One of the "Potato Orphans" Jane McDonald.Find My Past

The Great Hunger is a much-discussed period in Irish history and one remembered annually, but there are still aspects of the famine history that have been overlooked. Among them, the tragic Australian “Potato Orphans.”

The “Potato Orphans” were young Irish women, some as young as 14, who were brought from their homes in Ireland far away to Australia to be married to convicts.

Australian woman Gail Newman recently discovered the sad secret of her ancestors and the journey her great-great-great-grandmother Jane McDonald made as a “Potato Orphan.”

Newman, greatly interested in discovering more about her family’s heritage, spent over a year searching for information about her ancestors online before coming across a photo of Jane that opened up a dark tale from her family’s history.

In 1848 18-year-old Jane, who was an orphan, was put on a boat to make the treacherous 124-day journey to an unknown land where she was expected to fend for herself.

"I find myself teary at times when I find out more information about Jane’s life. She was only 18, had lost both parents and was uprooted from everything she’d ever known to come to a strange country," Newman told Daily Mail Australia.

“I never knew Jane was a potato orphan; she was just a name on paper for me,” she continued.

“I get a bit emotional thinking about how she must have felt and wondering how I would have coped in such a situation.”

Many young women who survived the famine were left orphaned by the death of their family or abandoned by parents who were no longer able to provide for them. Many entered the already struggling workhouses, which became increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced as the famine worsened.

In order to deal with overcrowding in workhouses, between 1848 and 1850, the Earl Grey scheme (created by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey) began to send female Irish teens from Ireland’s workhouses to Australia to become brides for the convicts.

Grey proposed that young, marriageable women could serve as wives in Australia and provide female labor in the male-dominant and hugely underdeveloped country.

Up to 4,000 vulnerable and lonely Irish girls were sent to Australia to meet their fate with one of the Irish convicts also being sent to Australia or to work for as little as £11 a year. Aged between 14 and 45, the women were shipped out in batches of 200 to 300 at a time, on a voyage almost identical to that of the Irish convicts being sent to Australia.

“It’s hard when you think about the ages of those girls. These days we would think of them as being children, not adults,” Newman said of the young women.

“Even though at 18 they’re legally adult, I would consider that to still be a ‘nurturing’ stage. Knowing the hardships from the generations before me makes me feel really blessed for what I have.”

On reaching Australia, some two thousand of these girls made their way to Hyde Park Barracks where they lived in conditions almost akin to the workhouse they left. Day-to-day life was rigid, with strict waking and sleeping times and strict regulations on visitors. They had hard iron beds, strict rations and were organized into messes just as the convicts were.

Diaries of some of the girls have been discovered beneath the floorboards in Hyde Park, giving us some insight into the lives of the “Potato Orphans” once they reached Australia. Many of the girls showed amazement at the country’s fruit and vegetables with piles of peach seeds being discovered with the diaries. Evidence of games they played was also discovered.

Hiring days were organized by the barracks where those seeking laborers could visit the barracks to interview girls and hire those they liked to go work in houses and farms in the Australian outback.

Newman's own ancestor, Jane McDonald, was an Irish nursemaid orphaned by the death of her parents, Sally and Hugh McDonald. According to a clipping from the Shipping Gazette that Newman discovered Jane traveled to Australia from Plymouth, England in 1848.

“The ship has on board 203 immigrants, of whom eight are married couples and 195 single women (Irish orphans) from the age of 16 to 25,” the clipping says.

“Two deaths only occurred during the voyage,” it continues.

The marriage certificate for the marriage between Jane McDonald and John Byrnes in Maitland in 1848 - the same year she arrived in Australia as a teenage 'Potato Orphan'. Image:FindMyPast

The marriage certificate for the marriage between Jane McDonald and John Byrnes in Maitland in 1848 - the same year she arrived in Australia as a teenage 'Potato Orphan'. Image:FindMyPast

Jane was among those fortunate enough to find work easily on reaching Australia and she settled in New South Wales to work as a maid in rural Maitland.

“Jane was sent to Maitland by steamer with three other girls. They were all aged 17 and 18,” said Newman.

“She was sent to work as a maid for Mr Holmes at Black Creek and paid 11 pounds a year, although I’m not sure if she received this money or if it went to the department that organized the emigration.’”

Jane was also quick to marry, although Newman has so far been unable to discover if the marriage was arranged or if Jane met her husband in Australia. She married Dublin-born John Byrne (who was 12 years her senior) with whom she had 13 children, although two died as babies and another two died at a young age.

Jane died in Tamworth in 1915. Despite finding a headstone for her husband, John, Newman has unfortunately been unable to find Jane’s burial place.

H/T: The Daily Mail