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.
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).
|Name||Age||Electoral Division||Length in Workhouse||Pauper Number|
|Catherine Connolly||20||Ballinakill||7 3/4||892|
|Biddy Barrett+||16||Ballinakill||7 1/2||910|
|Margaret Coffey||19||Cooloo||3 1/2||843|
|Biddy Healy||16||cooloo||6 3/4||231|
|Mary Coffey||17||Cloonkeen||3 1/4||844|
|Mary Brennan||22||Cloonkeen||3 1/2||810|
|Catherine Higgins||19||Castleblakney||3 1/2||901|
|Mary Shannon||15||Castleblakney||3 1/2||1042|
|Mary Rafferty||17||Caltra||3 1/2||1016|
|Celia McCabe||19||Derryglassann||4 1/2||915|
|Mary Daly||20||Derryglassann||4 1/2||823|
|Catherine Kilgannon||15||Derryglassann||5 3/4||791|
|Mary Mitchell||16||Mount Hazel||3 3/4||116|
|Mary Warde||16||Mount Hazel||5 3/4||65|
|Mary Dooley||20||Mount Hazel||4 1/4||865|
|Mary Coffey||18||Mount Hazel||5 3/4||995|
|Catherine Keogh||20||Mountbellew||4 1/2||896|
|Biddy Kelly||18||Castleffrench||3 1/2||835|
|Biddy Molloy||18||Annagh||3 1/2||94|
|Honor Connell||20||Union at Large||3 1/2||978|
|Biddy Ruane||40||Union at Large||4 1/4||774|
|Kitty Heneghan ??||26||Killeraran||3||99|
|Mary Kilfoyle||18||Mount Hazel||3||32|