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.
First pub in County Galway to be convicted over Covid breach
A County Galway publican has become the first in the county convicted of breaching Covid-19 regulations after 70 customers were found on his premises during the partial lockdown last year.
Tuam Court was told that when the Gardaí entered the premises at Tierney’s of Foxhall, there was very little social distancing – and no food being served, as was the requirement at the time.
Proprietor Tom Kelly was prosecuted for the breach of Covid-19 regulations which carries a maximum penalty of €5,000.
After Judge James Faughnan was informed that it was an extremely large premises in rural North Galway, he remarked that when so many people are allowed into a pub, no matter how big, it is extremely difficult to control them.
Prosecuting Sergeant Christy Browne explained that several months ago there had been opposition for the renewal of the publican’s licence on the grounds of alleged breaches of Covid regulations.
He said that, on August 30 last, there were 70 people on the premises, at a time during the pandemic when there was the requirement to purchase a €9 meal before being served a drink.
Sergeant Browne explained that when the premises was inspected, there was no social distancing, there was no food being served and no evidence of food receipts.
Defending solicitor Gearoid Geraghty said that his client ran a huge premises that can accommodate 227 customers and added that his customers were spread among three separate sections of the premises.
While there have been objections to the renewal of publicans’ licences by the Gardaí for breaches of the guidelines, this was the first criminal prosecution that has taken place in County Galway.
Tom Kelly with an address of Corohan, Tuam, the proprietor of Tierney’s of Foxhall, was charged with breaching a regulation to prevent, limit, minimise or slow the spread of Covid-19. It relates to an alleged breach that occurred on August 30 last year.
The same defendant had been the subject of an objection to his licence by Garda Inspector John Dunne a number of months ago. He was ordered to pay €500 towards a charity at the time.
The Inspector had opposed the renewal of the licences for what he said were breaches of Covid guidelines during the course of inspections carried out when the situation was relaxed during the course of 2020.
Galway recycling company run by Travellers fronts national campaign
A Galway company which employs Travellers to recycle mattresses and wooden furniture has been picked to front a national campaign urging the public to support their local social enterprises which are seen as crucial in the post-Covid recovery.
Bounce Back Recycling has this month also been nominated for top green company in the country.
Social enterprises are businesses that operate mainly to improve people’s lives and achieve a social or environmental impact. While they trade in goods and services like other businesses, the difference is they reinvest their profits to achieve core social objectives.
Bounce Back Recycling provides a mattress and furniture recycling service to domestic and commercial clients as well as several local authorities from its base in Ballybane.
There are currently twelve members of the Traveller community who manage and run the social enterprise, with plans to employ a further four workers as it expands.
Workers deconstruct the mattresses and furniture by hand, a labour intensive and time-consuming process.
The steel from mattresses is sold on to a local steel recycling company while the foam is sent to a UK company to make carpet underlay. The textile or covering is compressed and sent to landfill.
Manager Martin Ward explains that between 75 and 80 per cent of the mattress is recycled.
Mattresses that normally end up in the landfill only start to decompose after 15 years – elements such as polyurethane foam and steel springs can take up to 100 years and 50 years respectively to break down.
Since 2017, the company has diverted 50,000 mattresses from landfill.
“In Galway we dispose of 30,000 mattresses annually and they’re going to landfill through a waste company or are illegally dumped. We identified a gap in the market for Connacht and Ulster as there was nobody recycling mattresses here,” he reveals.
The company received funding to set up but is dependent on users to cover ongoing costs such as wages.
It started off with 3,000 items in its first year collecting from around Galway. Last year it processed 20,000 pieces, operating across ten counties, with plans to expand nationwide. They are also preparing to open a unit in Sandy Road where they will upcycle and reupholster furniture and sell directly to the public.
“We’re happy to be part of this ‘The Future is Social’ campaign by Rethink Ireland to support social enterprises which deliver so many other positive impacts for every euro spent.
“Everyone is much more aware of doing their bit for the environment and we hope to be recycling 100,000 items by 2025,” says Martin.
Bounce Back Recycling charges between €15 and €25 for a mattress and €10 for collection.
“We run a collection service and only charge one delivery fee, regardless if it’s one or ten items. We’ve a big demand in Connemara because there is no civic amenity site so people who want to do the right thing for the environment don’t have any access to a facility.”
Bounce Back Recycling has been nominated as a finalist in the Green NGO (Non Government Organisation) of the Year.
It is among 40 companies which have received money from the Social Enterprise Development Fund. Nationally they employ 500 people, mainly from minority groups, generating €22 million in turnover.
The ‘Future is social’ campaign will provide regional webinars, information and resources about social enterprises.
Headford’s plans for public park and gardens
Plans to create a new public park and gardens in the heart of Headford were unveiled this week.
Headford Community Garden and Headford Men’s Shed have submitted a proposal to the Headford Development Association to create the park on the lands adjacent to their gardens in Balrickard.
A rewilded, multi-habitat park would transform outdoor living in the town and provide a much-needed greenspace that would be accessible to all – offering a relaxing setting for all ages and abilities.
The promoters also hope that the project would act as a model for other Irish towns, with Headford becoming a leading example of how parkland and greenspace can help to revitalise rural settlements.
“This proposal for a park and gardens in Headford will create a quiet natural space in the centre of town for all to access and enjoy. It is a project that will benefit the people and the businesses of the town and surrounding areas for generations to come,” said Aengus McMahon, spokesperson for Headford Park and Gardens.
Within the park the emphasis will be on biodiversity; the planting of native trees, introduction of biodiverse meadow spaces with mown paths, walking trails, picnic and play areas.
The existing gardens and new parkland will serve as an outdoor classroom for use by local schools.
There are existing plans for Presentation College Headord’s Seomra Seoda to utilise Headford Community Garden for outdoor classes. The park will be fully inclusive and accessible to all.
The space will also include an outdoor cultural space for concerts, theatre shows and special events.
“During the Covid lockdowns, it was our walks in the rural countryside and wild landscapes that provided therapy for both mind and body,” said Brendan Smith of the Galway National Park City initiative.
“So, in a post Covid world it is important that, for the health of human society and of the planet, we integrate green and blue spaces into the fabric of our cities, towns and villages,” he added.
Recently Galway’s County Councillors unanimously supported a proposal to fund a feasibility study to examine the development potential of a cycleway and greenway from the Galway city to Headford. The park would be the perfect landing site for a future greenway.
Groups already sharing the existing garden area include Tidy Towns, environmental groups, Scouts, Headford Lace Project, Yarn Bombers, Meals on Wheels and Ability West.