Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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September 1847. The harvest moon glowed high above the Slieve Bloom mountains as 24-year-old John Walsh and his 14-year-old brother Peter crouched amid the hedgerow. At last, they watched the farmer pull the massive barn door shut and vanish into his house. The brothers leapt out of the hedge, raced up to the barn and slipped through the door.

Bathed in moonlight, a mountain of golden wheat rose from the floor in front of them. John spread a blanket at its base and the duo began shovelling grain onto it with their hands. In their excitement, neither noticed the barn door open again. But when they looked up, they saw two armed men, one with a musket, the other with a whip. John Walsh crumpled to the ground and began to sob.

Punishment was severe during the Great Famine of the 1840s, particular for those caught stealing food. Two months after their capture, the Walsh brothers were hauled before the court for the Quarter Sessions in Birr.

On account of his relative youth, Peter was sentenced to a sound thrashing and six months in the workhouse. But for John Walsh, the devastating words that were to reverberate in his eardrums for the rest of his life was the judge’s verdict that he was to be ‘transported to some Part beyond the Seas for the Space of Seven Years’.

Walsh was led back to his cell in shackles to consider his fate. He had not been told where or when he was to be transported. But as he lay upon the straw-covered cell floor, cold winter raindrops trickling down the brick walls, he probably guessed that it would be Australia.

Between 1787 and 1868, over 30,000 Irish men and 9,000 Irish women were transported to the Australian colonies as convicts. The vast majority departed from Cobh, the County Cork seaport which had been renamed Queenstown in 1849.

There is presently (July 2011) a rapidly growing campaign in both Ireland and Australia to persuade Theresa May, the British Home Secretary, to grant a posthumous pardon to several thousand Irish men, women and children transported during the Great Famine for the crime of stealing food.

Many of those transported, including John Walsh, were incarcerated on Spike Island in County Cork. The islands’ military barracks had been converted into a temporary convict depot in 1847. Originally designed to accommodate 600 convicts in a series of wooden huts, there were already 1,800 prisoners by 1850. Two years later, a report into the prison was circulated in the British House of Commons, stating that 2,300 convicts were now crammed into Spike Island ‘like sheep in a pen’.

Such overcrowding was in part because Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, called a halt to transportation between 1846 and 1849. This was to allow time for London to negotiate with the leading figures of the Australian colonies, most of whom were now hostile to the idea of more convicts arriving.

In 2001, historian Dr. Michael Martin began examining the prison records for Spike Island and was astonished by what he found.

‘Before the Famine, most of those sentenced to transportation stood indicted of crimes like treason, burglary and violent assault,’ he said. ‘But with the onset of the Famine, things changed dramatically. The government changed the legislation so that people could be transported for much more minor crimes. And so the number of annual convictions quadrupled between 1845 and 1848.’

Dr. Martin’s book ‘Spike Island: Saints, Felons and Famine’ offered the first major challenge to the traditional notion that those incarcerated on Spike Island were ‘nothing but cut-throats, rapists, murderers and vagabonds’.

In the book he explains how the Great Famine completely changed every aspect of Irish life, including the legal system. While circuit judges and county assistant barristers continued to insist that transportation was only for serious offences, most of those sentenced to hard labour in the colonies after 1847 were first time offenders, men and women, indicted for relatively minor crimes. Indeed, the spectrum widened so much that Dr. Martin counted over 170 different crimes for which people were transported.

Some deliberately sought to become convicts because at least there was a chance they might be fed in prison. Conditions were often better than they were in the dreaded workhouses where famine fever was raging. Others were hoping that after they arrived in Australia they might reunite with friends and relations who had already been transported. There were certainly cases where the condemned men impudently thanked the bewigged judge for sentencing them to exile in a land of sunshine and plenty.

During the Famine, many thousands had no option but to take to the roads and live on hops, nettle tops and other weeds, or whatever they could collect from those whom they passed. Such beggars were seen as conveyors of the deadly cholera epidemic, forcing attitudes to harden against them. In October 1847, Parliament opted to outlaw beggary with the passing of the Vagrancy Act.

‘So now the crops are rotting in the field and the towns are all plagued with cholera,’ says Dr. Martin. ‘But you can’t fish in a river or you’ll be transported for poaching and you can’t beg or you’ll be transported for vagrancy. There wasn’t many places for people to turn.’

The Vagrancy Act also enabled the courts to transport women who were deemed prostitutes. Prostitution was by no means a rarity in those times. In 1839, for instance, there were over 80,000 prostitutes in London at a time when the entire population of the British capital was two million. Records show that a significant portion of those Irish women transported for ‘vagrancy’ were prostitutes. They were single, often urban-based domestic servants, generally aged between twenty and twenty-four, who earned some extra-curricular shillings by night.

Dr. Martin asserts that 60% of those men who were locked up on Spike Island by 1850 were guilty of nothing more than the theft of food. In most of those cases, the convicts had attempted to steal a live cow or sheep, but nearly 25% were convicted for larceny of food.

