My family jokes that you only need to visit the prisons in Ireland to follow our family tree. If a joke is truth wrapped in a smile, I’m grinning from ear to ear with a Kookaburra grinning next to me. It turns out that my family tree doesn’t end in the prisons of Ireland.
I’ve come to the land down-under; nearly 10,000 miles to the place of the Blue Mountains in Sydney, Australia. It is the most beautiful harbor in the world and the port of entry for thousands of Irish convicts, three who share my maiden name, McGovern. Two Mary McGoverns and one Catherine (from Donegal, Killarney and Kilmore, respectively) who were deported to Sydney and escaped Ireland’s overcrowded jails in 1849. Their plight tells the story of the thousands of women who helped populate Australia.
In the early nineteenth century, Australia was a penal colony settled by British subjects who were given free land and subjects who were convicted felons sent to help populate it. With the sun beating down on my shoulders the morning I arrived, I strolled the outdoor markets of the “Rocks area.” and had a chance meeting with Paula Church, an accomplished artist and Irish immigrant to Sydney. She arrived twenty years ago, and vowed never to live anywhere else.
As this petite, blue eyed, raven-haired beauty sat on a stool painting a blackbird in a passion fruit tree, she told me about a special group of Irish women; the Irish Famine Orphans. I later learned Paula enjoys a certain celebrity status in Australia despite her soft-spoken, unassuming demeanor. Her artistry caught the attention of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II several years ago and she was commissioned her to work on the stage coach Britannia to mark the Queen’s Jubilee.1
Paula’s immigration experience was vastly different from the 4,114 Irish women who arrived in Sydney in 1848. Most became domestic workers or wives to the marry settlers of the colony. The three McGovern women, whose names appeared on the commemorative wall to the orphans, were destitute orphans (having lost their parents and family) facing prison terms for minor crimes like stealing a loaf of bread. Because poverty and disease were rampant, and workhouses throughout Ireland’s 32 counties were overcrowded, the government had sentenced them to “seven years transportation.”
This meant these young women, aged 18-25 years of age, were sentenced to live outside of Ireland for seven years before they could return. Enduring perilous voyages on ships in horrible conditions, the orphans travelled for up to 7 months before landing in Sydney. Once there, they were housed in the Hyde Park Barracks originally built for the first wave of convict criminals sent to the colony in 1819. Records indicate more than 20 boatloads of women were forced to leave Ireland during the from 1848 to 1850.2
Life in the barracks was difficult and many of the women were exposed to prejudice and ridicule. Those who didn’t find work or marriage lived in the streets and died impoverished. For more about their difficult lives, visit the museum home page link or read a more personal story about one woman’s journey to piece together her family history.
Thanks to Irish President Mary Robinson’s visit to Sydney in 1995, and lobbying on the part of the Irish community, the Australian government created a memorial in the Hyde Park to honor the orphans’ plight. Visitors to the Hyde Park site can see artifacts documenting the orphans’ plight and personal stories that stand as a tribute to Australia’s difficult past. Today, this living museum is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.