I was delighted to see the well-researched article in last Saturday’s Irish Independent (18th October 2020) on The Irish orphan girls who shaped Australia’s character.  In the article, Clodagh Finn, the author has summarised the story of one of the Listowel Workhouse girls – Bridget Ryan, who wasn’t in fact an ‘orphan’ but had an intriguing background.

Bridget (Biddy) Ryan who gave her address on arrival in Sydney as ‘Bruff’ is one of the intriguing stories of the Earl Grey Orphans and one we have not solved entirely.

Bridget Ryan

When Bridget was originally ‘selected’ by Lieutenant Henry in Listowel Workhouse, her address on the Minutes of the Board of Guardians, on 11 September 1849 was ‘Listowel’.   However, when she arrived in Sydney on the Thomas Arbuthnot on 3 February, she declared her native place as Bruff, Limerick, age as 16, her parents as Anthony and Johanna, and that her father (a Soldier) was living in Sydney.  She was able to read and write. It was noted ‘State of Health, strength and probable usefulness: Poor’.   

Bridget’s Great Great Granddaughters – Julie Evans and Jeanette Greenway have done extensive work to uncover Bridget’s family in Ireland and also have provided us with a record of her life in Australia.

Julie Evans takes up her story:-

‘Bridget’s employer was a Captain Mac Kellar who was a Master Mariner and originally from Elgin in Scotland.  It is not clear how Bridget met her husband James Murray and it may have been through this employer.’

   James Murray had arrived from Scotland in 1848.  Family lore suggests he was working in Sydney at the time, though his brothers were farming in the Manning River area of New South Wales.   Bridget and James were married in Sydney in December 1850 and in December 1851 they had the first of their thirteen children (one did not survive infancy).    

   While Bridget’s life in Australia is well documented, it is her history in Ireland that that is most intriguing.

   Thanks to Julie and Jeanette, who conducted painstaking research in both countries and through contacts they made in Listowel, we get a partial and tantalising glimpse to her background in Ireland.   This background was the subject of a TG4 Documentary in October 2013.

   From the initial snippets on record that Bridget’s father Anthony was in Sydney and was a soldier and from her Australian family folklore that she herself had been educated in Ireland by ‘French Nuns’, we pieced together her background as it was in 1849 when she left Listowel Workhouse.

Marriage of Johanna Hynes and Lancelot Ryan, Bruff 1831. (In Latin)

 Bridget’s parents were indeed Johanna Hynes and Lanty Ryan (not Anthony).   Johanna and Lancelot, as he was called on the marriage certificate were married in Bruff Parish Church on 2 July 1831.  Written in Latin, his occupation was given as ‘lately a Soldier’.    

Searches for Lanty’s career as a Soldier in Australia, didn’t realise any results and it transpired that the reality was somewhat different.  He had in fact got married again bigamously in 1837 in Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick and as a result, he had been transported as a convict to Australia. 

Limerick Chronicle, 12 July 1837, p.2.

Convict List for the Ship Neptune 1837-1838

The vessel departed Dublin 27 August 1837 for the 128-day voyage to Sydney.  The prisoner list includes:

Ryan Launcelot, age 35, tried 1837, Limerick  7 yrs, b. 1803 Tipperary, bigamy, married, 1m 1f children, soldier labourer, blind of left eye, CF 44/1140

From the Limerick Chronicle  June 1837  we get the information of the trial held there the previous day:

    Lanty tried to make a deal just before the Neptune sailed out from Kingstown Harbour in Dublin.  He had some involvement or knowledge of an incident in 1831 during the Tithe War in Doon, Co. Limerick, where a number of men had attacked the Rev Charles Coote who was endeavouring to collect the hated Tithes, then due to the Established Church of Ireland by all landholders, most of whom would have been Catholics .   A  reward was offered for information on the culprits and while Lanty had not made  any claim to the money for the previous six years, he now tried to use his information  in a last ditch effort to escape transportation.  It was too late however, and the ship sailed. 

   On arrival in Australia, he was noted as having a number of facial injuries, scars, one eye and one arm and as such was of no use as a convict worker in the bush.   He seems to have remained in the special compound in Port Maquarie for old, infirm or disabled convicts and it is most unlikely that Brigid ever met him. 

  Even after extensive research, we have no idea what happened to Johanna or her family in Ireland.  Johanna, on the conviction of her husband,  would have had only two options open to her – to return to her own family home in Bruff or to seek shelter in one of the Workhouses, then in Kilmallock and Limerick.   We have to presume that she went back to her family near Lough Gur, and it would appear from Bridget’s own story to her children that she herself, spent some time as a pupil in Laurel Hill Convent in Limerick, then the only convent with ‘French Nuns’.  This is quite possible as the famous Dean Cussen was then the Parish Priest of Bruff, he was one of the principal supporters of the Sisters in Laurel Hill, who had just opened their school (in 1845) and he may have arranged through the Hynes family(Bridget’s grandparents) that Bridget be taken in there.

  Dean Cussen, who was educated in Paris is still remembered in Bruff and surrounding parishes for his charitable works, his ability to deal with both his flock and their overlords on their behalf.  We are told from contemporary newspaper accounts that when he died in London, in 1865, upwards of fifteen thousand persons came from all around to walk the fifteen miles from Bruff to meet the train in Kilmallock and accompany the coffin back to the FCJ Convent in Bruff, which he had founded in 1856.

  Again despite extensive searches, we have no record of her mother’s death but this would not be unusual during the Famine period, when people died in such great numbers, it was not always possible to keep a record of their passing.   Bridget’s children and grandchildren always said that she was well educated and had a particular ability for sewing, embroidery etc., one of the subjects that the Laurel Hill nuns regarded as very important.

  So how did Bridget, a native of Bruff, Co. Limerick end up in the Workhouse in Listowel?   This is another mystery that probably will not be solved now, one hundred and sixty years later.   According to the rules governing the Earl Grey Scheme, ‘orphans’ to be selected should have been resident in the Workhouse for at least one year, this was to prevent girls coming in with the sole objective of being selected.    My own sense is that a benefactor on her behalf, used his influence with the Board of Guardians to get her away from the wretched circumstances, the poverty and despair that would have been her fate in Ireland.   This benefactor may have been Dean Cussen once again.

Copies of the story of all the Kerry Girls who were sent to Australia on the Earl Grey Scheme – The Kerry Girls: Emigration and the Earl Grey Scheme available here.