BETWEEN 1787 and 1853, around 26,500 Irish people were transported to Australia to serve sentences of penal servitude.
This formed a disproportionate (in relation to Ireland’s population) of the 160,000 convicts which Australia received in the history of transportation.
Now one of the most notorious prison destinations that was waiting for many of those transported across the oceans wants to mark the contribution made by those convicts to the building of modern Australia.
Fremantle Prison in Western Australia – now a heritage centre which tells the story of transportation – is holding a Descendants Day on 2 June next year. It coincides with the state holiday of Western Australia Day (previously Foundation Day).
According to the heritage centre’s authorities, Descendants Day is “to recognise the contribution that the system of convict transportation made to the early development of the colony and its rich legacy in Western Australia’s cultural and built heritage”.
Those who are direct descendants of convicts who served time at Fremantle between 1805 and 1887 can now apply for a certificate for the 2014 ceremony. For Irish convicts, transportation ended in 1853, when the sentence would be commuted to serving time in an Irish jail.
There are specific criteria for having your ancestor counted in the events – they require that you submit a pedigree chart which shows the links between convict and present-day descendant and other documents. Fremantle has a convict database that can be searched by the public by inmate name and ship name.
Ireland itself has patchy records of its citizens who were transported. As with many Irish records, much was destroyed in the Civil War-era fire in the Four Courts where the Public Record Office was located. However, there are some records which survived – especially after the year 1836 – and were held in Dublin Castle.
The records of transportation which survive now are held by the National Archives of Ireland. They are searchable on the Ireland-Australia transportation database online. There is also a useful Q&A compiled by the National Archives which outlines the history of how Irish people ended up in the harsh environs of the New World down under, forging new towns and farms out of the inhospitable landscape.
Rena Lohan, an archivist with the National Archives, says that those convicted from the southern part of the island of Ireland (Munster etc.) were housed in the overcrowded and decaying Cork Gaol before being sent off on ships, most never to return. Those convicts brought to Dublin for sentencing were housed in Newgate and Kilmainham gaols before embarking on the voyage to Australia.
As the numbers being transported grew, temporary holding depots and Spike Island in Cork also played host to the wretched transportees. Small children often travelled with their convicted mothers. Lohan writes: “It would seem that from the beginning, except in extreme circumstances, children were allowed to accompany their mothers without onjection.”
The fate of these children upon reaching Australia was not always clear. In 1841, 30 young children arrived on the convict ship Mary Ann and had to be admitted to an orphanage.
The ceremony planned for next June at Fremantle will also recognise pensioner guards and wardens who lived and worked alongside convicts at the Swan River colony between 1850 and 1887. The main cell block was hewn out of limestone by the first convicts and continued to be used until 1991.
Some of the last convicts sent to Western Australia included 62 Fenians who had rebelled against British rule in Ireland. The extraordinary story of John Boyle O’Reilly is told here. He and Thomas McGlinn are just two of the Irish characters whose heritage is recounted at Fremantle today.