As conditions slowly began to improve following Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s, thirty-four young orphan girls who had been inmates of Athy’s workhouse were sent to Australia as part of the British Government’s Orphan Emigration Scheme. The Scheme was intended to alleviate overcrowding in Irish Workhouses, while at the same time hopefully lessen the gender imbalance in the Australian population. Amongst the young girls sent out from Athy Workhouse was Rosanna Fleming, 19 years old, from Ballyadams. She was one of the oldest girls sent to Australia from Athy’s workhouse.
A few months ago I met Jeff Kildea, an Australian historian who was in Ireland for the launch of his most recent book ‘A Biography of Hugh Mahon’. Jeff is the great great grandson of Rosanna Fleming and I was pleased to bring him to the former workhouse and afterwards to Ballyadams, visiting places associated with his ancestor. Since then Jeff was invited to address the 18th annual gathering at the Irish Famine Monument at Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks. Of all the distinguished men and women who had addressed previous gatherings at the Irish Famine Monument, Jeff Kildea was the first descendent of a Famine orphan who landed in Sydney to do so. He spoke of Rosanna Fleming, the former inmate of Athy Workhouse, who on 3rd July 1849 arrived in Australia on the passenger ship ‘Lady Peel’ with 17 other young girls from Athy’s workhouse. Author, Evelyn Conlon, whom I also met during Jeff Kildea’s visit to Athy in her novel ‘Not the same sky’ closely followed the known historical facts surrounding the Orphan Emigration Scheme girls. Some of those girls did well, others did not.
Rosanna, who subsequently led a sad and tragic life in Australia, died at the age of 71 years. She married James Clarke, a native of County Westmeath, just four months after landing in Australia and over the following 17 years they had 9 children.
By a strange coincidence soon after Jeff Kildea’s visit to Athy I became aware of a joint venture between the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims and the Arbour Hill prison authorities. They came together to undertake a project called ‘Famine Travel Boxes’. Travel boxes or trunks were given to each of the young girls who participated in the Orphan Emigration Scheme. In each trunk was clothing, a needle and thread, a Douay Bible, a Certificate of good character and a Certificate of good health. The Famine Commemoration Committee engaged with the Arbour Hill authorities to have replica travel trunks made and some of those trunks have been presented to President Michael D. Higgins, the United Nations in New York and two museums in Australia.
The two groups when approached by me generously agreed to make a travel trunk for presentation to Athy Heritage Centre. The trunk bearing the name Rosanna Fleming will be formally presented to the Heritage Centre on Tuesday, 26th September at 7.30 p.m.
It is fitting that Athy Heritage Centre is to be the recipient of a Famine travel trunk as here in Athy we have participated in the National Famine Day’s commemorations with a ceremony each year in St. Mary’s famine cemetery. The National Famine Commemoration Day was first approved by the Irish government in 2015 following a campaign led by Michael Blanch who was responsible for the setting up of the committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims. Michael Blanch will be at Athy Heritage Centre for the formal presentation on 26th September.
The Rosanna Fleming travel box will form part of Athy’s permanent local history exhibition in the Heritage Centre to remind visitors of the terrible effect that the Great Famine of 1845-1849 had on the people of Ireland and especially on the people of this part of the country. Everyone is invited to attend the presentation in the Heritage Centre commencing at 7.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 26th September.
During the past week the formal establishment of a local history society in Athy was finalised and Athy Historical Society is now open for membership. If you would like to engage with others in research, recording and learning local history, archaeology, folklife or folklore, why not join the society. A membership fee of €10 per annum is all that is required to participate in the society’s activities which will start with a series of lectures, the first of which will take place in the Heritage Centre on Thursday 12th October at 7.30 p.m. Further details will issue shortly. Contact Athy’s Heritage Centre on Ph. (059)8633075 or Seamus Hughes, the society’s honorary treasurer at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to become a member of Athy’s Historical Society.