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"The Potato Orphans" or "The Lost Children", some of the names associated with the children sent from Irish Workhouses to Australia as part of the short-lived Earl Grey Scheme (1848-1850). Emigration schemes like this one aimed at providing assistance to those in the most dire circumstances and a means to leave Ireland and start a new life. Earl Grey, British Secretary of State for the Colonies managed the Scheme which aimed to provide labourers in Australia and solve the problem of chronic over-crowding in Ireland's Workhouses. 

Australian Memorial to the Great Irish Famine

Picture: Glass wall with Orphand Girls names engraved, Hyde Barracks Sydney

Many, like those from the Peter Robinson Scheme for example who left Ireland for Canada, found themselves in very new and difficult circumstances. As part of the Earl Grey programme, the young Irish girls were transported to Australia where they lived for a time at Hyde Park Barracks until their future was decided. The girls came from all over the 32 counties and while they may still have had one parent living, that father or mother could no longer support them. On leaving the Workhouse each girl was given a chest with personal belongings including some clothes, a bible and a hairbrush. A monument to the girls has been erected at Hyde Park Barracks and is inspired by their experience. 

Between 1848 and 1850 a number of ships carried the girls on the long journey. The Earl Grey, the Digby, the Panama and the Maria, arrived at Sydney for example, while the Inconstant, the Elgin and the Roman Emperor arrived at Adelaide. 

Stories from Galway

Below are some of the girls from Loughrea, Co. Galway who made the journey. Most of the girls took up work as farm labourers or domestic servants. 

Mary Byrnes was aged 15 when she arrived in Australia. Her parents, Patrick and Mary were deceased and Mary could not read or write. Her ship, the Thomas Arbuthnot docked in Sydney in 1850. Mary's details record that she was entirley alone in the colony and had no relatives. She recorded her occupation as 'Domestic Servant' and took up employment with Mr J Newberry, at 79 Market Street, Sydney. 

Ann Deely was also 15 on her arrival in Australia. She was the daughter of Thomas and Margaret, both deceased and also alone on arrival. She was apprenticed as a Domestic to Frederick Hudson at Ipswich, for a period of 3 years earning ₤6-8

Bridget Dowd was the daughter of Ellen and John, both deceased and again 15 years old on arrival in Sydney. She was also apprenticed as a Servant and married Michael Samuel Gill at Ipswich on 2nd March 1851. The couple had 5 children. Michael was a Cooper who lost his left arm in an accident & became a storekeeper and sodawater maker at Bell Street, Ipswich. Michael died in 1878 and Bridget remarried in 1879. She and her second husband, Patrick Edwards, had 6 more children and continued to live at Little Ipswich & Dalby. Bridget died on 15 Nov 1917.

The Famine Memorial Monument

Every year a gathering at the Famine Monument is held to remember the girls. In 2012 Melissa Plant, a descendant of Mary O'Hara from Galway said that "we had known that my mother had Irish ancestry, but it was whilst I was away that my father found out that my great-great grandmother was an Irish Famine Orphan who had traveled to Australia in a ship. Her name was Mary O’Hara, and at the time she was a teenager from County Mayo, in a workhouse in Galway. She came to Australia on a ship called the Lady Kennaway, which was one of the ships that traveled directly to Melbourne. She worked in a brewery for 6 years 2 months, then married an Irishman and had 12 children, the youngest of whom was my mother’s grandfather...This memorial and the dedication of the people who manage it means a great deal to me and my family. It has reinvigorated my interest in finding out more about my Irish ancestry and learning more about our family history". 

A searchable database is available that provides a facility to search by surname, native place, religion and parents' names providing a valuable genealogical resource covering a period when parish records in Ireland are often scarce or non-existent. 

For further information of the girls transported to Australia see the following link to the Irish Famine Memorial, Sydney and Orphan Database: Irish Famine Memorial

Barbara Barclay is looking to connect descendants from Mayo Orphan girls with their Irish place of origin. Mayo Orphan Girls​



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