Donegal Relief Fund (Sydney) & Donegal Celtic Relief Fund (Melbourne)


This article is authored by Bill Spillane (RIP 2017) and forms part of the Donegal Genealogy Resources Website

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I first became interested in the DRF when I discovered that two of my ancestral families, O'Brien and Duggan (Doogan) came to Australia in 1859 aboard a ship "Sapphire". One member from each family, Charles O'Brien and Ann Duggan married in Australia in 1862 and I am one of the hundreds of their living descendants. They both came from a place called Bedlam, Cloughaneely, Co Donegal, Ireland. It took me years to find Cloughaneely and even longer to find Bedlam.

An intriguing question arose from an inspection of the ship manifest of the "Sapphire". Many of the assisted immigrants on board had in the "sponsor" column "DRF" meaning "Donegal Relief Fund". The Donegal Relief Fund had paid to help them leave Ireland? Why was the fund established? For how long did it raise funds? I was hooked. I could find a mention here and there and eventually came across a fine article written by Bernard Barrett entitled "Five Shiploads: How some of our Irish Pioneers came to Australia".  This article made me realise that more research had to be done. And that led me to the NSW State Library and eventually to their Films of the Sydney "Freeman's Journal" for 1858 and later years.

The New South Wales Government of the time was trying to get immigrants to come to Australia to work as labourers, servants, etc., caused no doubt by the exodus of people to the Victorian gold fields. They encouraged people already in the colony to bring out friends and relations from their home countries, the Government did this by paying most of the fare. Passage from the British Isles to the colony of NSW was between 13 and 16. The Government supplied about 10 and required a resident of the Colony of NSW to pay the balance, about 3 or 4, and to nominate a person from the British Isles who could be bought out under the scheme. Certain conditions had to be met under the Immigration Regulations. The DRF got permission from the Government to use this scheme.

From 1828 to 1896 many ships with thousands of assisted immigrants came to Sydney, Australia. The list of ships between 1858 and 1863 there is mention for the first time of five ships with Donegal Relief Committee noted against them. I looked at the manifests for each of the other ships around that time and found three assisted immigrants sponsored by the DRF on the "Queen of England" which arrived on 8.7.1859.  None of the ships on the list other than the 6 ships listed mention DRF in the manifests but there are mentions in the ship's papers, held in the NSW State archives, of DRF immigrants on board the "Montrose" 27/3/1864 and the Sandringham 26/6/1864. I could not find numbers or the names of immigrants but the historian Richard Reid has quoted the numbers for those two ships I will use below.

SAPPHIRE 27/5/1859 300 289
QUEEN OF ENGLAND 8/7/1859   3
LADY ELMA BRUCE 14/7/1859 424 376
CARIBOU 4/10/1859 417 287
NILE 16/5/1861 272 164
ABYSSINIAN 29/5/1862 398 150
MONTROSE 7/3/1864   87
SANDRINGHAM 26/6/1864   28
TOTAL     1,384

My research then led me into why, how, and when, the fund was formed.

I obtained photo copies of the ships manifests and found that almost all of the "Sapphire", and all three on "Queen of England", who were DRF assisted, gave as their native place Gweedore and Cloughaneely both of which are RC parishes in North West Donegal. Those on the "Lady Elma Bruce" were from Gweedore, in the main, with some from Tory Island and Cloughaneely as well. The "Caribou" native places were more scattered over Donegal but mainly Cloughaneely and Tory Island. The "Nile" native places were scattered but the native places now being recorded were actual towns or Townlands in Donegal and not just the Parish as previously. "Abyssinian" same comments as for the "Nile" but a lot of the immigrants only gave Donegal as their native place, the Derryveigh evictees are believed to be on this ship. It can be assumed that the difference in the information given was related to the question asked by the clerk recording the information at the time of arrival.

The three on "Queen of England" were unusual in being such a small number, but maybe they were part of the "Sapphire" shipload who somehow missed the ship and had to take the next one.


Various history books refer to the north west of Donegal as being the bleakest and poorest part of all Europe with about 3 months of each year being a famine time. The crop would be planted on their small landholdings and the men would leave to try and find work in Scotland or elsewhere while the women and children took to the road and begged for their existence until harvest time arrived and the men returned. The stock they owned would be allowed to run on the mountains and any increase in the number of stock would help to pay the annual rent or "Gale". 


