Essay Competition 2010 – Third Place
Mrs. Helen Kerr
QCWA Moggill Branch
South Coast Division
MY IRISH ORPHAN ANCESTOR
The Story of Bridget Burke
Mary sits me in my chair on the verandah in the sunshine on this chilly morning; ‘ The sun’ll warm
your bones’, she said. She’s always fussing over me, like I’m her child, not her mother. But I love it, I
could not have wished for a better daughter, she’s been with me through it all. Sitting in me chair is
about all I can do these days; except thinking of the past, that is. And what I can see today is our
little white cottage in those green fields all the way over there in Ireland – we were happy then, but
soon the famine would take it all away – it took me mam and me da, me two sisters and our baby
Danny Boy. I used to wonder why I was spared, but I think it was just that I was young and strong
from helping me Da on the land from when I were little. They took me to the Workhouse with all the
other orphans and the poor; it were a terrible place; we slept on straw mattresses on the floor with
rags for our sheets; we had to work at least eleven hours a day in the kitchen and with workhouse
cleaning. One day some important people came to the workhouse looking for volunteers to go to the
new colony of New South Wales. I put up me hand. I was only 16 but what they were offering had to
be better than the Workhouse.
Before long I was on me way to England to a place called Portsmouth; they gave us girls a large box
each, with our names on it no less, filled with some clothes and things we would need in our new
life. It was more than I’d ever had. They said we were to go on an Irish Orphan Ship to become
servants to the settlers. There were nearly 200 of us from all over Ireland, most were about my age
or a little older. On our sea voyage we had lessons in reading and writing, household jobs, sewing
and cooking; all the better to serve our masters. I’d never had much schooling so I thought myself
lucky to learn all these things. It were a long way over the seas and even though I was seasick some
times, the fresh air and sunshine improved my health and I stopped looking like a famine child.
We arrived in Sydney in February 1850 and were taken ashore to stay at the Female Immigration
Depot and were paraded each day as the settlers came to choose their servant. No one had picked
me after a few days and I was told I would be going to country areas. We set off by ferry up the River
to Parramatta and then by 14 drays drawn by teams of horses, 108 of us; it took two weeks to get to
the small town of Yass where another labour hire depot was set up. This time I was one of the first
girls picked and I went to the squatter Ned Ryan, an ex convict who served 14 years for insurrection.
Coming from a well off family in Tipperary, on his release he squatted on 10,000 acres at Galong, not
far from Yass. I was to be a house servant and wages were Eight Pounds per annum, plus keep. This
area of the colony was mostly settled by Irish ex-convicts and free settlers, so I fitted in straight
away. Ned Ryan was a good man who treated everyone well.
It wasn’t long before I caught the eye of one of Ned’s farm hands, John Somers, who had come out
on the ‘King William’ three years earlier. John and me were wed in January 1851 and a year later we
had our baby, Mary. Our happiness did not last long; when Mary was six months old, I lost my John –
he were six days dying, and then he was gone, only 30 years of age. I was in despair but Ned Ryan
kept me on and I was able to make a life for myself and my girl.
I often went to town to get supplies for the homestead; we went to Burrowa just a few miles away
and it were there that I met Michael Coughlan, who was from Limerick. He was working for his uncle
in a hotel. Michael, his two brothers and his sister Johanna had come to the colony in 1855. Their
uncle Michael came out in 1824, another patriot sent out for insurrection, but had bettered himself
on his release and thinking that the colony gave promise of a good future, he sent five pounds for
each of them to come to start a new life.
We were soon wed and took out a lease on a few acres of land, at Langs Creek, between Burrowa
and Yass; Michael also took work at harvest time with Ned Ryan, also over at Broughtonsworth
Station; and I had babies and made a home for our family. Our first home was a simple one, made of
wood, iron and bark, with cooking done outside, but we added to it over the years. We had chickens,
a few cows for milking, we grew vegetables, put in fruit trees; we had all the food we needed to
keep us from famine.
