Searching for the lost Mountbellew workhouse girls

 Scenes of despair outside the workhouse at the height of the Great Famine. Children were often abandoned by their parents as they sought work elsewhere. Most of the residents were girls and women.

Scenes of despair outside the workhouse at the height of the Great Famine. Children were often abandoned by their parents as they sought work elsewhere. Most of the residents were girls and women.

Week III

In an imaginative and generous exercise that is reaching across the oceans, a team of genealogists and researchers have combined their talents to search for some of the missing young women sent overseas just after the Great Famine.

More than 80 girls and young women were sent to Australia and Canada from the Mountbellew workhouse. Although some traces of their progress can be found in workhouse documents, generally these women vanished into the cities and wilderness of the New World, often leaving no traces of their new lives. The Mountbellew Workhouse Project is seeking information from possible descendents in the localities of Mountbellew, Caltra, Castleblakeney, Moylough, Newbridge and elsewhere; and is reaching across to Australia and Canada in the hope that the brief and scattered records will provide some clues as to their progress. The intention is to celebrate their lives in May 2018, and show the world these girls are not forgotten.*

The problem of thousands of girls, growing up in the extensive workhouse system immediately after the Great Famine 1845 - 1849, was to some extent alleviated by the assisted emigration schemes to Australia, North America, and Canada. But the primary motive of the vast majority of the guardians was economic and not philanthropic. Young men and boys were able to leave the workhouse and get work labouring, soldiering, or to seek work abroad.

As the years went by it was mainly girls and young women who remained behind. There were no education or training facilities in the workhouse system; which was grudgingly financed by the ratepayers who had no intention of providing more than basic shelter and a subsistence diet. The young women were bored, frustrated, and, in some cases, involved in fights and rioting. The wardens were under pressure to get rid of them, and many jumped at the opportunity to send them abroad.

Unsuited for work

In the Mountbellew workhouse, three quarters of its inmate population were women. In 1852 33 young women had been sent to Australia, on board the Palestine.The following year 50 girls were selected for Quebec and sailed on the Primrose on September 6. Untrained, but in probable high spirits, the Mountbellew agent in Canada, AC Buchanan, was paid £50 to see that the girls were helped find employment. It was good money for Buchanan, who naturally reported back to Galway that all the girls found work. But this was clearly not the case, at least not initially. Many of them were sent to the rural parts of Ontario where demand for female labour was high. But it quickly became evident, however, that they were unsuited for the work available. They were unable to milk cows, or carry out basic domestic duties. Most of the young women became disillusioned. They left the rural areas for the bright lights of the larger towns or cities.

An ‘invisible army’

If the girls were lucky they were guided to the Sisters of Charity, who had a training school at Bytown, and gave the girls a crash course in domestic service, and other domestic skills, which was their best hope for getting a job. Although early records are scarce, particularly in Canada, we know the destinies of some. Anne McGrath became a servant at the home of Joseph Parker, but Catherine Kilgannon and Jane Kelly did not do so well. Catherine was only 15 years old when she sailed on the Primrose, having spent six years in the Mountbellew workhouse. In the 1861 Canadian census she is listed as living at Pembroke, Renfrew County, married with three children. She could not read or write, and her occupation was listed as washerwoman. There was no trace of her in the 1871 census.

Jane Kelly was 40 years old when she left Mountbellew. The 1861 Canadian census shows that her occupation was a tailor. In 1857 she was committed to a lunatic asylum, and in 1881 she was still resident there.

In 1861 Ellen Egan was living in Toronto and working as a baker. She later moved to eastern Ontario, and married a William Parker. She died in Guelph in February 1915.

Despite the little information sent back to the workhouses about how their former residents had fared, it seems that the young women were eager to take up the opportunity to emigrate. Their prospects in Ireland were very limited, and each emigrant was fitted out in new clothes and some personal items. It must have seemed as a gift from heaven. Demand for places on the assisted emigration schemes far surpassed the number of places available. Women actually left their employment and voluntarily entered workhouses in the hope that they would be selected on the next boat away.

‘The workhouse paupers’, Gerard Moran tells us, ‘who left in the immediate years after the Great Famine were part of an invisable army’.** Many of whom vanished into the landscape without trace. Now, hopefully, the Mountbellew Workhouse Project will succeed in bringing these lost girls home.

NOTES: *The Mountbellew Workhouse Project co-ordinators include Martin Curley, Mary McLoughlin, Kathleen Connolly and Paula Kennedy. Contact facebook at Mountbellew Workhouse Cemetery Restoration.

** Women and the Great Hunger, an essay by Gerard Moran, published by Quinnipiac University, USA.

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