The need for relief in Gweedore and Cloughaneely appears to have arisen in 1856/57 when all of the Landlords except one withdrew from the peasants the right to walk and graze their stock on the mountains, as had been done for centuries. The change, which made sense to the landowner, was a disaster to the peasant farmers. It had the effect of depriving the farmers of the ability to raise additional stock, which in turn meant they would have great difficulty in raising the rent money, thus increasing the likelihood of eviction and starvation. 


The Graziers then put Scottish black face sheep and Scottish shepherds on the mountains. According to later reports conditions were unsuitable for such sheep and losses immediately occurred. The Graziers blamed the losses on the Peasants and in 1857 took out a Grand Jury Warrant for 3000 to cover the stock losses and the cost of collecting, against these same people. Then they followed up with a troop of 300 armed constabulary sent to collect every last farthing. These three events left most of the peasants of Gweedore and Cloughaneely in a state of distress. 


On the 18th January 1858 10 Priests from the Gweedore/Cloughaneely area wrote a letter of Appeal to the Irish People stating the conditions at the time and asking the Irish people to help.

The letter from the Priests painted a grim picture of poverty, lack of clothing to the point of nakedness, and lack of food to the point where as many as 800 families were starving some living on seaweed and anything edible washed in from the sea.

We don't know how far afield the letter was distributed. It appears to have been written as an appeal to the people in Ireland, but it turned up in Sydney, and at the subsequent public meeting mention was made of help from America so we can assume it also went there. Mention is also made later in 1858 of funds arriving from Europe and America, which helped to alleviate the hunger and to provide funds to outfit the departing emigrants.

In the Sydney "Freeman's Journal" dated 2nd May 1858 there was a letter addressed to the Members of the Australian Celtic Association of Sydney written by someone signed Celticus and attaching the 18th Jan 1858 letter from the Priests above. Celticus asked the Association to do whatever they could to help their brother Celts in NW Donegal. Not only did he ask, he challenged them to do something, anything, to help alleviate the distress back "Home" in Ireland.

The Celtic Association of Sydney did not waste any time because in the "Freeman's Journal" of Sydney dated 22nd May 1858 there was a report headed "Meeting of the Celtic Association in aid of the Donegal Peasantry".  At that meeting held on 19th May 1858, the Celtic Association of Sydney made a decision to call a public meeting on 31st May 1858 in aid of the Destitute Peasantry of Donegal. 


The Celtic Association meeting was chaired by Archdeacon McEncroe, the same person who founded the Catholic newspaper in Sydney "The Freeman's Journal", and who now became the driving force behind collecting aid for the people of Gweedore and Cloughaneely. 


Archdeacon McEncroe was born in Co Tipperary about 1794, came to Australia as a Priest in 1832 and died in Sydney in 1869. He is buried in the Crypt under St Mary's Cathedral Sydney. 


In the same issue of "The Freeman's Journal" on 22/5/1858 an article headed DONEGAL appeared, and it stated that the Landlords had answered the letter by the 10 Priests in their own way. On 16/2/1858 they, the Landlords, placed an advertisement in several newspapers, apparently in Ireland, stating that the Priests were wrong and distress was being over exaggerated, and went on to give their reasons. I found it interesting that the Freeman's Journal would publish the text of the Landlords advertisement just days before the public meeting. The article went on to explain that as the Landlords caused the distress how could they be believed. 


A Committee was formed at the Celtic Association meeting of 19th May 1858 to arrange a public meeting. And an advertisement appeared in the "Freeman's Journal " dated 29th May 1858, advising that such a meeting would take place on 31st May 1858.  


At the meeting of the Celtic Association of 19th May 1858 the members seemed to be in favour of using any monies raised to bring Immigrants to NSW. Although at least one man spoke out against that course of action saying he was in favour of leaving his countrymen in Ireland, thus preserving the language and customs of old Ireland. There was no mention in the newspaper report of purchasing land for resettlement of Immigrants although it may well have been suggested at the meeting.

