O is for Oceans and Oban

I am participating in the A to Z 2012 blog challenge throughout April. My theme is a genealogical travelogue or a travel genealogue (I’m not sure which). The focus today is on migration to Australia.

O is for OCEANS

A sketch showing life on board for emigrants in the 1870s. State Library of Victoria IAN24/03/75/40 copyright expired. Searching Picture Australia for emigrant+ship will give you images of ships of the era.

My ancestors crossed the oceans wide to come to Australia braving the oceans’ hazards, health risks on board, and a new world. We can’t really imagine what they went through, cheek by jowl in the sleeping quarters, mixed with people of other nationalities and even counties, with whom they’d had no exposure prior to the emigration depot with all its own challenges. Just imagine the Babel, or babble, of the different dialects, including Gaelic, Irish, and English regional accents. Then put them all together on one small ship (averaging around 600 tons in the 1850s) and expect them to negotiate their mess arrangements and sleep in a hammock with others so close. Throw in the wild seas, anxiety and excitement about their future lives, and the potential for boredom and its surprising there wasn’t more dissension.

It was certainly one way to prepare them for what was ahead. For all that the emigrants to Australia had so much further to go, they were actually well looked after by the arrangements put in place by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners (CLEC) with required lists of clothing, specified dietary standards, a surgeon to supervise their health and a matron to take care of their other welfare. Education was often offered but not always availed.

The Irish were unusual in that Irish women were as likely to emigrate as men, atypical compared to other nationalities which either exported single men or families. Even where these women appeared to travel alone, a closer look at the shipping records will reveal there may have been cousins or neighbours on board. In the later years of emigration, they would have family in Australia who may have sent their remittance for emigration. It pays to look beyond just the name you’re researching to see who they may have travelled with…they weren’t as alone as we sometimes think.

My ancestral migration to Australia is spread from the 1850s through to 1911. This graph gives some indication of the family pattern -only two people travelled without known family/friends. © P Cass 2012.

Pondering on my post from Saturday about the precious packages my ancestors would have brought with them, I decided to have a look at their travel and migration status: who they arrived with, and whether they had family in the colony. Even this is deceptive because it only looks at their relatives, not at their broader social connections such as people from their home village. George Kunkel, for example, is not known to have had any family here before he arrived, nor did any arrive after him (chain migration) that I know of. However there were quite a few people from his home village living quite close by in Queensland. Did he arrive after them or before? Either way he wasn’t entirely alone, there was the solace of some compatriots.

How did your families arrive, alone or in a family group? Did it change depending on when they arrived?

To quote an unknown immigrant Mary Anne, writing home:

There are no backdoors in Australia to creep out as you must take everything as it comes when you get here.”[i]

O is for OCEANS OF CONSOLATION

Important reference books for migration research to Australia in particular.

If you have Irish ancestry in Australia there are two books you really must beg, borrow or steal (just kidding!). They are Oceans of Consolation by David Fitzpatrick, an analysis of letters from Irish immigrants and Richard Reid’s Farewell my Children which I posted about last year. Also worth looking at are any of the little Invisible Immigrant series by Eric Richards with chapters by Richard Reid.

Fitzpatrick uses the emigrants’ own letters to tell their story of settling into a new land. I particularly liked some of the comments from Biddy Burke, an immigrant from Galway to Moreton Bay. She commented “you must think it was hot when the plaits (sic) on the dresser should be handled with a cloth[ii] She was intrigued rather than horrified by the mixture of religions and races[iii], showing the adventurousness of those who made this journey.

Fitzpatrick argues that the migration decision was a family one, but my research suggests this may not always have been so. Wills tend to indicate that at least some emigrants went where they thought it would suit them best. The decision by some emigrants to come to Australia even though other family members had already emigrated to America suggests they were clear about what opportunities they wanted to pursue.

O is for OBAN (Argyll, Scotland)

Early morning over Oban's harbour, March 2006. © P Cass

Back in March 2006 we were in Oban, planning to visit Mull the next day. In the middle of the night we got a phone call from daughter #2 to tell us that my mother-in-law was dying. Now a B&B is not the best place to get this kind of news (is anywhere?) so we had to skulk down to the harbour to make calls on the public phone to get the whole story and try to arrange flights before the B&B came to life. Suffice to say that those who helped us on that occasion have our gratitude: the B&B owners who didn’t hold us to our three day booking, the staff member on the desk at one of the harbour-side posh hotels who helped us with internet links, and Emirates who made and held our booking until we got to Glasgow, unlike our national carrier. That morning at sunrise we saw seals in the harbour and as we made our way back into Glasgow, the skies were clear blue and the snow on the hills was magnificent…a blessing in a strange kind of way.

The Scots may not be effusive but we couldn’t fault their wonderful support. We were home within 48 hours and could have made it sooner had we not been a bit far from Glasgow airport, and thankfully we made it in time to say our goodbyes. Sure this is recent history, but as I want to publish this series of posts for our family and descendants, I wanted to tell this story, and checked my husband agreed.

Imagine what it would have been like for our ancestors to finally receive a letter telling them of a parent’s death, months after it had happened. Would they have sensed something pivotal had happened or would that barrier have passed when they left their family behind in the homeland?

In the A to Z challenge, Julie at Anglers Rest is continuing the story of her 20th century travel to Australia and her family’s links to the land Down Under.


[i] Haines, R. Life and death in the age of sail, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2003, page 190

[ii] Fitzpatrick D. Oceans of Consolation, Melbourne University Press, 1994, page 149.

