Book Reviews, — April 10, 2011 18:35 — 0 Comments

Sunshine & Oranges

‘Sunshine and oranges’ … what was promised to the ‘orphan’ children who were seized and exported to the antipodes to become victims of abuse.  There is an excellent film of the name just released and there follows a review: then a tribute to the Newry children who suffered this fate.

Oranges and Sunshine : review

Jim Loach’s directorial debut is a powerful, deeply moving, understated account of a major social injustice that went unreported for many years and only this past year received an official apology from the two governments involved, those of Great Britain and Australia. The picture is seen almost entirely from the point of view of a Nottingham social worker, Margaret Humphreys (a luminous performance of undemonstrative decency from Emily Watson), who stumbled across the story of 130,000 working-class British children separated from their families and siblings and sent to Australia between the end of the second world war and the early 1970s. Some were orphans, some weren’t. Scarcely any record was kept of their enforced deportation, and no one appears to have investigated their Dickensian treatment – especially the way they were subjected to battery, buggery and the breaking of the spirit at the hands of the Christian Brothers into whose hands the Catholic members of each wave of hapless emigrants fell. While not actually replicating it, much of what happened brings to mind the actions of those administrating the Final Solution, which also ties in with a similar story, the Australian government’s inhumane uprooting of Aboriginal children as depicted in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Cast: Clayton Watson, David Wenham, Emily Watson, Greg Stone, Hugo Weaving, Tara Morice

Margaret Humphreys first heard of these deportations when, within a couple of days of each other in 1986, she was approached by two women. One had been forcibly sent to Australia as a child and was now searching for the mother she’d never met and for her own identity. The other, an English woman, had recently been contacted by the middle-aged Australian brother of whose existence she was previously unaware. These two incidents triggered Margaret’s mission to discover how generations of blinkered bureaucrats had got together, or possibly conspired, to treat vulnerable children in this way, and she set out to help reunite these parents and children. A particular spur was given to her investigation by a feature titled “Lost Children of the Empire”, published by the Observer in 1987, which eventually lead to Margaret creating the Child Migrants Trust. The understanding Nottingham social services comes out of the story well, as does the indefatigable Margaret’s sympathetic husband and young children. Officialdom on both sides of the world emerge badly, alongside the often menacing supporters of the Christian Brothers and other organisations that have attempted to sweep their despicable deeds under the carpeting of the confessional. It is here, however, that the film falls down through its failure to pursue and expose the individuals and institutions that created, sustained and concealed this  lamentable process over so many years. It appears that this job is yet to be done. …….. The local effect …

If you have read the ‘History of Newry Workhouse’ on this site, you will understand why we at Newry Journal fairly bristle with rage when we hear revisionist historians, and others, allege that the mid-nineteenth century Great Hunger in Ireland was

i. a Famine: only the potato crop failed. It was our misfortune that defeat at the hands of the English and land confiscation and brutal exploitation left the majority of Ireland’s people landless and destitute, though nominally integrated with the richest Empire the world had ever seen.

ii the inevitable result of over-population. Ireland’s bountiful agricultural harvest fed much more than its people could ever have eaten, all through the Hunger Years. But it fed the English and others throughout the Empire. England’s population increase was much greater than Ireland’s all through the preceding decades.

iii not felt in South Armagh or Newry. I have recently heard Dr Brian Treanor late of PRONI allege this at a public meeting in Newry. Shame on him for he had the Minutes (see below) in his care for decades! Besides our own work opt. cit. the reader is referred to Mary Comiskey’s History of the Famine in Creggan Parish for clear refutation.

iv  Ameliorated by the largesse of local landlords. This is equivalent to saying that humanitarians served in Hitler’s forces; it is impossible to refute but misses the point by miles. It was the greed of landlords that sentenced millions of destitute Irish to death by disease or starvation, or enforced penal servitude [referred to by them as ‘assisted passage’] thousands of miles from home. It is this latter group to which I now wish to refer.

The following information is extracted from the Boards of Guardians Minutes Books 1848-1850. Please note that, according to the British Government, the ‘Famine’ had ended years before.

In the years noted, no less than 4,175 Irish orphan girls between 15-19 years of age were exported – how else could you put it? – to Australia under an official government scheme. A graphic description of how girls were actually chosen can be found in a lengthy report on one ship – the Earl Grey – most of whose orphans came from Northern Ireland – ‘Despatches relating to Emigration; 4.6.1850, N.S.W. Legislative Council Votes and Proceedings 1850, Vol II, pp. 35-74.

 To summarize, they had to be fit and healthy without infection, scabs etc, of child-bearing age, attractive etc. Nominally they had to be orphans. They were, in short, slaves and child-bearing machines to help develop Britain’s convict-dominated colony in the antipodes. Please remember that high-profile prisoners sentenced to penal servitude there – such as John Mitchel – escaped without too much bother [article on this to follow very shortly!] and were eventually able to return to settle – and eventually to die – in Ireland. Not so for these unfortunate girls, neither charged nor found guilty of any offence. Their only crime was the enforced destitution of their deceased parents. They have no memorial. The numbers quoted above would be equivalent to the seizure and export as sex slaves of every young female between these years now resident in Newry and Mourne, from Crossmaglen through Newry to Annalong. 

Let the following sad list of names from Newry Poor Law Union of 1849 – a tiny fraction of such victims – stand in tribute. 

1 Margaret Gray; aged 16; house servant; Poyntzpass

2 Ann Stewart;  aged 17; Newry

3 Margaret McCaherty 18;  farm servant;  The Union

4 Ann Young;   15;  house servant;  Rathfriland

5 Eliza  Jane Young;  17;  house servant;  Rathfriland

6 Jane Wilson  17;   farm servant;  Poyntzpass

7 Agnes Wilson  14;  farm servant;  Poyntzpass

8 Sarah Quinn  19;  farm servant;  Newry

9 Ann McParland  18;   farm servant;  Ballymyre

10 Margaret Larkin  16;  farm servant;  The Union

11 Emily Blakeley  18;  house servant;  Mountnorris.

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