William M Davis was the Hon. Secretary of the Celtic Association. He was also a member of the Association Committee formed to call the public meeting, and at the Public meeting he also became Hon. Secretary of the Committee then formed to raise funds. I mention this because I also had access to his papers, held by the State Library of NSW.  Wm. Davis was born in the colony, and was the son of an Irish Patriot of the same name, sent to the colony as a prisoner after an uprising in Ireland in 1787/8 and who eventually became a man of influence and wealth in the colony.

In the "Freeman's Journal" dated 29th May 1858 there was an article headed "The Donegal Peasants" stirring every heart to offer help. This was written with the object of stirring the emotions of readers into being generous.

DONEGAL RELIEF FUND Formed 31/5/1858

The public meeting was held as advertised on 31st May 1858 with 800 attending and many more turned away. A report on that meeting headed "The Donegal Peasantry"- appeared in the "Freeman's Journal " 2nd June 1858. The meeting was reported at great length but out of it came a practical resolution that monies raised be used to help people from Gweedore and Cloughaneely immigrate to Australia. 


Also of interest was mention by a Mr Jeremiah Moore of a meeting held in Strabane Tyrone and attended by Catholic and Protestant ministers to discuss the distress and the letter from the 10 Priests. He went on to speak of Thomas Neilson Underwood, a Protestant gentleman, described as "one of Erin's most gifted and faithful champions" and how he spoke at that meeting in favour of what the 10 Priests had written. Strabane is just across the river from Lifford in Donegal so these people would have known what was happening. I mention this because the Immigration agent Scott Durbin visited Underwood later in the year. 


During discussions much was made of the Landlords evicting the peasants and no doubt this was a burning issue to the Irish in Australia which could guarantee that donations would be forthcoming. I could find no mention of any eviction in the letter from the Priests. However on the 7/8/1858 the Freeman's Journal published the result of a committee meeting of the Donegal Relief Fund at which a recent arrival from Donegal, a John Devine, spoke of the distress in Gweedore and Cloughaneely. He had lived 7 miles away and nearer Raphoe. John Devine stated that his parish of Raphoe had donated funds to help the distressed and he also stated that about 600 persons were houseless but no mention of how they came to be homeless or when. 


At the Public meeting no mention in discussions was made of purchasing land for resettling immigrants although this issue arises later in the year. 


A committee of about 90 people was formed to operate the Fund. Their names appeared in the Freeman's Journal on 12/6/1858. 


At the close of the meeting it was announced that 200 had already been collected. There was no mention of the "Donegal Relief Fund" as the name to be used for the donations, this name first appears in "The Freeman's Journal" on 12/6/1858 as a heading over a summary of the Public Meeting. Now the "Donegal Relief Fund" was an entity up and running. 


Also in the same issue was an article headed "Appeal" which contains the first subscription list of monies raised at that meeting. Of note are the amounts subscribed, from 1 to 10.10.0 at a time when the annual wage of a labourer was 32. These subscribers were being very generous indeed. Consider this. 1 was 1/32nd of a labourer's annual wage of 32 in 1858 and therefore would be about A$1000 in the year 2000 (in Australia), while 10.10.0 would be 1/3 of a year's wage in 1858 or about A$10,000 in the year 2000. 


Another article of interest "The Donegal Victims" appeared on 2nd June 1858 calling for priests to be bought out with the immigrants and shows the religious thinking of the time. This was later agreed to by the NSW Government provided the Priest was prepared to work during the voyage as a teacher.

In the "Freeman's Journal" dated 12th June 1858 is the first mention of "Donegal Relief Fund". It appears on the advertisement stating where subscriptions could be made. Also on the same day was a List of people making up the Donegal Relief Fund -General Committee, and also the updated list of subscriptions now totalling 440.

More monies were raised in Sydney and the country districts and an abbreviated version of the letter from the 10 priests was circulated around Australia. "The Distress in Donegal 1858". Many letter from country districts of NSW with subscription lists were published by The Freeman's Journal week after week.


Was formed at a meeting held in Melbourne Victoria on 7/6/1858 just 1 week after the Sydney fund so it would appear the letter from the 10 Priests found its way into Melbourne at about the same time as it did into Sydney. 


