Baby Eliza escaped Famine Ireland to a life of beatings, prostitution and prison

The Haunting: Why horrifically abused female Irish immigrants need to be remembered

Eighteen-month-old Eliza O’Brien from Shanagolden in Co Limerick arrived in Australia on board the Blundell along with her mother in 1851. Photograph: Jane Theau

Eighteen-month-old Eliza O’Brien from Shanagolden in Co Limerick arrived in Australia on board the Blundell along with her mother in 1851. Photograph: Jane Theau

 

Two and a half years ago Australian artist Jane Theau asked me to write a voiceover for an art exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary since the opening of the Newcastle School for Girls, two hours’ drive north of where I live in Sydney. I wrote for The Irish Times about the extraordinary journey this took me on, particularly as a female Irish immigrant to Australia: The Lock Up. Although my émigré experience could not have contrasted more starkly from that of the women and girls I came to know through historical archives, their voices came alive to me and are calling me still.

These were women and girls who left Ireland to escape the Famine. Through a patchwork of scattered details - court filings, incarceration records, newspaper clippings, ships’ records, births, deaths and marriages registers - I pieced together the threads of their lives. Their endurance in the face of unbelievable hardships moved me to tears more than once. One of the most poignant realisations was my certainty that many of their stories have never made their way home to Ireland. These were immigrants who had left and simply disappeared.

When Northern Irish writer Maria McManus sent me her call-out for letters to Fill the Void, a project to celebrate the legacy of Archbishop Richard Robinson by creating an archive in Armagh Public Library of new letters - handwritten by people of all ages and ethnicities, from anywhere in the world - one thought kept drawing me back. Could this be a way to leave a lasting memory of a voice that was silenced more than a century ago?

Eighteen-month-old Eliza O’Brien from Shanagolden in Co Limerick arrived in Australia on board the Blundell along with her mother, Elizabeth (nee McMahon); father, Cornelius O’Brien; and six older siblings in 1851. Having miraculously survived the arduous journey (about 80 days at sea in notoriously difficult conditions), the course of tiny Eliza’s life changed dramatically when her mother died of an unnamed illness shortly after they disembarked in Sydney. Her father was left alone to care for baby Eliza and her six siblings in a foreign city where their Irish heritage marked them out as “Fenians” and likely troublemakers.

Finding work and caring for the children would have been an impossible task even under much better conditions. This no doubt explains Cornelius’s hasty marriage (within a year of his first wife’s death) to a Mary Moloney, who would bear him a further four children in rapid succession. With so many mouths to feed in conditions of extreme poverty, Eliza’s fate was already sealed - she ended up on the streets by the age of 13. There followed a string of arrests and incarcerations - including her seizure in a brothel aged 15. Child abuse and prostitution was commonplace for the poorest immigrants at the time.


Artwork by Jane Theau at Newcastle Gaol in Australia where Elisa O'Brien was undoubtedly incarcerated.

While imprisoned in Newcastle Gaol, north of Sydney in 1867, Eliza was placed in solitary confinement on a “low diet” of bread and water, having been subjected to beatings. Standing in that dank, lightless cell a century and a half later, I was abhorred at the idea of a 14- year-old child being treated so cruelly. The official records condemned Eliza as rebellious - starting fires, breaking windows, and guilty of insubordination and disobedience. Reading between the lines and via scant testimonies in her own words, it is clear that she was protesting against unjust treatment and unfair conditions imposed on her and the other female inmates, many of whom were also children. She was deliberately put on a starvation diet in an effort to break her spirit.

After several sensational escape attempts (resulting in scandalous reports in the local newspapers), Eliza - by then aged 17 - was committed to Maitland Gaol for adult women where the conditions and treatment would have proven far more brutal and oppressive. Although it is impossible to fully confirm (as identities were a fluid commodity back then - changing names was one way to avoid harsher sentencing as a repeat offender), it is almost certain that Eliza tragically succumbed after a five-month battle with tuberculosis (consumption): dead at just 24. Her ghost lives on to haunt me - I admire so much her fighting spirit and her irrepressible courage to rise up in the face of brutality, regardless of the personal consequences.

As part of that original voiceover project, I drafted a final “letter” from Eliza, using actual quotations from her and various other details I had found in the archives, together with the street address recorded as the place of her death. My imagination filled in the blanks; I addressed the letter to a fictitious cousin back in Shanagolden and titled it A letter from the Colonies (included below). In addition to featuring as visual art and a voiceover at the art exhibition in Newcastle Gaol where Eliza was incarcerated for a brief time, the letter was also published by Swinburne University in Melbourne. I have now sent the letter for inclusion in the Armagh archive, wanting to bring her story full circle and find some kind of peace for Eliza’s ghost.

Although I could not somehow materialise a happier ending for her, I hope we can honour her memory by leaving a lasting record of at least something approximating Eliza’s own view of her brief life experience - particularly given that the official accounts were so biased against her. And wouldn’t it be something if Eliza’s story were to find its way home to her own people so that she may be remembered as the brave, spirited young Irish warrior woman she so clearly was?

A letter from the Colonies

c/o Joseph Booth

Randwick Road

Sydney

18th March 1876

My dearest cousin Maggie,

I hope this finds you and your young family in good stead. It is a long while since I wrote. I fear that I have no good news for you from here.

I have no word of Father these past three years. He did his best after Mam died, but seven of us too young was too much for any man. The streets of Sydney reared us - until I ended up in that hellhole in Newcastle. I have never told you, but Matron used to threaten to send all manner of men in to sleep with us at night. And they wonder why we revolted? I would rather be torn limb from limb than ever go back there!

I know I am opening up old wounds, Maggie. You are my only link now with the family I have lost. Though we have never met, I still have your mother’s letter to my Mam when she was leaving her beloved Shanagolden. It is only a ragged scrap now. How many times I have dreamed of going back one day to see the green fields and the little cottage by the stream. I don’t remember that day my mother carried me away in her arms so full of hope.

We are scattered to the four winds now dear Maggie, my brothers and sisters and me. Gone like the last leaves of autumn - Michael, Thomas, Cornelius, John, Mary and Johanna. Though I know their names, their faces are fading.

Hobson’s choice my parents had - to cling to the starving fields of Ireland or weigh anchor into the unknown. It was a black omen when Mam fell ill on the passage here. To be born Irish in these times is to be cast between the devil and the deep blue sea. In my 24 years on this earth, I have seen my fill. But a girl once said to me that people get used to anything from constant suffering and misery.

I would love to have met you Maggie, but I think it will not now come to pass. I have the galloping consumption these past few months. Please forgive my poor handwriting due to the weakness. My greatest sadness has been that I have no memory of my mother. But Maggie, I think I will see her soon.

My love to you and all our family in Co Limerick. May God keep you safe always.

Your loving cousin,

Eliza O’Brien

A native of Clare, Anne Casey is an award-winning Sydney-based poet and writer, and author of two poetry collections published by Salmon Poetry.

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