Five Shiploads: How some of our Irish Pioneers came to Australia


This article is authored by Dr Bernard Barrett and forms part of the Donegal Genealogy Resources Website

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1. Exiles from County Donegal

Australia's pioneering Irish immigrants came here under a variety of circumstances. This article will focus on migrants from the north-western corner of Ireland (County Donegal) to one Australian colony (New South Wales) in the 1850s and '60s but it may help readers to understand some of the dimensions of the Irish-Australian experience in general.

County Donegal has always been regarded as one of the most 'remote' parts of Ireland. Indeed, lashed by the Atlantic ocean, Donegal is on the extreme fringe of Europe. Donegal's population in the 1850s, especially in the coastal areas, was largely Gaelic-speaking. Even today the coastal districts of Gweedore and Cloughaneely are officially classified as Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking areas).

In the 1850s there was much distress in rural Donegal. Many families could not eke a living from their tiny plots of land. Under the British landlord system, the native inhabitants had to pay rents, and any who could not keep up the payments were liable to be evicted. A common solution was emigration, mostly to Britain or America but sometimes to Australia.

After about 1855, some of these emigrants were taking advantage of the New South Wales assisted immigration scheme. Under this, residents of New South Wales could pay a contribution to the government in Sydney to bring out a relative or friend from Britain or Ireland, with the government subsidizing the cost of the passage. As the immigrants of 1855 became established in New South Wales, many sent sums of money (ranging from 5 pounds to 50 pounds) back to Donegal to help their relatives to survive or to emigrate. I have recently met people in New South Wales whose ancestors were among these Donegal migrants of 1855.

By 1858, there was mounting concern in Australia about news of increased suffering in Donegal. Landlords were reported to be squeezing Donegal people off the land to make way for more profitable farming procedures or to clear the land for more profitable pursuits such as large-scale sheep-raising, using Scottish shepherds. Clearly there was a need for more help from Australia.

2. The Donegal Relief Fund

In May 1858 a Catholic clergyman, Archdeacon John McEncroe, convened a public meeting in Sydney to form a Donegal Relief Fund. McEncroe, aged 64, was from County Tipperary. He had been in New South Wales for 26 years, watching it evolve from a jail-farm to a colony of free settlers. He was the founder of a periodical newspaper, the Sydney Freeman's Journal. The development of the Donegal Relief Fund may be traced in that paper.

McEncroe sought to make systematic use of the government's assisted immigration scheme. His correspondence and interviews with the government may be traced in reports that were later tabled in Parliament (printed as the Proceedings of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, 1861-2). According to those documents, McEncroe took a deputation from the Donegal Relief Fund to interview government officials in July 1858. McEncroe gave the government a deposit of 900 pounds, and the government issued a certificate providing passages for 225 people. This special fare to Australia was five pounds per male and three pounds per female. McEncroe made subsequent deposits, bringing the total for 1858 to 3,800 pounds, and the government issued further certificates for passages.

The certificates were issued for persons aged between twelve and forty years. These age restrictions meant that many Irish families were to be torn apart, with older adults and younger children being forced to stay in Ireland.

The Donegal Relief Fund had an agent in Ireland named J.H. Scott Durban. He compiled a list of emigrants who were to be sponsored by the fund. These were chosen chiefly from the districts of Gweedore and Cloughaneely. These were among the most impoverished parts of Ireland. Archdeacon McEncroe, who visited this region in the late 1850s, considered that the agricultural labourers of Gweedore and Cloughaneely had a more miserable existence under the landlord system there than the convicts had experienced under the landed proprietors of New South Wales.

The Donegal Relief Fund also selected some migrants from Tory Island (a Gaelic-speaking community situated thirteen kilometres off the Donegal coast), some from other parts of Donegal and a few from neighbouring counties. The migrants were to travel to Britain and then by sailing ship to Australia.

3. The first four ships

The first batch of Donegal Relief Fund migrants arrived in Sydney from Liverpool in the Sapphire (a ship of 749 tons) on 24 May 1859 after a voyage of 110 days - 15 weeks. The vessel landed 286 passengers (not all sponsored by the Donegal Relief Fund). The sexes were evenly balanced, there being 138 males and 133 females over 12 years, plus eight boys and seven girls under 12 years. They included 42 married couples. There had been four deaths on the voyage, comprising two infants, one young girl and one woman. Two babies were born on the voyage.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald complained that the passengers could not speak English but the ship's captain replied in the Herald, stating that most spoke English well. The Sydney Freeman's Journal said that 'all the men speak English, more or less perfect, and of the females there are only eleven who cannot do so.'

The second batch of Donegal Relief Fund migrants traveled on the Lady Elma Bruce (966 tons), reaching Sydney from Liverpool on 14 July 1859 after a voyage of 98 days. Because there had been several cases of measles during the passage, the vessel was quarantined in Sydney Harbour for two weeks before being allowed to land passengers. In those days, measles were a dangerous disease. The vessel landed 318 passengers, mostly Irish, including 258 sponsored by the Donegal Relief Fund. There had been one death (a female over 12 years) and two births. The D.R.F. passengers comprised 24 married couples, 94 single men, 91 single women, 15 young boys, seven young girls and three infants.

