Irish Famine Orphan: Biddy Gollagher or Gallagher on the Lady Kennaway in 1848


Irish Famine Orphan Memorial in Sydney.

Irish Famine Orphan, Bridget Gollagher or Gallagher, is my husband’s ancestor. She arrived in Port Philip on the barque Lady Kennaway in December 1848. McLaughlin’s book Barefoot and Pregnant indicates that Victorian records show she came from Donegal although the NSW Agent’s lists give her place of origin as Galway. She was hired out to Mr Edward Curr[i] at St Hilliers (actually St Helier’s)[ii] for £14 for six months[iii]. The book also has information, which we believed to be a type-setting problem and related to Ellen Gollagher who appears next on the passenger list. So, how to resolve some of these ambiguities?

My first port of call was the Victorian historical indexes to check three things:

  1. Confirm the marriage listed in Barefoot and Pregnant and on the Famine Orphan website relates to Ellen Gollagher not to Bridget or Biddy as she appears on the list.
  2. Confirm Bridget/Biddy’s marriage based on earlier family research.
  3. Determine Bridget’s county of origin and hopefully a townland[iv].
  1.      Gallagher/Gollagher marriage to McCahery

I checked this by obtaining an 1867 birth certificate for one of the children, hoping to get more details on the parents that way. It confirmed that it was Ellen Gallagher/Gollagher who married John McCahery, and according to their daughter’s birth certificate they married in Melbourne in November 1851. On this document Ellen states her age as 33, so a YOB of 1834, and born in Donegal. This fits with her being the orphan on the Lady Kennaway apart from the age difference. A YOB of 1834 would make her barely 14 on arrival in Melbourne in 1848 as opposed to the stated 18 (YOB 1830). Both ages fit within the preferred range for the orphans.  Ellen and her husband lived in the Kilmore area and she is reported to have died in 1872. Is she Bridget’s sister or relation or just someone with the same surname? As yet this is unknown, and may remain so.

2.      Marriage Gollagher/Gallagher and McKenna

Biddy Gallagher married William McKenna at St Francis’s RC church in Melbourne on 5 May 1850. Unfortunately the record is a basic one providing no supplementary details on the couple.[v] The witnesses were Mary Boyle and James McKenna. It’s quite possible (likely?) that this Mary Boyle was the Famine Orphan who had also travelled on the Lady Kennaway, aged 17 and from Donegal. Various attempts to obtain more information on the Gallagher-McKenna marriage have as yet been unsuccessful. At the time of Bridget’s marriage, Melbourne was again in a flurry of condemnation or defence of these poor Irish girls. Those who’d arrived on the Lady Kennaway seemed to have taken a particular verbal battering in the press.  They must have felt more than a little persecuted with a threatened sense of their self-worth.

My concern in relation to this marriage was whether the correct couple had been “chosen” since some of this research had been “inherited”. However working backwards from the known to the unknown via BDM documents we were able to confirm that this was the correct couple.

Next question: Was this the same Biddy/Bridget Gollagher/Gallagher who was the Famine Orphan?

3.      Children’s certificates

Foolishly I obtained James’ and Elvia’s (Elizabeth) from 1851 and 1853 respectively. These were church baptisms and had no supplementary parent information but did give witnesses: Robert Hogan and Sarah McKenna for James, and Patrick McGrath and Mary McKenna for Elizabeth. Did Bridget no longer have any friends to sponsor her children or did William’s relations take precedence?  On James’s registration, Bridget’s maiden name is still shown as Gollagher. Afterwards it becomes the more common Gallagher. Interestingly the baptisms were a month or more after the births, which while within church regulations suggests they either didn’t have the fee to pay, or were not so compliant in their observances.

A further certificate, for daughter Bridget in 1862, had the informant as a friend, Charlotte Harward of Emerald Hill. While some of the information was accurate, a new place of origin was introduced for Bridget as she was stated to come from Fermanagh, and William from Monaghan. At the time the family was living in Sutton Lane, off Little Burke Street and William was a storeman.

So now as options for Bridget’s place of birth we had Galway, Donegal and Fermanagh, but wait, there’s more to come!

Next certificate was that for son Patrick b 1865. This time Bridget was the informant and she mercifully gave her place of birth as Donegal and William’s as Fermanagh. They were still living in Sutton Lane and her age is fairly consistent throughout to give a YOB of 1833/1834.

Without buying every possible certificate this reassured me (1) that she was almost certainly the Famine Orphan and (2) her home place was Donegal.

On the 1865 certificate Bridget lists four children who had died. The online indexes do not show all of the named surviving children as stated on certificates, even using the broadest search parameters and wildcards.

Two generations on: Katie McKenna, Biddy Gallagher’s grand-daughter.

4.      Death of Bridget McKenna nee Gallagher

We had inherited this certificate from my husband’s father and it tells a sad story. Bridget died in the Immigrants’ Home in Melbourne on 12 December 1882, almost to the day 34 years earlier when she had been admitted to the immigrants’ depot. The cause of death was alcoholism and while she was stated to be married, there were no details available. She had been 31 years in Victoria (an error of three years) and came from Limerick! So now we have Limerick, Galway, Fermanagh and Donegal as potential places of origin!

