November 1852 was a dark month in east Galway and made even more so by the lingering effects of An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger, which had blighted the land for the previous 7 years causing the deaths and emigration of millions. In that month a group of 30 young girls set off from Mountbellew Workhouse on a momentous journey to Fremantle, Australia, 17,000 km away.
Due to the horrific conditions in the locality during the Great Hunger, these girls aged 15-19 had sought refuge in the workhouse in Mountbellew due to the death or impoverishment of their families. Now they were being sent to Australia as part of an assisted emigration scheme to provide labour and also to help populate the newly founded British colony of Swan River in Western Australia. Enduring a long and dangerous journey of many months on board the Palestine ship, the girls reached Fremantle on April 28 1853. Many had feared that the ship had been lost and its arrival with supplies and people was greeted with much relief.
Irish girls often were not well received in Australia. They were predominantly Catholic and some employers would not hire them due to religious intolerance and perceived lack of skills. However most of the girls from Mountbellew did get work and married soon after arrival. The Governor commented that he was ‘satisfied’ with their behaviour which eased any nascent hostility.
Many of the girls’ descendants rose to great heights in Australian life and are now interested in commemorating in Australia and in Mountbellew these brave girls who left their familiar surroundings in the hope of a better life in a distant land.
Ellen Hansberry was originally from near Ballinruane, Menlough where through DNA we have traced her living family connections.
Among her descendants is Ambassador HE John Lander who was Australia's first ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran after the hostage crisis in 1979, working in the role from 1985 until 1988.
His cousin, another descendant, Rob Larbalestier, is Director of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Fiona Stanley Hospital, and was instrumental in establishing the Western Australian Heart and Lung Transplant service and sits on the board of the WA heart and lung transplant foundation as well as the West Australian Donation Advisory Committee.
Celia Colohan’s descendants include WA Hall of Famer Clive Lewington and there are many more whose stories are now emerging and being told more info on the work done in researching the girls and how DNA has helped reconnect them to their east Galway family here at : https://www.facebook.com/MountbellewOrphanGirlsProject
Mountbellew Heritage and Tourism Network have been invited to work in a joint project with the Western Australia Famine Commemoration Committee to establish a Memorial Park for all the 'orphan girls' and to install a replica of the Uaigneas sculpture which was dedicated by HE President Michael D Higgins in Subiaco WA in October 2017. After consulting with our members and the local community the response was resolutely positive to bring this to fruition.
Bringing the girls home
Mountbellew Heritage and Tourism Network have now launched an international campaign 'Bringing the Girls Home' to highlight the stories of the orphan girls and aim to raise the necessary funding to erect this fitting memorial to commemorate these girls and all who were forced to leave Ireland as a result of the Great Famine. We have set up a GoFundMe page where people are asked to donate €5 per km to bring the girls home. We welcome everyone to donate to help the spirit of the girls to finally make it back after 168 years.
The Memorial will be a unique feature for the area and will be a focal meeting point not just for the Australian descendants returning but also for all those interested in the history of those dark days. Mountbellew is 45 minutes from Galway, 35 minutes from Athlone, with Knock and Shannon airports also within an hour’s drive so is an easy place to access. The Orphan Girls Memorial will commemorate and we feel provide closure for these young girls, orphaned through famine, who had lost both family and country and who had to survive the most challenging of conditions in a sometimes unwelcoming country. Their fortitude, resilience and bravery will be, through the memorial, remembered will undoubtedly inspire generations to come to face their own challenges in life with a sense of optimism and pride.
In a post Covid19 world their stories are given extra weight when we consider the privations they endured and the sacrifices made due to the horrendous effects of An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger 1845-53 in our country. As we emerge it is good to reflect on our ancestor’s survival in those dark months and years.
By helping us 'Bring The Girls Home' people will forever know that they had a part to play in helping them on their way home after so many generations and years. They survived the difficult life journey from family comfort to Workhouse to Bride ship to indentured servant to motherhood, businesswoman, farmer, housewife etc and now we can finally bring them back home in spirit again to the place they would be very familiar with, the green grass of Mountbellew.
Please make a donation at https://gf.me/u/yspqx2 to bring our Orphan girls home. Every km counts.
For more info https://www.facebook.com/MountbellewOrphanGirlsProject/
Catherine Glynn was one of those women who left Mountbellew Workhouse in the early 1850s. Read her story on the XO Chronicles here.
Was your ancestor an 'orphan' immigrant, from Mountbellew or any other Irish Workhouse? Add their story to the XO Chronicles and link their profile with the relevant workhouse by selecting to "Link a Building" and typing in the workhouse name.