Irish orphan girls

Between 1848 and 1850 several thousand young women, some no more than 14 years old, sailed from Ireland on an ill-fated emigration plan to hiring-out depots in Sydney, Adelaide, Moreton Bay and Port Phillip. Many were illiterate. Most spoke English. Few had domestic training. Known as the ‘Irish orphans’, they had been handpicked by government officials and removed from county workhouses grown horribly overcrowded as, year after year, the Irish countryside sank deeper into poverty, misery and disease.

In Sydney they lodged at Hyde Park Barracks, a spacious old convict establishment at the top of Macquarie Street. Beyond its high walls was a growing colony eager for workers and wives. Over two years, twenty ships brought 4,114 Irish orphans to Australia, before the controversial scheme was abandoned.

This fleeting chapter in Australia’s immigration history looms larger than most: weaving together Ireland’s harrowing years of famine, its culture and countryside in turmoil and families torn apart, with hopes of a future beyond the seas.

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