Daniel was born that year 1857; we lost a girl at birth in 1858; John was born in 1860, Joseph 1863,
Catherine 1866, Michael 1868 who was sickly and died a few months later and the youngest, Patrick
in 1870. They were good years – there was plenty of rain, the farms prospered, the towns grew with
more and more free settlers arriving to take up land. They found copper at Langs Creek and a tent
settlement of around 800 people soon sprung up and this made for a lively community. You know
how the Irish love their music and dancing and sometimes it was hard not to think that we were
back in Ireland, especially in the later afternoon when the sun sank low to the hills and the light
softened. We had so many friends who were all the same as us, come with nothing but working hard
to improve our circumstances. We had a church and a school that we sent the children to for an
My daughter Mary was also living at Langs Creek; in 1872 she married John Devine, the son of John
and Margaret Devine who had come on another Irish Famine Ship in 1849. In the early years, they
moved around for work between Burrowa, Gunning until settling at Langs Creek. John worked as a
shearer on ‘Castlestead’ for Rawdon Hume, the brother of Hamilton Hume the explorer and also
worked at Broughtonsworth where his Dad had been.
Towards the end of 1882, my Michael had heart problems and three months later I lost him; he were
only 47 but a life of hard work had weakened him. Patrick, my youngest, was 12; my older boys
Daniel, John and Joseph went to Cootamundra to work for Michael’s brothers who had done well
and had large properties there. I stayed at Langs Creek to be close to Mary to help her with her big
All went well until 1894; the country had been in drought for several years; livestock numbers were
down, there was no work shearing and John Devine, Mary’s Husband, took to ‘charcoal burning’ to
bring in a few pounds. He had to take out loans at the local store to feed his family and was forced
into bankruptcy when the shop keeper called in his bills. It was a bad time, the Court took all he had
and a few weeks later, a diphtheria outbreak hit home in Langs Creek; he lost his daughter Ellen who
was just nine and five of her cousins, the children of his sister Kate Hutchinson; the six children died
within three weeks. It wasn’t just the children dying; Langs Creek was dying too. The copper had long
gone and the drought finished us off. Kate and Jim Hutchinson left their babies at Langs Creek
moved into Burrowa to open a hotel. With nowhere else to go, John and Mary and their children
went to Cootamundra where many Devines and Coughlans were living. I went with them, taking
Patrick and Catherine with me. John found work there and set up in business as a carter.
It’s about this time of my reverie that the sadness takes me over. I lost my Daniel in 1888, only 30,
he had cancer for six years; then ten years later, John, also to cancer, only 36. My Mary lost three
children – a baby Christina in 1891; Ellen to diphtheria in 1894 then Bridget, only 23, to measles and
bronchitis, she was not well for years. My girl Cathy married in 1899 and lost three children at just a
few days old – Hanorah in 1900; John in 1902 and Elizabeth in 1094. Then Mary lost her John, dead
at 54 of peritonitis. Her daughter Gertie’s hair turned white with the shock of it, she was very close
to her Dad.
Today my heart seems heavier and the tiredness just won’t go away and I fear my time is not far off.
The last couple of years, I see the past clearer than the present and today I have been given a look
into the future. In the distance I see Mary’s daughter Gertie and her son John – it were John’s girl,
Helen, who finds me and tells my story. The story of poor tenant farmers in Ireland, who sailed over
the seas to a new land. She was one of the Irish Orphan Girls On the ‘ Thomas Arbuthnot’; they had a
book written about them; her name (Bridget Burke) is engraved on a memorial wall to the Irish
Orphan Girls at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, where she came ashore after her long voyage. She
loved two good men, had eight beautiful babies, was part of the early settlement of a new country;
endured hard work, sadness, much happiness with her family and the Irish community – and never
forgot Ireland, that land of terrible beauty, from where she came.
Ireland seems very close to me today. There is a thin mist covering the valley near Corofin, County
Clare. It fills my head. The past, the present, my dreams of the future, all swirl together. I call out for
my Mary; what date is it I say. It is 29 May 1906 she says.
I have lived 72 years. This day IS my time.
Readily, I close my eyes and surrender to the soft mist of Ireland.