The third batch traveled on the Caribou (1065 tons), arriving in Sydney from Liverpool on 4 October 1859 after a voyage of 92 days. The ship landed 388 passengers, chiefly for the D.R.F. The 388 comprised 174 men, 168 women, 19 young boys and 27 young girls. They included 45 married couples. There had been three deaths (two boys and a man) and six births.

The arrival of each Donegal Relief Fund ship was reported in the Sydney Freeman's Journal, which recommended the passengers to prospective employers as farm labourers or domestic servants. The New South Wales government encouraged the immigrants, especially the men, to go to 'immigrant depots' in country centres (for example, Maitland, Newcastle and Bathurst), from where they would be hired by landholders.

The Donegal Relief Fund enormously boosted the number of Irish migrants to New South Wales in 1859. According to parliamentary reports, 3,723 immigrants entered New South Wales that year from all sources under government's assistance scheme. Of these, the Irish accounted for 2,544 - that is, more than 68 per cent of the total. The other comprised 941 English (more than 25 per cent) and 238 Scottish (more than 6 per cent). Of the Irish, about one third came under the D.R.F. scheme.

The Donegal Relief Fund continued to raise money during 1860 but sponsored no migrants that year. It asked the New South Wales government for permission to bring more migrants in 1861, and gave the government 1,350 pounds.

The fourth batch of D.R.F. migrants ( 166 persons, largely from Gweedore) traveled on the Nile, arriving in Sydney on 16 may 1861. (The passenger lists of these four D.R.F. ships are all in the New South Wales Archives - microfilms no. 2479 and 2139.

4. The missing village of Derryveagh

The services of the Donegal Relief Fund were again called for after a whole village in County Donegal became homeless in 1861. The village was Derryveagh, situated in central Donegal on the western shore of Gartan Lough, about 25 kilometers inland from the Gweedore/Cloughaneely coast. In the late 1850's Derryveagh and several adjoining estates (Glenveagh and Gartan) had been bought by a new landlord, John George Adair, of Queens County. Adair soon clashed with the native inhabitants of Derryveagh, and in April 1861 he evicted forty-seven families, almost the entire population of the estate. He used a force of two hundred policemen to carry out the evictions and to demolish the cottages. Altogether, about 250 people (half of them 'children of tender age') were thrown out on to the roadside in cold, wet weather.

The news of the Derryveagh evictions caused a stir in Australia, where Donegal relief was now a major concern. Money for the Derryveagh victims was raised in both Sydney and Melbourne as well as in other parts of Australia. The Sydney effort was still headed by Archdeacon McEncroe, while a member of the Victorian parliament named Michael O'Grady (from County Roscommon) was prominent in the Melbourne fund-raising.

So, in January 1862 a group of Derryveagh people sailed from Dublin to England, and then to Australia, through the Donegal Relief Fund. But what part of Australia? One of the best known accounts of the Derryveagh evictions was by A.M. Sullivan, an Irish member of the British Parliament, in Chapter 19 of his book, New Ireland, published in 1877. Sullivan said, rather misleadingly, that the D.R.F. was based in Melbourne, headed by Michael O'Grady. Sullivan said that, thanks largely to Victoria's O'Grady, the Derryveagh people were happily re-settled in their new land. Sullivan neglected to mention McEncroe's Sydney fund-raising. Later writers have been influenced by Sullivan's version and have left their readers with the impression that Derryveagh was transplanted wholly in Victoria.

Interest in the fate of the Derryveagh people has revived in the 1980s because landlord Adair's former home (the Glenveagh estate, adjoining the Derryveagh estate) is now being developed as a major national park. In 1983 I received letters from contacts of mine in Ireland, asking if I could find out what became of Derryveagh 'in Victoria'.

5. The fifth ship

I began by obtaining a list of the forty-seven families evicted in Derryveagh, published in the Irish press in 1861. The recurring surnames were Armstrong, Bradley, Burke, Callaghan, Coll, Conaghan, Coyle, Curran, Dermott, Devenny, Doherty, Doohan, Friel, Gallagher, Kelly, Lawn, McAward, Moore, O'Flanigan, Rodden and Sweeney.

I found no significant cluster of these surnames in the Victorian shipping records of the 1860s, but a search of the New South Wales shipping records in Sydney revealed that dozens of Derryveagh migrants were on the Abyssinian (a ship of 1070 tons), which arrived in Sydney from Plymouth on 29 May 1862 after a voyage of 114 days. The ship's passenger list, completed in Sydney after the voyage, is preserved in the New South Wales State Archives (microfilm no. 2139). The Archives also contain the ship's embarkation list, compiled in Plymouth. According to these documents, the Abyssinian landed 404 immigrants, mostly Irish and mostly unmarried. They included 150 sponsored by the Donegal Relief Fund. The D.R.F. passengers who boarded in Plymouth comprised 68 single men, 70 single women, four married couples and four infants.