[iii] Ibid, page 148

Thoughts on “Farewell My Children” by Dr Richard Reid: Irish migration to Australia 1848-1870

If you have Irish ancestry in Australia, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ve referred to an index of Irish Assisted Immigrants to New South Wales (NSW) 1848-1870, available in most family history libraries around Australia.  I doubt I was alone in thinking, when I first used the index, that this was another very comprehensive genealogy-related index. In fact, it was a by-product of Dr Richard Reid’s doctoral thesis, awarded in 1992 by the Australian National University, the topic of which was Aspects of Irish Assisted Emigration to New South Wales 1848-1870. This thesis can only be read on-site at ANU.

What is exciting news for family historians with an Irish background is that in mid-2011 Richard released Farewell My Children – a book based largely on his thesis. I bought a copy at this year’s Shamrock in the Bush because I’d already read the thesis and I was desperately keen to have my own copy of this benchmark work. Read it, you won’t regret it!

You might be thinking that if this started life as an academic publication it will be too “heavy” and too difficult to read. Not at all! The topics are clearly presented throughout and add greatly to our understanding of our ancestors’ emigration experiences. What I most like about Farewell My Children, and Richard’s historical writing in general, is that he illuminates the topic with specific examples. This personalises the history revealing the nuances at the grassroots level as well as the bigger picture. Another feature of Richard’s work is that he views Ireland as an entity not just Eire or Northern Ireland. While the focus is on Irish migration to Australia, it would also offer a comparative understanding to anyone whose Irish ancestors migrated to North America –after all they are quite likely to have distant family in Australia –it’s surprising how family sometimes took divergent migration paths.

There are multiple strands in the book which address the emigration experience:

1.   The emigration process

If you’ve found it difficult to get your head around the nuts and bolts of how your ancestors obtained their government assisted passage, and what evidence they had to supply, you will find it here.

The practicalities of the Remittance Regulations[i] are also dealt with, including their occasional manipulation by representatives in Ireland and Australia.

2.  The journey to Australia and experience on arrival

The complex and careful management of the immigrants is highlighted. It is pertinent to note the difference between the Australian journey and that of many migrant experiences to North America. It may have been a much longer journey, but the government was particularly attentive to its immigrants. A further benefit of this is the wonderful detail available in the bureaucratic records and especially the Board’s Immigrants Lists where they survive.

3.   Who were the migrants?

Do you ever wonder how typical your Irish family really was? Richard talks about the characteristics of the immigrants, their literacy and skills, age and gender balance as well as their marital status. This is a fascinating insight into the differences between Irish and other immigrants.

4.   Clonoulty, Co Tipperary

The book and thesis train the research lens on the emigrants from Clonoulty. If you have ancestors from there, you will find this chapter especially useful.

5.  The poor of Ireland

The book talks in detail about the Irish Famine Orphan migration from Ireland’s workhouses, which is relevant to our family as my husband’s ancestor was a Famine Orphan. It’s pertinent to note that not all were actually orphans.

Wives and children of convicts also come under this heading as they were often impoverished by the breadwinner’s transportation. (Dr Perry McIntyre’s recent book Free passage : the reunion of Irish convicts and their families in Australia, 1788-1852 is also a must-read for anyone whose family fits this category).
6.   Donegal Relief Fund

When I read the thesis I had no reason to be particularly concerned about Donegal so I only skimmed this section. In the meantime I’ve learned my son-in-law’s paternal ancestry is tied into this migration from Donegal, so I found this chapter especially interesting.[ii

7.  Remittances and chain migration

Remittances played a key role in the chains of Irish migration in families and friendship groups and are what led me to Richard’s thesis in 2004. This was the link between this broader Irish research and my own East Clare research focused on Broadford, Parish of Kilseily where the parish priest and some key representatives in Australia appear to have manipulated the system to ensure a positive migration outcome for East Clare people.

It’s no doubt obvious that I regard this book as the door to Dr Reid’s benchmark research on Irish migration to Australia. I for one am very grateful this research made the transition from academic thesis to an accessible book I can keep on my shelves. There are any number of reasons why Richard’s book is particularly relevant to my own research (especially East Clare migration) but I’m confident that anyone with Irish ancestry, or others, would be able to add to their understanding of the migration experience by reading it. Dr Reid’s history-writing style has made him one of my own “history heroes”. In my library his book sits beside Oceans of Consolation by David Fitzpatrick and Robin Haines’ Life and Death in the Age of Sail.

With such significant and informative content Farewell my Children should become a prime resource for Irish family historians and anyone with an interest in Australian migration. If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for yourself, print out the book details and leave it lying around as a “hint” for the family gift-givers. Don’t forget, too, that if you live near a large reference library you can have the book sent on inter-library loan from the National Library of Australia.

If you are interested in Irish migration you might also be interested in the small Visible Immigrants series which are collaborative publications: their content vastly outweighs their slight appearance.

Visible women : female immigrants in colonial Australia / edited by Eric Richards

Poor Australian immigrants in the nineteenth century / edited by Eric Richards
Neglected sources for the history of Australian immigration / Eric Richards, Richard Reid & David Fitzpatrick

Disclosure: I have not been asked to comment on this book, nor did I receive any remuneration for promoting it. It stands entirely on its own merits.


[i] The Index to the NSW Immigration Deposit Journals 1853-1900 produced by Pastkeys is a valuable entry-point to the remittances at a name level.

[ii] A complementary source is the wonderful information on the Donegal Genealogy Resources webpage