The story of Orphan Girls of Mountbellew Workhouse who travelled to Western Australia has long been forgotten. Stephen Corrigan meets Paula Kennedy who has been working to link their families in Australia with their ancestral home.
At first glance, it might be difficult to see a connection between Mountbellew and Western Australia – but the ties between these two hugely different places have been traced thanks to a group of local researchers.
So what links this small town in the North East of Galway with a vast State in Australia that’s over 30 times the size of Ireland? The answer lies with 32 orphan girls who were transported to the far side of the world way back in 1852 – escaping some of the worst poverty and deprivation in the aftermath of the Great Famine.
Two years ago, a group of people with a shared interest in genealogy and local history came together to examine the forgotten orphan girls of Mountbellew Workhouse – those who made the five-month-long journey aboard the Palestine ship in 1852.
Paula Kennedy, a genealogist working on the project, says that it all started when somebody got in touch with her trying to find their ancestors.
“A lady got in touch with me and she was eager to find her ancestors and as I read her story about the Mountbellew Workhouse, I knew this had to be done.
“I decided later that I would put it in the paper to see who was interested in doing the project with me. Kathleen Connolly came on board – she had researched one of the girls because she worked in the resource centre in Moylough and these visitors came in one day and asked for information on the Palestine Girls which piqued her interest.
“Then Martin Curley is a genealogist and works in the schools – he is interested in the DNA side. Local researcher, Mary McLoughlin, helped out, so, between us, we had a lot to give,” says Paula.
Once they established the list of people who had made the journey, they began to research further and seek out people in Australia who believed they could be linked to the Palestine Girls.
“Our records here for that period are just terrible so it was Australia that had more information than we had and I suppose that we were just the glue that brought the two together and tried to match everything up,” says Paula.
“In the last 12 months, a lot of the descendants have come home and I show them around the local area; I bring them to where the workhouse was and to the graveyard behind it.
“If we know the locality where they are from, we will show them that – it might just be a gate now and there might be no house but it is lovely for them and they get to feel that connection,” she continues.
While there is no way to be certain, Paula and her colleagues have come to the conclusion that the young women would have been eager to make the break from Ireland.
“We have reason to think that they were actually jumping to do it – that is our gut feeling and we have done presentations on this and we have asked for people’s views and if you think about it, the workhouse was not a place you’d want to be.
“Their parents were dead and they were big families – we’re talking about 10, 12 or 14 children.
“The grandparents may have taken a few but the rest would go into the workhouse and they went in knowing, sometimes, that they would go abroad and they would have a better chance because there was nothing here for them at that stage – there was no food, no job prospects,” explains Paula.
Despite a considerable lack of documentation, the minutes of meetings of the workhouse Board of Guardians are available and they give some insight into how those who travelled were chosen, says Paula.
An agent of the State would decide to take a certain number of the girls from each workhouse – with their main aim to provide wives for the ex-convicts in Britain’s newest colony.
For this reason, ships like the Palestine became known as ‘Irish bride ships’.
“Each girl that was travelling had to have calico [fabric], they had to have a bonnet, a comb, a certain amount of dresses for the voyage and soap.
“They left Galway and travelled to Dublin; from Dublin, they travelled to Plymouth and they usually stayed two or three days in Plymouth.
“From there, they travelled to Western Australia and that took five months. On this particular journey, there was six births and 12 deaths.
“They were looked after very well on the ship from what I can understand and when they got to Western Australia, they had to walk something like 60 miles over a day or two to get to where they were going,” says Paula.
While the prospect of a new life was a huge motivation for these teenagers aged between 14 and 18, it was different to the Australia we know today.
“They were hit with heat, spiders, snakes and they had not ever heard of aboriginals – during that time, the land settlements were going on and the aboriginals were losing their land so there was conflict with the English,” she says.
Prior to the Palestine, between 1848 and 1850, 4,000 Irish girls were brought to the Australian Colonies under the Earl Grey Scheme and so the practice was not new.
While it continued for some time, worries about their Catholicism and a lack of skills leaving the workhouse meant the practice would stop.
However, some of the Palestine Girls researched by Paula and her colleagues done very well and their legacies live on today.
The Cunningham sisters, Catherine and Mary, were two of the 32 that travelled. Mary’s son had a marked impact on law and order – significant because of his poor background and religion.
Her son, William Charles Sellenger, retired in 1928 as Chief Inspector of the Western Australia Police Force.
The Sellenger Centre for Research in Law, Justice and Social Change at the Edith Cowan University in Perth is named after him.
Mary Dooley was another of the women who went on to have a significant impact on modern Western Australia as she and her cousins, the Scanlons, became the first midwives in the area and delivered a whole generation to the new Australian State.