At this point I became concerned that we also had the wrong death. A search of the indexes from 1870 to 1930, using Bri* not Bridget, gave only two possible options. I checked the alternate death and that was of a young woman born in Victoria so the 1882 death appears to be the correct one. . From the scarcity of the data on her death certificate it appears she had been alienated from, or ostracised by, her family. Another small anomaly is the age on her certificate: she is shown as 51 so YOB of 1831.

Does her alcoholism explain her children’s deaths or was it the other way round? Were the infant deaths attributable to her poor health from the Famine years: it’s possible as two of them were within a few years of her arrival, but likely? I’m not sure.

As Bridget had died of alcoholism it seemed likely she had been in trouble with the law so I searched the PROV online index to female prisoners. There are two entries for her, from which in due course we will need to obtain copies. With a little (lot?) of luck it may even give us a description of her. I also did a search of Trove hoping to find her in the court records for drunkenness, but could find only one reference in 1863 when she was fined 5 shillings. As yet she appears not to have fallen into the category of habitual drunkard, as those received a gaol sentence of three months. At this point she was still bearing children.

Bridget’s husband, William Peter McKenna, died in Melbourne in 1910. He is confirmed as the husband of Bridget Gallagher but this time his place of birth is Monaghan. Other family trees on Ancestry give a different date and place of death for Bridget’s husband but I think the official record is unambiguous.

This is a brief summary of the rather sad life of a Famine Orphan. There are still avenues to explore which may bring forward more evidence. It’s likely we’ll only know the shadows of her life – perhaps the light is the existence of many descendants.


[i] Reportedly known as the “Father of Separation” for his role in gaining Victoria’s separation from NSW. He was a staunch Catholic and had been a member of the first Legislative Council of Tasmania. He was also a member of the committee responsible for the welfare of the emigrant orphans on arrival in Melbourne.

[ii] Crown allotments 77 and 64 on the Yarra River at Abbotsford…In the late 1850s, Curr’s house was shown on a map of the Collingwood. The St Helier house garden featured a geometric layout, with pathways leading south to what was possibly an orchard on the river frontage. When Curr died in 1850, his trustees had leased the St Helier property in two parts. The house and house garden comprised one part, while the lower garden and riverbank paddock formed the other. In 1865, Curr’s widow, Elizabeth, sold the estate to the Right Rev. James A Goold for £4,000

Images of the house are at http://www.picturevictoria.vic.gov.au/site/yarra_melbourne/Collingwood/9464.html

http://www.picturevictoria.vic.gov.au/site/yarra_melbourne/Collingwood/9379.html

[iii] Biddy was one of only three young women to receive such a high wage. One assumes that if Curr employed her, and paid her such a generous sum, he thought she was competent not inexperienced.

[iv] While in Donegal in 2006 we tried without success to find any records for these workhouse orphans and Board of Guardian registers.  Perhaps another attempt is merited, even from afar.

[v] My Queensland research has shown me that sometimes there’s another set of information which reveals far more detail. Approaches to the diocesan archives a few years ago have been unsuccessful so it’s time to revisit that.

16 thoughts on “Irish Famine Orphan: Biddy Gollagher or Gallagher on the Lady Kennaway in 1848

  1. I am researching the McCahery name here in Ireland. I find your article very interesting and was wondering where to go to obtain the Mariiage you say took place in Melbourne in 1851.

  2. Dear Joan

    I was wondering if you could please contact me as I am a great great grandaughter of John and Ellen McCahery. I belive Ellen and Bridget were sisters, I obtained a copy of the ships passenger list which detailed both names appearing one after the other, father dead, mother alive, both girls could not read or write. I have since found that the girls parents were Francis and Ellen Gallagher. All my research indicates Ellen was born in Donegal, but the Galway connection is still a mystery, they may have come out of a workhouse in Galway. I know that Biddy married William Mckenna and I think I may have located his unmarked grave at Melbourne General cemetry, he is buried with a son and another in a triple grave. His death certificte in 1910 lists Bridget as still living. I initially thought she may have been the one that died in 1882 but somehow my research has taken me to Warnambool.

    Would love to make contact

    Reagrds
    Sandra Taylor

      • hi James, Thanks for commenting -I did know about DEDs but hadn’t got down to looking at that level for Biddy Gallagher. You may well be right and she came from a parish in that DED. My thinking has always been that she may have left Galway and ended up in the Donegal workhouse. Definitely something to explore further. Mayo and Galway in Donegal does sound rather Irish ;-)

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  4. Katie McKenna looks so beautiful in that photo.
    I saw your mention at Merrin Riddiford’s blog, of Black family in Western Victoria and hope these ones buried in Digby cemetery are yours, or help you:
    Robert John Black died 1961 aged 85, , son of William Black and Margaret Burchell
    Robert married Helen Waters and their daughter Ruby died in 1913. all buried Digby.

    • Thanks Ann, yes she does look pretty doesn’t she? Thank you for thinking of me in regard to the Blacks in Western Vic. To be honest they’re my husband’s family and I’m trying to leave them to him to look at it in retirement ;-). Being a Qlder I’ll need to see where Digby is in relation to Laen East but will certainly have them on the agenda. Thanks again.

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