Image: 'Falling' by Jane Theau (2017)
When I was asked to write a series of poems for an art exhibition in Australia earlier this year, I embarked on a dark voyage of discovery into the lives of Irish immigrant children 150 years ago.
There is a special brand of human misery so steeped in hopelessness that it leaves its mark in time and place. I have felt it before as an Irish immigrant on Australian soil – in the solitary confinement chamber at Port Arthur convict settlement in Tasmania and in the darkest cell of Dubbo Jail in rural New South Wales. In places like these throughout Australia, the walls are buckled with the painful histories of Irish exiles.
But this time it is different. As I follow Australian art curator, Anne Kempton and artist, Jane Theau into the chill, lightless cell in the Newcastle Lock Up, I am knocked backwards.
Crouched in front of me is 13-year-old Bridget McElroy from Falcarragh in Donegal. Her tiny frame filthy from huddling on the damp dirt floor, she has been raped, starved and unmercifully beaten. She is riddled with venereal disease.
Ghosts of Irish-Australian past
Forced from as young as eight to submit to a life of prostitution, Bridget was condemned by the circumstances of her birth into a family fleeing the Irish Famine. She was convicted for her powerlessness to overcome them.
Fourteen days alone in the dark on barely enough bread and water to survive was her punishment for daring to rebel against her misfortune. This was a pattern to be repeated over and over as her fiery spirit refused to be doused. A year later, she was sent to a hard-core women’s prison on one month’s hard labour for rioting.
We are in the old Newcastle Gaol, two hours north of Sydney. Jane Theau has strung up her extraordinary thread artwork, bringing Bridget to life for the first time in over a century.
Three months earlier, I had a call out of the blue asking me to write a voiceover for an art exhibition. Little did I know this would launch me on an unsettling voyage into the dark and shocking histories of immigrant and marginalised children in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. It is a brutal account of sexual abuse, forced child prostitution, drunkenness, savage violence and neglect.
Anne Kempton and Wilma Simmons are the guiding forces behind the ‘Stitched Up’ art exhibition. They spent the past two years pulling together works from 25 renowned international and Australian artists, including Jane Theau.
The exhibition was to mark 150 years since the opening of Newcastle Industrial School and Reformatory, a site that housed 193 girls aged between two and a half and eighteen years from 1867 to 1891. Quite a number were of Irish birth or extraction. Their stories are breathtakingly brutal.
These girls came from backgrounds of poverty, cruelty and discrimination endemic in immigrant and marginalised communities during Australia’s ‘Gold Rush’ era. The Irish were treated with the additional suspicion of being ‘Fenians’ and potentially rebellious.
The girls’ stay at Newcastle Industrial School was not by choice. In most cases, they were arrested for vagrancy, prostitution and petty crime. They were sentenced to a minimum of 12 months in Newcastle, with most enduring periods of involuntary ‘apprenticeships’ as domestic help for lengthy periods afterwards.
Voices from the past
In poring through the archives, I was often struck most deeply when confronted with the girls’ own words. Sadly, these are few and far between. When stumbled on, the earnest, wounded and often feisty testimonies of the girls jump off the pages in stark contrast to the pervading clinical, seemingly dehumanised, official accounts from the authorities of the time.
As one girl blithely observed, she could yield to a life of prostitution or starve to death. Another, responding to comments on the appalling circumstances in which she was found, said “people get used to anything from constant suffering and misery”. Perhaps most poignantly of all, another girl said “I would not pray because I did not feel fit to pray”.
Eliza O’Brien from Shanagolden in Limerick was found in a brothel at the age of 13. Her mother had fallen ill on board ship to Australia and died shortly after their arrival. Eliza had this to say of her treatment at Newcastle Industrial School nearly 150 years ago:
“I would rather be torn limb from limb and go to hell than go to school... She throws up our past life telling us we are the sweepings of Sydney streets… You stated… you supposed that is what we have been brought up to, Street Walking all night and laying in bed late in the day.”
And there is this heart-felt plea from Mary Jane McNeice who arrived in Newcastle beset with gonnorhea aged 17, along with her sisters, Sarah aged six and Eliza aged eight:
“Dear mother I have been here over two years and I think it is very hard of you not to come and see me I would like you to come down at Easter to see me Dear mother.”
Mary Jane and her sisters were born in Australia. Their mother had left Derry as an assisted immigrant in 1850, following her father who had been transported for “stealing hide”. The youngest sister, Sarah spent 11 years in industrial schools from the age of six. As the records indicate, she was unlikely to have remembered much of her parents or ancestry.