DNA testing kits have become easier to access in recent times and as a result, Ellen Hansberry, one of those who travelled, has been linked to Nuala Healy of Clonkeenabbert, Abbeyknockmoy – bringing to an end the separation of the families since Ellen’s departure.
While a stigma still exists today about those who had relatives in the workhouses, particularly among the older generation, Paula hopes that this history can be kept alive by talking about it.
“It is unbelievable that from just this segment of Galway, its DNA has gone over there and established huge amounts – we need to keep it alive and to keep it in people’s thoughts.
“We never knew anything about these girls that went abroad but they are part of our history and they shouldn’t be forgotten about,” says Paula.
Ceremony marks culmination of two-year research effort
In May of this year, a commemorative ceremony will take place to remember 32 young women who left Mountbellew Workhouse for Western Australia in 1852 – the culmination of two years of research into their lives.
In pursuit of a better life than what was on offer to them in a country decimated by famine and poverty, they stepped aboard the Palestine ship for a five-month-long journey – not knowing what they were facing.
Now, almost 170 years later, some of their ancestors will return to Galway to trace their footsteps and celebrate the impact they have had on Australian life.
Local genealogist, Paula Kennedy, says they hope the event will mean a lot to those who are travelling all the way from the Southern Hemisphere – in search of where their story began.
“Their legacies are huge within that part of Australia. For us, as Irish people, most of us know all about our great grandparents but for Australians, they may not have that connection,” she explains.
From Friday, May 4, a weekend-long itinerary has been drawn up which includes a visit to Ruane’s Pub in Glentane for a rambling house session.
This will be followed by a conference in Portumna Workhouse and a talk from Bill Marwick, a descendant of Mary Ann Taylor who left Mounbellew Workhouse on the Palestine.
Finally, a mass will be held in Mountbellew and a gathering of all the ancestors who are visiting the area – while there will also be an opportunity for those visiting to explore their ancestral locality.
“It’s like it is going full circle – they will be coming back to their homeland because this is their legacy,” says Paula.
She says that the group have had huge support from Irish groups in Australia and that those links have helped them to grow this project and make contact with the relatives of those who settled in Western Australia.
They hope to make a permanent memorial to the orphan girls of Mountbellew Workhouse in the near future and to find a link to the families of all 32 who travelled.
“It was a horrible time in Irish history but it shouldn’t be forgotten about,” says Paula.
Public meeting on sludge hub plan for Tuam
A public meeting to discuss the intake of thousands of tonnes of sludge from various parts of the country to Tuam is to take place next week.
And it has been stated that the proposal would result in around 80 lorry loads of sludge coming in and out of the town on a weekly basis.
The meeting on Monday in the Corralea Court Hotel at 8pm will voice resistance to the proposal – the public have until October 22 to make submissions on the proposal. Local Cllr Donagh Killilea said that the existing wastewater treatment plant in Tuam can only cater for the town itself and believed that this plan could pose a threat to the River Clare.
Irish Water have confirmed that both Tuam and Sligo are being looked at as being ‘sludge hub centres’ which would mean that waste from a variety of plants would be brought to the North Galway town on a daily basis.
It is being resisted locally on the grounds that the existing wastewater treatment plant is at full capacity and that any additional waste would prevent further development in the town.
According to Irish Water they have selected Tuam as a potential location for the effective treatment of wastewater sludge – they are inviting the public’s opinion on this issue. Irish Water say that sludge hub centres form part of Irish Water’s National Wastewater Sludge Management Plan to ensure the safe and sustainable management of sludge.
“A sludge hub centres is a centralised treatment facility for the effective treatment of wastewater sludge prior to reuse or disposal.
“The site selection report identifies Tuam and Sligo Wastewater Treatment Plants as potential sludge hub centres in the North-West region,” they have stated.
But Killilea said that if this is allowed come to Tuam, it will further damage the image of the town at I time when efforts are being made to rebuild its reputation.
“Tuam must say no to this disgusting development. Why should we take waste sludge from landfills, gas works, chemical industry and other hazardous plants, and have farmers spread it on their fields and go through our drinking facility,” Cllr Killilea added.
Publican prosecuted for allowing smoking
A lit cigarette on a ledge inside a Loughrea bar during a HSE inspection led to the publican being prosecuted and fined for allowing smoking in a specified place on the premises.
Michael Dempsey of Aggie Madden’s Bar, Main Street, Loughrea, and his bar tender, Carmel Guinen, both pleaded not guilty to Section 47 of the Tobacco Act on December 9 last year.
Peter Gaffey, Environmental Health Officer with the HSE, told the Court there was a strong smell of cigarette smoke as he went through the front door of the bar and that he spotted a lit cigarette on a ledge between the pool table area and a stairs leading down to toilets and a rear exit entrance.