Monies were collected throughout Australia and helped both of the funds to then get moving and bring Immigrants out.


The Freeman's Journal of 11/8/1858 published a letter dated 2/7/1858 from  "The Donegal Celtic Relief Fund" Melbourne, John O'Grady Hon.Sec. The letter sets out the difficulty being experienced in Victoria with the Government, and the cost of bringing Immigrants into that Colony and asking for information about the Sydney Fund. In this letter is the first mention I can find of Resettlement. "It has been reported to us, that you propose by the aid of the Government, and the generous sympathies, which so honourably distinguish the people of New South Wales, to procure a portion of your immense territory for the settlement of a number of the families to be bought out from Donegal".


Also in the letter is a mention of Donations flowing into Donegal from Europe and America.


The Donegal Relief Fund reply to the above letter was published in the same issue and the writer obviously steered away from the resettlement proposition. "- it is their (the committee) intention to devote the whole of the funds which may be raised to their (Immigrants) introduction according to the Immigration regulations-", and later " ----We have been too busy raising subscriptions and in making arrangements for the importation of the suffering, destitute, peasantry, to have found time to consider what shall be their final destiny".


In the same letter, which was dated 12/7/1858, and addressed to the Donegal Celtic Relief Fund, Melbourne, they are informed of the departure of the Immigration agent Scott Durbin. "Who will proceed to England by the present mail, and upon his arrival in Melbourne he will call on your committee and put you in possession of any further information", looks as though Scott Durbin would have delivered this letter. 


I am interested in the resettlement question because it is mentioned in various history books as O'Grady's scheme to purchase land and resettle the displaced people bought to Melbourne Australia, including the Derryveigh evictees. A few others interested in this aspect of immigration have spent time searching for where the Immigrants were settled, but I don't think it ever eventuated as the final tally of donations is to close to the cost of bringing out the number of Immigrants to Sydney.

Scott Durbin visited Melbourne and later Donegal and spoke to the Priests who had written the letter, and before the end of the year 1858 had a list of 1200 names of people wishing to Emigrate. However by the time he arrived a record harvest had occurred, and he also found that relief monies had come in from elsewhere making the distress less urgent. More on that later. 


The Freeman's Journal of 4/9/1858 reported the receipt of a letter from The Donegal Celtic Relief Fund, Melbourne with John O'Grady as Hon Sec., with 1410 sent to the Sydney based fund (and promised more). They said that as their object was the same (to bring out Immigrants) and the New South Wales Govt scheme meant that the funds would help more people. The Victorian Government required 18 for each immigrant (they had no need for Immigrants because of the influx to the gold fields) from the sponsor and NSW only required 4 per immigrant. This meant that the Melbourne monies spent through the NSW Fund resulted in about 4 times as many Immigrants as if spent in Victoria. And as the real object was to save by Immigration as many people as possible it made sense.


Upon receipt of the monies from Melbourne, it was reported that about 4000 in total had now been received by the DRF.

The letter from Melbourne, dated 26/8/1858, had only one condition. "That the amount be expended in bringing the largest possible number to your country (NSW and Victoria were in those days different countries); and that in the selection of the emigrants your agent is to be guided by the direction of His Lordship, the Right Rev. Dr. McGattigan, Bishop of Raphoe, and the 10 clergymen whose appeal has elicited our mutual sympathy and action."

While all the collecting was going on there were reports in The Freeman's Journal of the day by day account of the inquiry before the committee of the House of Commons which commenced on the 10/6/ 1858. Makes interesting reading. It is generally agreed that the committee was stacked against the Peasants and their Priests.

Scott Durbin established himself in England then visited Donegal and spoke to the Priests who had written the letter.
He also visited the gentleman from Strabane Neilson Underwood somewhere about 5/10/1858 who advised Scott Durbin that thanks to monies that had come in, help in outfitting the emigrants for their journey would be available. A lengthy letter, dated 5/10/1858, from Underwood was published in the Freeman's Journal on 18/12/1858. He said that he had advised Durbin to arrange for the ships to come into Londonderry, a safe and convenient harbour. Underwood also stated that although he was loath to help Irishmen to leave Ireland, in this case he could see no other solution. He was also scathing of the House Committee of inquiry, and suggested that if any of the committee had taken the time to visit Gweedore and Cloughaneely there would have been no need of the inquiry.