There were seven deaths during the voyage, comprising three adults and four infants. Two of the deaths were from bronchitis, two from pleurisy and the others from convulsions, diarrhoea and consumption. Three babies were born during the voyage.

Most of the surnames involved in the Derryveagh evictions of 1861 are well represented on the passenger list, including clusters of each of the following: Armstrong, Bradley, Coll, Conaghan, Coyle, Curran, (Mac)Dermott, Doherty, Friel, Gallagher, Lawn, Rodden, Sweeny and Ward. In addition, there are several dozen other passengers, with different surnames, who cited localities in the Derryveagh district as their birthplace. The handwriting and spelling of many of the birthplaces are unclear but I calculate that perhaps two dozen of the males and two dozen of the females on the Abyssinian came from the Derryveagh district. The remaining Donegal Relief Fund passengers came from Gweedore and Cloughaneely, from other parts of Donegal and from surrounding counties.

The Donegal Relief Fund did not confine its aid to one religious denomination. Under the heading of 'Religion', most D.R.F. passengers on the Abyssinian (especially from Gweedore, Cloughaneely and the Derryveagh area) are listed as 'R.C.', but a significant minority of D.R.F. passengers (from other parts of Donegal) are listed as 'C. of E.' and two as 'Presbyterians'.

The D.R.F. passengers on the Abyssinian were almost all unmarried people, aged between eighteen and twenty-five years. What became of their parents? And their younger brothers and sisters, aged under 18? Did they remain in Ireland? Did they come to Australia later as individual passengers, using money sent home by the emigrants of 1862? Or did they obtain cheaper fares to less remote destinations such as England or America?

After the Derryveagh evictions, residents of the neighbouring Cloughaneely district provided some temporary shelter. According to a tradition in Cloughaneely today, huts for the victims were built near the coast in Killult, a townland on Ballyness Bay near the village of Falcarragh. It would be interesting to know whether any descendants of the Derryveagh victims are still living in Cloughaneely today, but I presume that the biggest numbers of descendants would now be outside Donegal and outside Ireland.

It is interesting that, of the twenty-four married couples on the Abyssinian, only four were sponsored by the Donegal Relief Fund. Of these four D.R.F. families, two evidently came from birthplaces near Derryveagh. One of these couples, James and Mary Doherty, lost an infant daughter, Biddy, who died during the voyage. The other couple, Teague and Hannagh Gallagher, gained a baby son, born during the voyage.

The New South Wales State Archives also contain other papers relating to the Abyssinian, showing where each passenger obtained employment and lodgings. Most of the unmarried women obtained positions as servants in and around Sydney. Most of the males went to country areas as farm labourers. The places listed include Maitland and Singleton (both north of Sydney), Bathurst (in the west) and Berrima, Wollongong and Kiama (all in the south). As the men were now scattered around (and as many could not read or write), they would have found it difficult to maintain contact with each other.

In 1983, after much 'detective work', I located the graves of three of the Abyssinian passengers. James and Mary Doherty are buried at Welby cemetery, near Mittagong, N.S.W. (This is only ten kilometres from Berrima, where, according to the Abyssinian documents, James began working as a farm labourer in 1862.)James and Mary died in 1912 and 1927, aged 84 and 94 respectively. Nearby is the grave of their son, John Doherty, who was two when he arrived on the Abyssinian; he was 74 and he died in 1934. The headstones of these graves are in good condition, with clear inscriptions.

In 1983 I also located and interviewed a daughter of John Doherty. She is Enid Doherty, born in Australia in 1908, now Mrs Taylor, living in Westmead, near Parramatta, Sydney. John Doherty had three sons; these are now dead but their descendants, whom I have contacted in Sydney, tell me that James Doherty on the Abyssinian was one of seven brothers; the other six went to the United States. John Doherty, the two-year-old on the Abyssinian, spent many years as a builder in the outback mining town of Broken Hill, N.S.W.

The Derryveagh exiles of 1862 must have many descendants living in Australia today, including some perhaps living in states other than New South Wales. 

6. Further research

There is scope for other researchers to take up the investigation of the Donegal Relief Fund. For example, I have not ascertained whether the D.R.F. was active in Sydney after 1862 but I know that clusters of Donegal immigrants reached Sydney in later ships, including the Peerless in 1863 and the Montmorency and Montrose in 1864.

The Donegal Relief Fund was not unique. Several similar schemes catered for emigrants from other parts of Ireland in the 1860s. One such fund operated from Brisbane, Queensland, headed by two Irish Catholic clergymen, Bishop James Quinn and Father Patrick Dunne. The first of these ships to Queensland was the Erin-go-bragh in 1862, followed by nine others. Someone remarked that so many Irish migrants went to Queensland under the auspices of Bishop Quinn that the colony could well be re-named 'Quinn's Land'.

[The author gratefully acknowledges research assistance from Mrs Barbara Geary of Canberra, A.C.T. and Mrs Edith Meredith of Bringelly, N.S.W.]



Lindel Buckley

Donegal Genealogy Resources