Downstairs, there was construction going on and he also noticed a cigarette butt on the floor of the men’s toilet, which also smelled of smoke.
He inspected the premises again on Monday evening, September 30 as part of the protocol before a Court hearing and again he got a strong smell of smoke around the premises.
He said he didn’t document whether there were ‘no smoking’ signage around the premises but equally didn’t document if there had been an absence of the signs on his first visit. However, he did notice signage on his last visit last week.
Another Environmental Health Officer, Chloe Harper, who accompanied Mr Gaffey on his December visit, said she too got a strong tobacco smell on entering the premises.
She said, after the lit cigarette was found, Ms Guinin had asked the four young men playing pool who had been smoking but they didn’t answer left the bar.
Michael Dempsey told the Court that he had run the bar with his wife for the past six years and employed three other people.
He said that he always made sure nobody smoked on his premises and told the Court that he had spent money on providing a steel canopy over the rear exit door seven months ago at a cost of €1,400 where his patrons could smoke.
He further explained that the cause of the tobacco smell on the premises was due to people leaving the front door open while they smoked outside on the street.
But he said that there was some confusion over E-cigarettes and whether it was legal to smoke them on a licensed premises or not.
“I have made every effort I can to provide a smoking area. There would be absolute war if I found anyone smoking on the premises. . . but I don’t know if the E-cigarettes are legal or not. Some customers tell me it’s legal. I have a zero tolerance to smoking as I don’t smoke myself,” he said.
Carmel Guinen told the Court she was working on her own the night of the HSE inspection and that one of the young fellows playing pool had lit up and she had asked them to cut it out.
She had accompanied the inspectors during their visit and answered their questions.
Judge James Faughnan said he was satisfied that the HSE had made their case and convicted both Dempsey and Guinen. He said there was lots more Dempsey could do to make sure his customers didn’t smoke on the premises.
Pat Carty, defending, said Mr Dempsey was not running a thriving business and to take that into account by giving him more time to pay a fine.
Dempsey, who has a previous conviction for allowing smoking on the premises, was fined €1,000 plus €1,750 costs and has been restricted from selling tobacco for one week starting on November 1.
Guinen was fined €200. Recognisances were fixed for both and he gave them four months to pay.
Tuam Stadium unveils its new look
Spectators at last weekend’s county senior football semi-final at Tuam Stadium got a first glimpse of the revamped seated area that will become part of the long-awaited extended stand at the GAA venue.
That’s after planning permission was granted for the complete revamp of the stand which will involve the removal of the old ‘shed-like’ roof and the provision of new seating.
That ensures that, when completed, Tuam Stadium will have a covered stand with almost 4,000 seats, so that the venue will be able to host some of the top national football league and championship games.
Former Football Board Chairman John Joe Holleran said that works were progressing satisfactorily on the redevelopment of Tuam Stadium.
He also revealed that works would take place on the terraced areas which would provide the venue with a capacity of around 18,000 which would be sufficient to accommodate any provincial decider – although these matches are required to be played in designated county grounds…and Tuam is not.
But Mr Holleran, who is one of the driving forces behind the Development Advocates for Tuam Stadium (DAFTS) confirmed that more than €350,000 had been raised for the redevelopment of the venue and this has been boosted by a €110,000 plus sports capital grant.
However, he stressed that further funding needed to be raised in order to complete the project and that it why it was difficult for him to provide the Connacht Tribune with a timeframe for works to be completed.
Tuam Stadium was the first venue in Connacht to have a covered stand and the existing bench-type seating date back to the 1960s. They are in urgent need of replacing.
Works at the venue so far have included the provision of four new dressing rooms and the completion of a terraced area which will be equipped with around 1,800 seats that will eventually be covered in.
It was interesting to see the attendance at both the county senior semi-final between Corofin and Salthill-Knocknacarra – and the earlier county junior final between Glenamaddy and Salthill-Knocknacarra – make the most of the works that have already taken place.
Some of the maroon seats have already been provided and the white seats will be installed during this week and into next week, weather permitting.
Planning permission has been granted for the provision of a new roof for the existing stand but this will be extended over to new terraced area where the maroon and white seating have been provided.
Recently, local company Tommy Varden Limited provided €50,000 towards the provision of the provision of the new seating at the venue and that was an additional significant boost to the development.
Indeed, the late Tommy Varden, who was a staunch supporter of Galway football and an advocate of the development of Tuam Stadium, will have his immense contribution recognised at the ground.
John Joe Holleran said that the legacy that he left was immense and had to be recognised. “He was the fabric of Galway football during his whole life,” he added.