence.
The Irish novelist Evelyn Conlon contacted me through a mutual friend regarding Jeff Kildea’s Irish visit and his wish to visit Athy, and especially Ballyadams, where his great great grandmother was born in and around 1830. The contact was fortuitous because I had written of Kildea’s relative who was one of the young girls sent out from the Athy Workhouse as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme in 1849. Indeed Jeff Kildea had picked up my article on the internet and included some references to it in an extensive article he wrote on his great great grandmother, Rosanna Flemming.
Rosanna was 19 years old when she joined 17 other girls from Athy Workhouse on the ship ‘Lady Peel’ which arrived in Sydney on 3rd July 1849. A second group comprising 16 young female former inmates of the local workhouse would arrive in Sydney on the ship ‘Maria’ on 1st August 1850. The Athy Workhouse records indicated that Rosanna Flemming’s mother Mary was living in Ballyadams and that she came from a Catholic family. Of the 35 young girls sent to Australia from the local Athy Workhouse under the Orphan Emigration Scheme all but one were Roman Catholics.
Jeff Kildea in his article which he titled ‘The Grim Life of Roseanna Clarke (nee Flemming)’ explained how Roseanna and her companions were each provided with a trunk by the workhouse authorities in which were clothing, needle and thread, a Douay Bible, a Certificate of good character and a Certificate of good health. By happy coincidence, just weeks before I was contacted regarding Jeff’s visit, I had discovered that the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims and the Irish Prison Service came together to produce travel boxes or trunks replicating those provided for the young girls sent to Australia after the Great Famine. One such trunk was recently presented to President O’Higgins, while another two trunks were sent to Perth, Australia for presentation to museums in Dardanup and Bunbury, two towns just outside Perth. The Committee and the Prison Service have kindly agreed to make a similar trunk for presentation to Athy’s Heritage Centre.
Shortly after arriving in Sydney Rosanna Flemming was employed as a kitchen maid by Dr. John Dickson. Her placement was for a period of 12 months but the arrangement was terminated on 26th October 1849. Three weeks later Rosanna married James Clarke, a native of County Westmeath, who had arrived in Australia shortly before Rosanna. They were to have 9 children between 1852 and 1869, the last of whom, also named Rosanna, died in 1948 aged 90 years.
Unfortunately Rosanna, the former workhouse inmate, had several brushes with Australian police and magistrates, usually resulting from being drunk in public places. Rosanna, who could not read or write, served short periods of imprisonment for antisocial behaviour. Her sad and tragic life ended on 29th June 1901 when she died of natural causes. Little is known of Rosanna’s children other than that of her eldest daughter Mary who at 17 years of age married Maurice Collins, a native of Clonakilty. Mary and Maurice had 12 children, the second youngest of whom, born in 1895, was Jeff Kildea’s grandmother.
The story of Rosanna Flemming, the young girl from Ballyadams, an inmate of Athy Workhouse who sailed to Australia as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme of 1849, is a poignant reminder of the poverty and hardship experienced by many Irish families during a difficult time in our Irish history. Rosanna passed out of our shared history as she embarked on the ‘Lady Peel’ just as former workhouse inmates did when disease and hunger brought their sad lives to an end.
The Workhouse cemetery at St. Mary’s Athy, for so long overlooked and forgotten, holds the remains of many young girls who unlike Rosanna Flemming had no opportunity to live a life outside the Workhouse walls. Rosanna, despite her tragic and difficult life, had the opportunity, if not necessarily the means or the capability, of reordering her life after leaving Athy’s Workhouse. She survived, living a somewhat precarious life at the other side of the world, while lying in unmarked plots in the shadow of the former Workhouse are the remains of those forgotten men, women, boys and girls whose last moments in this world were spend behind the grim walls of Athy’s workhouse.
Is it perhaps too much to expect that anyone would know where in Ballyadams the Flemming family, headed up by Patrick and Mary Flemming, lived in the 1830s and the 1840s?