The first letter back to Sydney from H. Scott Durbin was dated 11/10/1858 and was published in the Freeman's Journal 22/12/1858. It is a progress report on what has happened. 


On 29th September 1858 Mr. Scott Durbin went to Gweedore. And on 4th October had an interview with the Priests Doherty and McFadden, from whom he gathered that there were many peasants in the district who wished to Emigrate. He arranged with them to compile a list of people suitable under the remittance regulation rules and to communicate with him when available.


The clergy told him they had sufficient funds to supply clothing sufficient for the journey for each emigrant as required under the Remittance Regulations thus saving some of the funds to enable more immigrants to be bought out to Australia. Mr Scott Durbin also mentioned the Mr Underwood had also offered him funds for clothing. "I cannot sufficiently thank this gentleman for the assistance he has already afforded me in my mission". And finally a mention is made that the peasants are engaged in "their little harvest" and cannot leave immediately. The distress has eased.

A second letter from Scott Durbin written on 25/10/1858 is reported in The Freeman's Journal on 15/1/ 1859 in which he advises that he will agree to the wishes of both the "Donegal Relief Fund" and the "Donegal Celtic Relief Fund". And how pleased he is that the funds had combined their monies thus making his job easier. This implies that he was employed by the Melbourne fund as their agent while passing there on his way to Ireland. He comments "I rejoice to be able to inform you that, owing to pecuniary and other relief which has been afforded the peasantry, in addition to the much more bountiful harvest than usual, I am informed their distress has for the present time been much mitigated".


Another comment "I have reason to believe that some of the clergy in the county of Donegal will volunteer to accompany their parishioners to New South Wales. And I have an official letter from the Secretary of the Government Emigration Board to the effect that a cabin passage will be provided for the clergymen who may accompany them, provided they will act as schoolmasters as well as chaplains".


Also he has heard from Rev Dogherty that 1200 persons have sent in their names as desirous of being sent out under the Donegal Relief Fund. However by the time he arrived a record harvest had occurred, and relief monies had come in from elsewhere making the distress less urgent.


He tried to arrange with the British Government to have the ships come into Derry to pick up the Emigrants but they would not agree. However, they offered and he accepted, free passage to Liverpool. This could explain later happenings where listed immigrants did not turn up at Liverpool to sail and had to be replaced (from Wm Davis papers). A free passage to England with possible work and the ability to return to Ireland could have seemed more attractive than a journey to the other side of the world with no hope of ever returning to the beloved soil of the mother land.


From the time the  "Sapphire" arrived in 1859, reports and action by the DRF are few and far between. And I suspect that those on board had been able to advise that distress was alleviated, from then to the Derryveagh event in 1861, the fund continued to use the monies, not spent, for immigration from Donegal.


The first six ships listed above seemed to bring to an end the need for relief. And after the "Nile " arrived there appeared in the papers of William Davis a letter stating that, after paying a few remaining bills, the money left over would be distributed between Victoria and NSW, in the proportion as collected (not stated). However at about the same time word came through concerning the John Adair evictions of the Derryveagh peasants in April 1861, when 244 people were evicted by 200 policemen and their cottages tumbled. The Fund collected again and in May 1862 the "Abyssinian " arrived with 150 DRF Assisted Immigrants on board many of these were from the Derryveagh area.


As only those between the age of 12 and 40 years could be bought out under the Govt. Remittance Regulation scheme, the old and very young remained to perish or survive. It seemed that the fund ceased to exist with the arrival of the Abyssinian in 1862.


Research by Richard Reid however indicates that the funds remaining after the Derryveagh episode were applied to bringing out Immigrants on the Montrose and Sandringham in 1864 and that the fund then ceased to exist.


As in my own case I know there are hundreds of descendants of two of the Immigrants bought out on the Sapphire. It is not hard to believe that there would be many thousands of descendants from the 1,384 immigrants funded by the DRF with monies subscribed in small amounts by caring people in the colonies of NSW and Victoria.


Bill Spillane

53 B Isaac St, Peakhurst NSW 2210




Lindel Buckley

Donegal Genealogy Resources