The Protestant Boys orphanage at Clifden

Week III

The boys and their minders at the Ballyconree orphanage before it was burnt by the anti-Treaty forces in July 1922. They began a new life in Australia.

The boys and their minders at the Ballyconree orphanage before it was burnt by the anti-Treaty forces in July 1922. They began a new life in Australia.

Even though the National Army ousted the anti-Treaty forces from Clifden in August 1922, they had not gone away. They still remained a threatening force, well armed and determined. Ever since the Black and Tan war the so called Connemara Flying Column, still under the leadership of Peter McDonnell, Gerald Bartley and others, were firmly on the anti-Treaty side. They were familiar with the path-ways and mountain hide-outs, which made them virtually invisible in times of pursuit.

An effective hit and run campaign was conducted against the pro-Treaty army, and others, whom were believed to be supporters of the treaty. In the General Election of June 1922 (seen as a referendum on the terms of the treaty ), pro-Treaty candidates were elected by more that seventy per cent of the people. Yet sniping attacks on Free State posts continued, as did the blowing up of bridges and trenching of roads.

A notice was attached to the church gates throughout Connemara warning the public that ‘All motor cars passing through Connemara, irrespective of who was in them, would be fired on’.

On Wednesday September 13, an army patrol on its way to the Marconi Station, was ambushed at Ballinaboy Bridge, on a winding, dangerous road with high rocks on one side, and blind turns on every corner. The patrol was led by Commandant Patrick O’Malley, who may have been the target as he was once a member of the Flying Column, but through the vagaries of a Civil War was now an officer in the National Army. He would have been considered a traitor by the ambushers.

As their car approached the bridge a Thompson machine gun opened fire. The car slowed down and Comt O’Malley got out and ran for cover. A bullet struck O’Malley’s bandolier and cut it in two. The only ammunition he then had were nine rounds in the magazine of his rifle.

The car with Captain Daly, Lt McNamara, and Private McDonagh, gathered speed and dashed around the corner stopping behind a gate and some trees. Still under fire, and realising they were hopelessly outnumbered, the men made their way over the hillside to the Marconi Station.

O’Malley, now alone, was surrounded. Shots were exchanged until the Commandant was out of bullets. He lay still for some time. Soon, just nine yards off, a head appeared. Flying Column leader Jack Conneely took deliberate aim with his rifle, but by some miracle, ‘the bullet went past O’Malley’s head and lodged in the turf’.

O’Malley stood up and pointed his empty rifle at Conneely, and ran across the road, jumping into the river, and ‘plunged along for about five yards while bullets cut the leaves’. Again he took to the road and ran in a zig-zag fashion, escaping a shower of bullets. At Ardbear he secured a bicycle and ‘dashed at full speed to Clifden for reinforcements. He arrived breathless, with his empty rifle swung across his shoulder.’ *

Ballyconree orphanage

In the belief that the national Army were looking for large houses to barrack its men the anti-Treaty forces continued its policy of burning them down. On October 13th, the Recess Hotel, property of the Midland Great Western Railway Company, was burnt to the ground. The hotel, with its golf and fishing vacilities, was a popular venue for visitors. Nearby Glendalough House was also burnt.

Whereas there may have been some anti-Treaty logic in burning these targets, there can have been no justification whatsoever for burning the Protestant boy’s orphanage at Ballyconree. The children fled to safety with their matron, Miss Emily White, and were taken to England and then to Australia. On Churchill ’s (Colonial Secretery ) orders the children were dramatically picked up by a British warship in Clifden Bay, and never returned to Ireland.**

Protestant orphans

The fact that there was a separate Protestant orphanage in Clifden was a left over from the so-called proselytising by the Society for the Irish Church Missions set up in the inner city of Dublin, and in the more desolate parts of the country, noticeably in Connemara. The Anglican missionaries came during the Great Famine when hundreds of children were abandoned and left to wander begging for food and shelter.

For many years the Catholic church was slow to recognise the extent of the problem. It had mainly concentrated its buildings and schools on the east of the large Galway/Tuam diocese. It had few schools and practically no services along Cois Fhearraige and Connemara, despite its large population. It was fertile ground for the Society for Irish Church Missions which offered food, shelter, hope, and education to children and their families.

The recipients were encouraged to become Anglicans. No one could blame a family confronted by the stark choice of starvation or changing their religion. Yet when the Catholic church realised that it was losing its flock, it reacted robustly. There are stories of priests physically attacking Anglican ministers, stoning them and their families, of forcibly taking children out of Protestant schools, and preaching against those who sought their help in spiteful terms.

The term ‘Soupers’ was an emotive and socially wounding slur on families or individuals who changed their religion for food and security. It is an unfortunate, and at times shameful, episode in our story, that still causes embarrassment today.

Next week: Clifden is retaken by the anti-Treaty forces.

NOTES: * Connacht Tribune September 16 1922.

** The following quotes from the House of Commons official record, Hansard, July 4 1922, describes the situation:

During question time Winston Churchill, colonial secretary, was asked about the Clifden orphanage.

Mr Churchill: Information was received late on the evening of June 30 that one of two orphanages at Clifden, County Galway, had been destroyed by fire, and that the inmates had taken refuge in the other orphanage. A destroyer was ordered to proceed from Queenstown to Clifden with instructions to investigate the facts on the spot, and to remove such of the staff and inmates of the orphanages as might appear to be in serious peril (Churchill then read out two radio messages from the officer commanding the destroyer saying there was no immediate danger to the lives of the children. Train services were not available to evacuate the children by rail ).

Private messages received from Haulbowline this morning state that the destroyer eventually removed all the inmates (32 in number ) of the burnt orphanage, and that the party arrived safely at Haulbowline. The senior naval officer on that station had previously been instructed to arrange for a reception of the party, and for their subsequent transit to this country. Active arrangements are in train for their accommodation and maintenance on arrival.

Mr R McNeill: Do we understand aright that the reason assigned for this outrage was as a reprisal for the loyalty of the inmates? Does that mean anything except that the children of this orphanage were Protestants?

Mr Churchill: Of course, the extreme Republican element in Ireland are in a state of frenzy at present, and we must expect a certain number of frenzied acts to be committed by them until the process of their repression by the national forces of the Irish Free State is complete.

Life in Australia

In November 1922, 22 Ballyconree boys, aged 7 to 17, boarded the steamship Euripides at London. With them was Matron Emily White, their original carer in Ireland, who had stayed with them since the night of the fire. They were 3rd Class passengers, along with another 200 young men being brought out by various schemes for training as farmers.

The Irish boys and their matron disembarked in Sydney on Friday morning, 22 December 1922. They were officially welcomed at the Town hall and arrived at Burnside Presbyterian Homes for Children, in the afternoon. At Burnside they had a healthy diet and exercise, were well educated, vocationally trained, and placed in employment. As most children do, they adapted to change, helped by being a close-knit Irish group – their substitute family. Clearly, Emily White’s motherly kindness and devoted care was an important influence on the boys’ adjustment – a supportive constant in their world, from Connemara to Parramatta.

There is little doubt the Irish boys ended up materially better off in Australia, but at the significant pain of enforced removal from their personal, social and cultural roots in Connemara. In 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised to all former child migrants on behalf of the Australian nation – principally ‘for the absolute tragedy of childhoods lost’. The next year Prime Minister Gordon Brown followed suit on behalf of the United Kingdom.

Sources this week include Beyond the Twelve Bens - A history of Clifden and District by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, Politics and Society 1910-23, by Tomás Kenny, Marion Nikolakos, Galway Library Archive, Margaret Collins, and the Clifden and Connemara Heritage Society.


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