Thir­teen-year-old Brid­get from Fal­car­ragh: raped, starved, beaten

Ir­ish girls at Aus­tralia’s 19th cen­tury New­cas­tle In­dus­trial School suf­fered hor­rific abuse

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Anne Casey

There is a spe­cial brand of hu­man mis­ery so steeped in hope­less­ness that it leaves its mark in time and place. I have felt it be­fore as an Ir­ish im­mi­grant on Aus­tralian soil – in the soli­tary con­fine­ment cham­ber at the Port Arthur con­vict set­tle­ment in Tasmania, and in the dark­est cell of Dubbo Jail in ru­ral New South Wales.

In places like th­ese through­out Aus­tralia, the walls are buck­led with the painful his­to­ries of Ir­ish ex­iles.

But this time it is dif­fer­ent. As I fol­low Aus­tralian fi­bre art cu­ra­tor Anne Kemp­ton and artist Jane Theau into the chill, light­less cell in the New­cas­tle Lock- Up, two hours north of Syd­ney, I am knocked back­wards.

Crouched in front of me is a fig­ure of 13-year-old Brid­get McEl­roy from Fal­car­ragh in Done­gal. Her tiny frame filthy from hud­dling on the damp dirt floor, she has been raped, starved and un­mer­ci­fully beaten. She is rid­dled with vene­real dis­ease.

Forced from as young as eight into pros- titu­tion, Brid­get was born into a fam­ily who fled the Ir­ish Famine to Aus­tralia. She was con­victed and in­car­cer­ated af­ter be­ing found in a brothel in the town of New­cas­tle, in 1870.

Four­teen days alone in the dark on barely enough bread and water to sur­vive was her pun­ish­ment for dar­ing to rebel against her mis­for­tune. This was a pat­tern to be re­peated over and over as her fiery spirit re­fused to be doused. A year later, she was sent to a hard­core women’s prison on one month’s hard labour for ri­ot­ing.

The New­cas­tle Lock-Up is a con­tem­po­rary arts space housed in the old New­cas­tle Gaol. Theau has strung up her ex­traor­di­nary thread art­work here, bring­ing Brid­get to life for the first time in over a cen­tury.

Three months ear­lier, I had been asked to write a voiceover for an art ex­hi­bi­tion. Lit­tle did I know this would launch me on an un­set­tling voy­age into the dark and shock­ing his­to­ries of im­mi­grant and marginalised chil­dren in Aus­tralia in the mid-19th cen­tury, to dis­cover hor­ri­fy­ing ac­counts of sex­ual abuse, forced child pros­ti­tu­tion, drunk­en­ness, sav­age vi­o­lence and ne­glect.

Anne Kemp­ton and Wilma Sim­mons, the guid­ing forces be­hind the Stitched Up ex­hi­bi­tion, have spent two years pulling to­gether works from 25 in­ter­na­tional and Aus­tralian artists.

The ex­hi­bi­tion marks 150 years since the open­ing of the New­cas­tle In­dus­trial School and Re­for­ma­tory, a site that housed 193 girls aged be­tween 2½ and 18, from 1867 to 1891. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber were of Ir­ish birth or ex­trac­tion. Their sto­ries are breath­tak­ingly bru­tal.

Th­ese girls came from back­grounds of poverty, cru­elty and dis­crim­i­na­tion en­demic in im­mi­grant and marginalised com­mu­ni­ties dur­ing Aus­tralia’s Gold Rush era. The Ir­ish were treated with the ad­di­tional sus­pi­cion of be­ing “Fe­ni­ans”, and po­ten­tially re­bel­lious.

In most cases, the girls who came to stay at New­cas­tle In­dus­trial School had been ar­rested for va­grancy, pros­ti­tu­tion and petty crime, and sen­tenced to a min­i­mum of 12 months. Most en­dured pe­ri­ods of in­volun- tary “ap­pren­tice­ships” as do­mes­tic help for lengthy pe­ri­ods af­ter­wards.

