Not the Same Sky - A story of Irish famine girls brought to Australia

Not the Same Sky

A story of Irish famine girls brought to Australia


Not the Same Sky
A story of Irish famine girls brought to Australia

by Evelyn Conlon


Evelyn Conlon, born in County Monaghan and now living in Dublin, is described as one of Ireland’s truly creative writers. Having lived in Australia in the early 1970’s she has now written Not the Same Sky, a highly unusual novel, a story of some 200 Irish girls who, during the famine years, were transported to Australia.

By 1848 the so called potato famine, which caused hunger, starvation and often death, had ravaged Ireland. It shouldn’t have. The potatoes may have failed, but there was enough other food to replace them. However this food was exported or used to pay rents and feed the English army in India and other places.

The English government also had problems in its new colonies in Australia which were short on women in general and desperately short on domestic servants. The best solution it could come up with to solve all these problems was to clean out the orphanages and work houses in Ireland. Not only that, it would also save money. A real win-win solution, or was it?

More than 4400 girls, mostly orphans aged between 16 and 18 but some as young as 14, were shipped to Australia between 1848 and 1850. Most ships went to Sydney but some went to Port Phillip or Adelaide. The first ship, the Earl Grey, arrived at Sydney on 6 October 1848 followed by the Roman Emperor on 23 October at Port Adelaide and the Lady Kennaway on 6 December at Port Phillip. A total of 21 ships would be used.

On Sunday 28 October 1849 the Thomas Arbuthnot left Plymouth with a cargo of girls under the care of Surgeon-superintendent Charles Strutt. Some of these girls had never seen the sea or even a ship. After 99 days at sea they arrived in Sydney on 3 February 1850. Luckily the boat trip had been mostly free from the usual mishaps, seasickness or deaths.

Each girl had been issued with a bolster, blankets, linen bag, knife, fork, spoon, metal plate and a mug. They attended school most days, weather permitting, and although most were Catholic they still had to attend the Church of England service on Sundays. Food was monotonous and only changed when some fish were caught by the sailors.

Not the Same Sky focusses on the lives of four of these girls, Honora, Julia, Bridget and Anne. It observes them on the voyage, chronicling their impressions during the voyage, adaptation to shipboard life in general, behaviour and their relationship of trust with Charles Strutt and Matrons.

After landing the girls soon learnt that their ‘holiday’ was well and truly over. From the wharf they had to walk to the Hyde Park Barracks and stand like exhibits at a fair where eager employers or prospective husbands looked the girls up and down and checked their references. Most were selected by prospective employers from Sydney while others travelled to nearby towns to find employment. Some insisted on making their own way.

After being selected the ritual of goodbyes began. Shipboard friends were now separated as they went to different employers and towns. Many would not see each other for years, some never. The novel now follows them as they become women of Australia, negotiating their new lives as best as they could.

By highlighting their hopes, ambitions, work, luck and disappointments it also gives these young women historical importance and human presence in this elegant and subtle novel. Some of the girls did remarkably well, taking into consideration their limited education and young age. Most eventually married, half of them older Protestant Englishmen, and had large families.

Told in a modern Irish voice, Conlon delicately deals with memory and the importance for these girls of forgetting. Their journey to a strange country, comments on human dimensions of loss and dislocation. It also questions why it is that we remember and memorialise some things but not others. However repugnant the scheme of transporting children to Australia was, it did not stop the English or Australian governments to embark on similar schemes a hundred years later.

Not the Same Sky is a moving and poignant story of the famine girls’ plight. The launch coincides with a series of events in Ireland and Australia commemorating the Irish Famine.

Review by Nic Klaassen

The Novel, Not the Same Sky, by Evelyn Conlon,
is available at $24.95 from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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