Bridget Cannon was just 15 when she was taken away from Carrick-on-Shannon workhouse in a horse and cart in February 1849.
Bridget's great-great-granddaughter Neisha Wratten has travelled from her home in Australia to campaign for a memorial at the former workhouse to all who left there during the Famine under the "Earl Grey orphan scheme".
Designed by the famous tea merchant’s son to correct the gender imbalance caused by the transportation of convicts, the scheme was the reason Bridget was driven away that day in William Sweeney’s cart on the first leg of a four-month journey. She was one of 4,000 Irish teenage girls taken to Australia under the scheme.
Having researched Bridget's life and the fate of other Earl Grey girls from Carrick, Wratten says one of the things that saddens her most was how little things have changed for immigrants to Australia in almost 170 years.
"I was distressed to learn that Bridget was detained in a penitentiary at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney shortly after being indentured," said the Adelaide-based gynaecologist.
She discovered that 250 Earl Grey girls were detained for “general misconduct” .
“They were kept apart from the other girls in case they contaminated them,” she said. “They had to eat, sleep and work in one room where they were forced to pick oakum.”
The Irish faced the same kind of prejudice in Australia then “as people from Middle Eastern countries are facing today”, she said. “Australia has learned nothing. It’s time we grew up as a nation”.
Wratten believes girls from Irish rural backgrounds were punished for being ill-suited to civilised society in Sydney where some were sent as serving girls. “They probably knew how to milk a cow and to wrestle a sheep or dig up a patch of potatoes, but did not have any idea how to polish the cutlery”.
Three years ago during the Gathering, Wratten was one of 30 participants in the “Famine Attic Experience”, spending a night in the workhouse attic where the children were accommodated. She believes many other Earl Grey descendants are keen to see the grey, stone-cut building that has barely altered since the Famine, and she believes restoration of the entire attic would be a fitting memorial to those who lived and died in the workhouse.
“When you go into that attic you grasp the scale of the tragedy. It’s like hearing about the second World War and then visiting a camp and it hits you.”
Wratten says now is a good time to plan a memorial at the former workhouse which currently houses St Patrick’s community hospital, as a new hospital building has been approved.
“The workhouse is intact, almost exactly as it was when Bridget was there,” she said. “The platforms where the children slept on straw are still there in the attic.”
In Leitrim for two weeks, she is holding meetings with politicians, planners and other interested parties to discuss her proposal. John Bredin, chairman of the Heritage Group which has a long-term lease on part of the former workhouse, says he would welcome a memorial to the 65 teenage girls who left there during the Famine.
He expects more Earl Grey descendants to make a pilgrimage to the former workhouse and is planning another “Famine Attic Experience” for 2017.
The lucky ones
“We have a lot of information for them – the names of the girls, their parents’ names and the names of their townlands,” he said.
But Bredin says there may well be logistical and cost issues given there are central heating pipes running through the attic. “We are very keen to meet Dr Wratten to discuss ways of commemorating these girls and we are very conscious that famine is still happening all over the world.”
Bridget and the other girls who left between 1848 and 1850 were provided with a travel box containing, among other things, six shifts, two pairs of shoes, two wrappers, a flannel petticoat, a bonnet, two linen collars, a pair of stays, a Bible and a prayer book.
As 12 inmates were dying every week in the workhouse, those who left may have been regarded as the lucky ones.
"But they did not all have happy endings," Wratten said. After 30 years of abuse her own ancestor eventually took her husband John Smith to court.
"In one incident she lost some teeth and had her ribs broken," said Wratten. "But she finally said 'enough' when John threatened to put a pitchfork into her chest, and the court case made the state newspapers in Brisbane. We still have an enormous problem in Australia with domestic violence, which is another reason her story is so pertinent."
A video link between the museum at Hyde Park Barracks and a memorial in the former workhouse in Carrick is part of Wratten’s dream.
“It is hard to convey just how much the descendants – and the Australian-Irish community – treasure these women. They are incredibly special to us. They are our little Irish mothers,” she said.
Local Fine Gael councillor Finola Armstrong McGuire supports the idea of a memorial. "Neisha is a living witness. This is part of our history but she makes it real."