Orphan Emigration Scheme brings back memories of famine

Posted in Connect on June 29, 2016.


IMAGE: Door from Westport Workhouse – Clew Bay Heritage Centre

WHEN Patrick Connolly, on holiday in Ireland from Sydney, walked around the perimeter of the grounds of the old Westport workhouse recently, he was visiting the place that his great-grandmother had left at the height of the Great Famine, in September 1849. 

Maria Lyons was one of ten young women sent from Westport workhouse to Australia as part of the Earl Grey Orphan Emigration Scheme, which operated from 1848 to 1850. Over 4,000 young women, 137 of whom were from Co Mayo, were sent from Irish workhouses to Australia, to become domestic servants, and wives, of the Australian colonists. 

One year after arriving in Australia, Maria Lyons married Patrick Connolly from Co Kildare, who claimed connections to the Connollys’ of Castletown House. Maria and Patrick Connolly had 11 children, and whilst settling successfully in their adopted country, they remained staunch Irish Nationalists. Maria’s obituary, after her death in 1922, stated that she was ‘thankful to the Providence which spared her long enough in life to witness the dawn of an Irish Free State’.

Their Australian great-grandson, and namesake, Patrick Connolly, credited the decision to visit Westport with the family history research completed by his wife, Kay. As well as visiting the site of Westport workhouse, now marked with a small plaque, Patrick and Kay Connolly visited the Clew Bay Heritage Centre to view the objects in their collection, including a door and two iron window frames from the Westport workhouse building.

Patrick and Kay Connolly also paid a visit to the National Famine Memorial at Murrisk. Whilst viewing John Behan’s sculpture of the ‘Coffin Ship’, representing the ships that journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean to North America, Patrick pondered on how his great-grandmother, Maria Lyons, ‘was one of the fortunate ones who took the longer journey to Australia. While remaining fiercely loyal to her Irish heritage, she began a dynasty in Australia which now numbers close to a thousand descendants who have deep ties to Ireland’.

The story of the Mayo Orphan Girls is being researched by Barbara Barclay, an Australian native now residing in Co Mayo. More information, including the names and origins of the young women, can be found on the website, mayoorphangirls.weebly.com, and Barbara can be contacted on barbarabarclay@eircom.net.

Story Sourced: The Mayo News

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