8831 Kerry Girls FCP.indd

The Kerry Girls

Last week I told you the story of finding Margaret Sullivan Cooper’s link to family in Kilgarvan  and this week, we hear the story of Margaret’s life changing emigration to Australia in 1850 when with twenty four  other Kenmare girls, she left the Workhouse there under the Earl Grey ‘Orphan’ Scheme for a new life down under.   This is an excerpt from Margaret’s full life story in the my soon-to-be published book  The Kerry Girls.   

Margaret O’Sullivan s left Kenmare Workhouse on 6 December 1849 initially bound for Plymouth and then  Sydney.  She travelled on the John Knox, arriving on 29 April 1850.

Book 045 Logbook John Knox arrival 30 April 1852

We know from the note on the Kenmare Board of Guardians minute that Margaret was from Kenmare East Division.  When she arrived in Sydney, her arrival papers tell us that she was aged 20, her parent were ‘Connor & Mary, both dead’.   She could not read or write and had ‘no relatives in the colony’.

Kilgarvan is a village in South East County Kerry near the Cork Boundary.  It is mountainy country with little fertile land.      Sullivan is by far the most popular name in that part of Kerry. Margaret’s Baptismal Certificate of 15 July 1829 gives her home address as Keelbunau (sic), Kilgarvan and her parents are named as Cornelius Sullivan and Mary Sullivan.  We have ascertained that her family were known as the Sullivan (Coopers) to differentiate the many different Sullivan families in the area.   We don’t know what happened to Margaret’s parents – Con and Mary, did they reach the workhouse and die there from disease or hunger or did they die at home and as a result Margaret had no option but to enter the workhouse.

The girls starting out from the Kenmare Workhouse for Cork must surely have had mixed emotions.  They were leaving all they were familiar with,  in the depths of Winter, travelling by horse drawn cart through some of the worst affected famine stricken districts of West Cork to be put on a boat at Penrose Quay in the City, an experience that must have been as frightening as it was  exciting.

After the usual short stay in Plymouth they departed on the John Knox for Sydney.   Shortly after arrival in Sydney Cove , Margaret, with others from the same ship were put on a steamer and sent north to Moreton Bay.  This district in those early days of free settlement was a rough tough place.   Free settlers, ex-convicts, new arrivals all jostled together, drinking, brawling and fighting.   Many of the Kerry ‘orphans’ who arrived there and were placed, had trouble with their employers, there are many Court cases reported in the local newspapers, where girls were accused of absconding or being ‘insolent’ towards their Mistresses.   The girls were well able to defend themselves and in most cases succeeded in getting their indentures cancelled which gave them the opportunity of moving on to other, and hopefully better employers.     In any case, the majority of the girls were married within a year or two of arrival.  Their husbands were generally older men and almost all were ex-convicts – tickets of leave men.  They were shepherds, bushrangers, drovers and stockmen and a few were squatters.   The girls moved with their husbands from station to station depending on the work and the work depended on the weather – drought, floods, fire all affected economic life and the ensuing problems of making a living.

Noni Rush, Margaret’s Great Great Granddaughter tells us about Margaret’s life in Australia:-

‘We have no record of where Margaret was apprenticed but we know that she married Edward Sullivan ex-convict  within six months.  They were married in the Catholic Church in Ipswich, in January 1851, both putting their X mark on the register.     At the time of writing, I am still uncertain about Edward Sullivan, who was definitely Irish and a convict.  There are a number of ‘Edward Sullivans’ all convicts transported from Ireland and it is difficult to say with certainty, almost two hundred years later, which one Margaret married.   It must have seemed to her though  that she was getting the ideal husband –  her namesake – a Sullivan from Ireland..  However it turned out that he was not the best material for a husband the marriage did not last long.

Edward and Margaret seem to have parted company sometime after their children Edward and Ellen were born in the 1850s and from 1860 on she lived with James Cosgrove, also an ex-convict’.

He seems to have been a decent man and treated her well.  James however, had a chequered background also. His parents were John Cosgrove and Eileen Mulvaney, from  Carrickadhurish, Longford, Co. Westmeath.    He had been convicted at Longford Assizes on July 1839 of being complicit in the murder of his Grandfather James Mulvaney.  His Uncle James Mulvaney Jnr., was convicted of the murder and sentenced to hang and he was executed on 3 August 1839.  James being only 14 years at the time was sentenced to transportation for life

Reading reports of the case which was heard in Longford, there was no direct evidence that James was culpable, other than  he was present or knew what had happened[1]

He left Kingstown 17 Sept 1839  on the ship Nautilus with 200 other convicts.  One of the convicts died on the journey.   They arrived in Port Jackson February 1840, and almost immediately departed for Norfolk Island and infamous penal colony 22 Feb 1840 with 199 convicts on board.

Book 047 Margaret's daughtr Ellen & her husband

Margaret’s daughter Ellen & her husband

Margaret and James Cosgrove settled initially at Blue Nobby Station.  They had a number of children but never married, presumably as Margaret was already married to Edward Sullivan.   This must have been a slur on respectability in Australia as it was in Ireland and they went to immense efforts to cover it up.  They may also have been covering up James’ colourful background.   In this effort, she often used her former patronymic name of Margaret Cooper rather than Margaret Sullivan, on her children’s certificates, leading her descendants, even her immediate family, to believe that her name was Margaret Cooper from Kerry.    However when she died in 1914, her death certificate was in the name of Margaret Sullivan, which also of course was her legal married name.

From such humble beginnings for both of them they and their children became successful, well-known and respected members of their community.’

[1] Freemans Journal, Dublin July 16 1839, p. 4