One wonders whether John Walsh derived any comfort from the fact that he was by no means the only one who, like, poor ‘Michael’ in The Fields of Athenry, was to be transported because he had ‘stole Trevelyan’s corn, so the young might see the morn.’ Amongst the Irish convicts who would travel to Australia on the same ship as Walsh were Patrick Caveny (convicted for theft of butter), Thomas Donovan (potatoes), Michael Cooney (flour), Timothy Leary (turnips) and John Sullivan (bread). All were to serve at least seven years penal servitude in Australia.

However, Australian attitudes to British and Irish convicts were changing fast. A number of Anti-Transportation Leagues had come to life, insisting that convicts should be replaced with voluntary labourers. By 1847 there was an unofficial boycott against taking on any of the newly arrived convicts. Earl Grey attempted to rework the system, replacing the concept of ‘convicts’ with ‘exiles’ who, though deemed ‘criminal’ at the outset, had been reformed, disciplined and trained to such an extent that he or she would be of benefit to the colony. At Spike Island, men like John Walsh were trained up as labourers with a speciality in defence works.

It was also during this time that eleven ships carrying 4,200 Irish ‘Famine orphans’ arrived in Australia under what became known as the Earl Grey scheme. These girls were mostly teenagers, aged 14 to 19, who had lost their parents to hunger and disease. Some were trained before they departed; others upon arrival. Most ended up in service but, in reality, their situation was often desperately grim.

Meanwhile, in August 1849, the Shandon bells echoed around the city of Cork as Walsh was placed on a steamboat and taken out to the Havering, a new 908-ton ship upon which he was one of 338 male Irish convicts, or ‘exiles’, bound for Australia. The ship’s scheduled departure for Sydney was delayed by four weeks because of a cholera epidemic on board which killed six men. But, at length, the ship set sail and reached Sydney in an impressively quick 94-days. Thomas Bellott, the surgeon on board, wrote a detailed medical journal during the voyage. 22 men were taken ill, primarily with dysentery, scabies, diarrhoea and constipation, but only one man died.

After so many months at sea, the solid earth beneath their feet must have seemed illusory. Sydney’s population in 1849 stood at 50,000, most of whom were free settlers or convicts who had served out their sentence. It looked like a well-to-do English provincial town, with its wide streets, whitewashed cottages, elegant street lights, brick mansions and stately churches. But there was a dark side too - British Redcoats and prostitutes mingling in the shadows, drunkards and thugs punching and kicking one another, chain gangs marching miserably back and forth in solitary file.

However, by the time Walsh arrived, the situation for Irish men and women in Australia was changing rapidly. Had he been sent out a year earlier, he would have been housed in the infamous Hyde Park convict barracks. This three-storey red-brick building was where all newcomer convicts initially stayed before being assigned to their new masters. They slept on hammocks or straw, with at least seventy men in each of the twelve wards. Inevitably the younger arrivals faced exploitation by the ‘old lags’ who had been living in the barracks for months or even years past. Robbery and sodomy were standard welcome practices for newcomers to the Hyde Park Barracks.

Fortunately for Walsh, the Hyde Park Barracks closed in 1848. After two days, he was one of over 40 Irishmen from the Havering who were sent north to Scone, a farming area in the Hunter Valley. In April 1850, Walsh received a ticket of leave which entitled him to limited freedom while he worked off his time in Scone. Assuming he behaved and completed his seven years servitude, he would have been issued with a Certificate of Freedom in 1855. This would have given him the option to stay on in Australia as a free settler, or to try and negotiate the return journey to Ireland. Most stayed, but many who returned to Ireland worked their way home on board the merchant ships. No more is yet known of John Walsh’s life after he set off for Scone.

As it happens, the Havering’s arrival in Sydney had caused eyebrows to rise all across New South Wales. The days of transportation were fast coming to an end. The whole point of transportation had been to ensure Australia received a population of young and hardy workers. However, amongst those exiles who arrived on Havering were several who were elderly, seriously ill or otherwise enfeebled by the Famine. One 67 years old man had been transported for stealing two chickens to feed his family. Such arrivals did little to endear the free citizens of Australia to the continuance of transportation.

The Havering was the second last convict ship to arrive in New South Wales as transportation was formally abolished in the colony in October 1850. Tasmania, otherwise known as Van Diemen’s Land, followed suit in 1853 while transportation continued in small numbers to Western Australia until 1868.

Dr. Martin is keen for Downing Street to issue a posthumous pardon to all those convicted of stealing food. ‘I don’t believe those people should be consigned to history as common criminals. There was extenuating circumstances and it’s time we recognised that.’

If you go to the Ireland Australia Database on the National Archives website (www.nationalarchives.ie), you can search the database for information on those who were transported for stealing during the Famine period.