Yet, so many voices and so many pieces of stories are missing. We have little to remember Catherine Mary Harding from Cavan; Rose Oswald from Tyrone; Mary Jane Wright from Belfast; or sisters, Mary, Annie and Bridget Monaghan who were daughters of a transportee from Donegal. There are snippets about Catherine Manton from Holycross in Cork whose sister Mary was born on board ship en route to Australia in 1863.
Rebels, fighters and survivors
Like the exhibition curators and the artists involved in ‘Stitched Up’, I have been moved to tears, and even horror at times, by the depth of the girls’ suffering. Like them, I have also grown to love and admire these girls for their incredible spirit and endurance.
Much as they were victims, these girls were also rebels, fighters and survivors. Through this exhibition, the many artists involved have most profoundly sought to give a voice to these lost girls and their extraordinary stories.
These stories have been told through the works of internationally renowned artists from Canada, Hungary, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark and nationally across Australia who contributed to this project. The pieces include a large quilt as a comforter; dolls to compensate for lost childhood; cloth books for story-telling; shadow threadworks; and visual poetry. Real-life historical images of the girls have also been used.
The exhibition has woven together stories of loss, betrayal, cruelty and endurance.
The works of Australian historian, Jane Ison; anthropologist, David Eastburn; and Bernadette Sheehan have contributed enormously to the wealth of information on this dark corner of Australia’s colonial history.
What became of the girls?
During their time at Newcastle, the girls became notorious in the locality for a series of daring escapes which led to repeated incarcerations in the Newcastle Gaol. Some went on to gain national infamy.
After a term at Newcastle School, many ended up in lengthy contracts of servitude they were unable to escape. A number died young due to disease, deprivation, accident or violence.
Many of their stories seem to echo each other. Eliza O’Brien from Shanagolden, who had arrived in Australia at the age of one and a half in 1853, died of tuberculosis aged just 24. Catherine Condon, whose family arrived from Ireland in 1852, also died young from TB – she was 33 years old. Both girls had lost their mothers while still toddlers.
Those who survived changed their names over and over in an effort to overcome the stigma of their pasts.
And what became of the doughty young Bridget McElroy from Falcarragh? Nobody knows. Like so many of her fellow inmates, she disappeared from the records at the age of 19. Another ghost in the machinery of a colonial nation’s brutal emergence.
To follow are two excerpts from Anne Casey’s writing which featured as a voiceover and on artwork as part of Stitched Up art exhibition in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia this year. Swinburne University in Melbourne have since published the entire collection of 20 pieces written by Anne Casey, along with her outline of the history and background to the project. View and listen to a recording of this full Stitched Up collection of writings, along with beautiful images of artwork by Australian artist, Jane Theau.
This article was first published in 'The Irish Times' newspaper in May 2017 - it was the No 1 most-read feature and No 3 most-read piece overall in the paper over the weekend it was published. View the article here. Anne was subsequently interviewed by Roisin Ingle on The Women's Podcast for The Irish Times.
What's in a name?
Another hand-me-down bestowed
Already tattered and torn
This title to which I was born
Already stained with the same
Indelible shadow of shame
As the smoke-blackened room
That swallowed me
Out of the womb
This cast-off of cast-outs
A caste apart
Enshrouded in doubt
This first 'gift' granted
First marker, moniker, brand
Last link to a lost land
First claim, first link in the chain
First tie to a life pre-ordained
What's in a name
That should hallmark me
Anchored to a counter-weighted history
What if... I could file it away
Claw, scratch and scrape
Unknot this monogrammed cape
Cast it back into the street
Would I be at once released
Uncuffed, unbranded, reprieved
Unchristened, unborn preconceived?
Mirror images repeated over and over
Weaving in and out of each other
Twisted tales of
And ripped apart
Into so many missing parts
Like stitches dissolved
From long-forgotten wounds
Their memories marked
By the palest
Of gossamer scars
Originally from County Clare in Ireland, Anne Casey is a writer living in Sydney. Over a 25-year award-winning career, she has worked as a business journalist, magazine editor, corporate and government communications director, author and editor. She is currently Co-Editor of Swinburne University's two literary journals, 'Other Terrain' and 'Backstory'.
Anne's debut poetry collection, 'where the lost things go', was published by Salmon Poetry in July 2017. She was short-listed for the Cúirt International New Writing Poetry Prize and the Eyewear Books Poetry Prize in 2017, and the Bangor Annual Poetry Competition in 2016.
Anne’s writing and poetry rank as most-read pieces in Ireland’s leading national daily newspaper, The Irish Times. Her poems have been published internationally in newspapers, magazines, journals and books. Further information: http://anne-casey.com/.