The Mountbellew Workhouse Orphans sent to Canada, 1853.

Dr. Gerard Moran

In 1850 the number of workhouses in Ireland was increased from 130 to 162 because of the inability of the existing system to deal with the demands on accommodation as a result of the Great Famine.  Among the newly established were those in Portumna, Oughterard, Glenamaddy and Mountbellew.  The Mountbellew workhouse did not become operational until 1852 and from the time the board of guardians was established it sought to reduce the number of long-term inmates, in particular young, single females, as it was feared they would remain a permanent burden on the union’s financial resources.  Throughout the 1850s most of the poor law unions adopted a policy of paying the transport costs of young females to the colonies where there was a demand for domestic servants.  Canada was the preferred choice of most unions as the fares averaged £5.  As the annual cost of the upkeep of a pauper in the workhouse was £5, it was argued that in the long term it would result in a significant saving and at the same time provide these inmates with the prospect of a better life abroad.  The Canadian authorities encouraged the poor law unions to send these girls and promised to forward them to those destinations within the colony where job opportunities were available.  It resulted in nearly 15,000 workhouse inmates, mainly young girls, being sent to Canada between 1848 and 1856, large numbers coming from Clifden, Gort, Tuam and Galway.

Between 1850 and 1852, before the workhouse opened, the Mountbellew paupers were accommodated in the Ballinasloe workhouse.  The guardians feared that there were a large number of young females who entered the workhouse at a young age, had become institutionalized and would be unable to adapt to a life outside the institution.  Ellen Egan from Castleblakney was nine years when she entered the workhouse in 1847 and was fifteen years old in 1853; while Bessy Fallon from Castleffrench was ten when she became an inmate in 1847 and in 1853 was sixteen years.  The guardians felt it would be more advantageous if these long-term female inmates were not transferred to the newly opened workhouse in Mountbellew as they had a poor work ethic and a disorderly approach to the institution’s rules.  It was easier send them to the colonies.  As the same time the Mountbellew guardians were assisting inmates to emigrate.  In February 1852, £7 was given to Mary Mannion, a widow from Killeen, and her five children, aged between three and twelve years, to travel to North America, with Lord Clonbrock, her landlord, providing the rest of the travel costs.

In 1852 the Mountbellew guardians sought permission from the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners to send a number of girls to Australia and in November 1852 thirty female paupers sailed from Plymouth on the Travencore to western Australia with the colonial authorities paying the passage fares.  The total cost to the Mountbellew union was £105 which included the travel cost to Plymouth and new clothing for the journey.  Four of the original list were replaced as they were adjudged to be medically unfit to travel and among those who left were Catherine Tully and Mary Anne Taylor from Castelblakney, Mary Dooley from Clonbrock and Mary Mannion from Ballinakill.

Within weeks of the departure of the group to Australia preparations were in place to send out another group of young females.  At this stage there were 440 pauper inmates under the union’s care, 125 classified as able-bodied females.  In February 1853 the workhouse master was instructed to prepare and submit the names of fifty young women who had been resident in the workhouse for more than two years for departure to Canada.  Unlike the group that left for Australia, the Mountbellew guardians had to organise the travel arrangements for the transfer to Canada and pay their passage.  Tenders were sought for outfitting the girls for the journey for items such as shoes, cotton stockings, towels, combs, soaps, etc..  Tenders were also sought from shipping agents to convey the girls to Quebec.  Eventually, Mr Gibson, a shipping agent from Kilrush, had his offer accepted: £3 16s 6d for each pauper and he promised to provide extra rations on the voyage.  Gibson’s initial failure to procure a ship angered the guardians who feared the girls would be unable to secure employment in Canada if they arrived late in the year.  It was only when he was threatened with legal proceedings that a boat was secured and fifty girls from the workhouse left for Limerick and sailed on the Primrose on 16 July 1853.

The girls ranged in age from fifteen to forty years, the eldest being Jane Kelly from Mountbellew and Biddy Ruane, both aged forty years.  The Canadian authorities stipulated that girls sent to the colony should be aged between sixteen and twenty years so the guardians were sending older paupers who had little hope of a life in Ireland.  Four of the girls had resided in the workhouse for over seven years: Catherine Connolly aged twenty, and Biddy Barrett aged sixteen, both from Balliankill; Jane Murray from Derryglassan aged fifteen years, and Kitty Rabbitt, aged eighteen from Castleffrench.