In por­ing through the archives, I was of­ten struck most deeply when con­fronted with the girls’ own words; though sadly, there were few recorded. The earnest, wounded and of­ten feisty tes­ti­monies jump off the pages, in stark con­trast to the clin­i­cal, de­hu­man­ised, of­fi­cial ac­counts from the au­thor­i­ties of the time.

As one girl blithely ob­served, she could yield to a life of pros­ti­tu­tion or starve to death. An­other, re­spond­ing to com­ments on the ap­palling cir­cum­stances in which she was found, said “peo­ple get used to any­thing from con­stant suf­fer­ing and mis­ery”.

El­iza O’Brien from Shanagolden in Lim­er­ick was found in a brothel at the age of 13. Her mother had fallen ill on board ship to Aus­tralia and died shortly af­ter their ar­rival. “I would rather be torn limb from limb and go to hell than go to school,” she said, re­fer­ring to New­cas­tle.

“She throws up our past life telling us we are the sweep­ings of Syd­ney streets . . . You sup­posed that is what we have been brought up to, street walk­ing all night and lay­ing in bed late in the day.”

Like the ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tors and the artists in­volved in Stitched Up, I have been moved to tears, and hor­ror at times, by the depth of the girls’ suf­fer­ing. Like them, I have also grown to love and ad­mire th­ese girls for their in­cred­i­ble spirit and en­durance.

Much as they were vic­tims, they were also rebels, f i ghters and sur­vivors. Through this ex­hi­bi­tion, the many artists in­volved seek to give a voice to th­ese lost girls and their ex­traor­di­nary sto­ries.

Th­ese sto­ries are told through the works of in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned artists from Canada, Hun­gary, the Nether­lands, the UK, Den­mark and across Aus­tralia. The pieces in­clude a large quilt as a com­forter; dolls to com­pen­sate for lost child­hood; cloth books for story-telling; shadow thread­works; and vis­ual po­etry. Real- life his­tor­i­cal im­ages of the girls have also been used.

The ex­hi­bi­tion weaves to­gether tales of loss, be­trayal, cru­elty and en­durance, from this dark cor­ner of Aus­tralia’s colo­nial his­tory.

Dur­ing their time at New­cas­tle, the girls be­came no­to­ri­ous in the lo­cal­ity for a se­ries of dar­ing es­capes which led to re­peated in­car­cer­a­tions in the New­cas­tle Gaol.

Af­ter a term at New­cas­tle School, many ended up in lengthy con­tracts of servi­tude from which they were un­able to es­cape. A num­ber died young due to dis­ease, de­pri­va­tion, ac­ci­dent or vi­o­lence.

Many of their sto­ries seem to echo each other. El­iza O’Brien from Shanagolden, who had ar­rived in Aus­tralia at the age of 1 ½ in 1853, died of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis aged just 24. Cather­ine Condon, whose fam­ily ar­rived from Ire­land in 1852, also died young from TB – she was 33 years old. Both girls had lost their moth­ers while still tod­dlers.

Those who sur­vived changed their names over and over in an ef­fort to over­come the stigma of their pasts.

And what be­came of the doughty young Brid­get McEl­roy f rom Fal­car­ragh? No­body knows. Like so many of her fel­low i nmates, she dis­ap­peared f rom t he records at the age of 19. An­other ghost in the ma­chin­ery of a colo­nial na­tion’s bru­tal emer­gence.

Orig­i­nally from Co Clare, Anne Casey is a writer liv­ing in Aus­tralia. Her de­but po­etry col­lec­tion will be pub­lished by Salmon Po­etry in June. The Stitched Up ex­hi­bi­tion runs from June 23rd to Au­gust 6th at The Lock-Up in New­cas­tle, Aus­tralia, with plans to ex­hibit in Ire­land next year. See th­e­lockup.org.au

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