The girls arrived in Quebec on 6 September and were taken in charge by the Emigration Agent at the port, A.C. Buchanan, and sent to Toronto and Hamilton where immediate employment opportunities were available.  The Mountbellew guardians had forwarded £50 ‘landing money’ to pay for the girls’ travel cost to these destinations.  Some of the girls became domestic servants as with Anne McGrath from Cooloo who is 1861 was a servant in the house of Joseph Parker in Montrael.  Catherine Kilgallon from Derryglassan or Jane Kelly did not fare as well.  Kilgallan was fifteen years when she left and in 1861 was living in Pembroke, Renfrew County, Ontario, married with three children, although her husband is listed as absent.  She worked as a washer woman and could not read or write.  In 1861 Jane Kelly was resident in a lunatic and idiot asylum near Toronto, remaining there till her death in the 1880s.  Ellen Egan was living in Toronto in 1861, working as a bread maker, and moved to Alice and Fraser in eastern Ontario the following year after marrying William Parker.  She died in Guelp in February 1905.

The Mountbellew girls sent to Canada on the Primrose were part of the economic solution to the financial problems which the poor law unions faced in the aftermath of the Great Famine.  Most were happy to leave as it provided them with the chance of a better life and are part of the ‘invisible emigrant army’ of the Great Famine.


Further Reading:

Gerard Moran, “’Permanent deadweight’: female pauper emigration from Mountbellew Workhouse to Canada” in Christine Kinealy, Jason King & Ciaran Reilly (eds), Women and the Great Hunger (Quinnipiac University Press, Connecticut, 2016).


Gerard Moran, “’Shovelling out the paupers’: The Irish Poor Law and assisted emigration during the Great Famine” in Ciaran Reilly (ed), The Famine Irish: Emigration and the Great Hunger (The History Press, Dublin, 2016).




NameAgeElectoral DivisionLength in WorkhousePauper Number
Catherine Connolly20Ballinakill7 3/4892
Biddy Barrett+16Ballinakill7 1/2910
Margaret Coffey19Cooloo3 1/2843
Biddy Healy16cooloo6 3/4231
Mary  Coffey17Cloonkeen3 1/4844
Honor  Corbett15Cloonkeen6819
Winny  Dowd17Cloonkeen3696
Mary Downd20Cloonkeen4818
Mary  Brennan22Cloonkeen3 1/2810
Catherine  Higgins19Castleblakney3 1/2901
Mary   Shannon15Castleblakney3 1/21042
Mary Rafferty17Caltra3 1/21016
Celia McCabe19Derryglassann4 1/2915
Mary  Daly20Derryglassann4 1/2823
Catherine Kilgannon15Derryglassann5 3/4791
Honor  Quinn18Derryglassann                                     4.75.826
Biddy  Cox20Derryglassann31026
Mary Mitchell16Mount  Hazel3 3/4116
Mary  Warde16Mount  Hazel5 3/465
Mary   Dooley20Mount  Hazel4 1/4865
Mary  Coffey18Mount  Hazel5 3/4995
Catherine Keogh20Mountbellew4 1/2896
Fanny  Geraghty15Tameboy6877
Biddy  Kelly18Castleffrench3 1/2835
Biddy  Molloy18Annagh3 1/294
Honor  Connell20Union at Large3 1/2978
Biddy  Ruane40Union at Large4 1/4774
Jane  Murray15Derryglassann7605
Mary  Killarney21Derryglassann269
Biddy  Toohey18Derryglassann5114
Judy  Healy20Derryglassann595
Anne  McGrath15Cooloo6640
Mary  Concannon15Cooloo5128
Honor  Brady16Cooloo3269
Biddy  Breheny20Killeraran5127
Kitty Heneghan ??26Killeraran399
Catherine Fallon17Killeraran439
Peggy  Lohan18Ballinakill593
Ellen Egan15Castleblakney6659
Biddy  King18Castleblakney6993
Kitty  Loughnane15Castleblakney3269
Honor  Gibbons23Castleblakney3246
Ellen  Brennan18Cloonkeen535
Bessy  Fallon16Castleffrench6252
Ellen  Madden18Clonbrock5145
Kitty  Rabbitt18Castleffrench762
Mary  Kilfoyle18Mount  Hazel332
Jane  Kelly40Mountbellew51068
Mary  Carr19Annagh2104
This page was added on 25/07/2020.

Comments about this page

  • I write to you from Adelaide in Australia.

    I am researching a relative as part of our family Genealogy.

    Her name is Mary Ann Taylor (1835 – 1926) from Castelblakney and was sent from Mountbellow to Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1852.

    I don’t have any history of her early life before going to Western Australia.

    She is mentioned in the pre-amble above but not in the spreadsheet with personal details.

    Do you have any information that you can share with me, or suggest how I can access information.

    Best regards,
    Trevor Hathaway

    By Trevor Hathaway (26/08/2021)

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