A Letter to Peggy Walsh, orphan girl sent to Australia from Ballinrobe Workhouse 1849

By Imelda Hughes

Dear Peggy,

I hope you are resting in peace in a quiet sunny corner of a well-kept cemetery, serenaded by birdsong, in that land far from your native place of green fields, hawthorn hedges, racing clouds, majestic mountains, tranquil lakes, the homeland you would never see again.

Your dear parents, William and Sarah, could never have imagined what tragedy lay in store as the potato crop failed and hunger and disease claimed a million lives, including theirs, leaving you orphaned, starving and bewildered with nowhere to go for food or shelter but the dreaded poorhouse in Ballinrobe.

That you survived its harsh regime and stayed disease-free testifies to your physical stamina, your mental strength, and also to your courage in volunteering to undertake a perilous sea voyage to a mysterious land thousands of miles away.

Being only eighteen, you could envisage a better life, dream of a bright future, of meeting and marrying a kind man, of being blessed with children to whom you could tell stories of where you came from and with whom you could share happy childhood memories of music and dance, fairies and folklore.

The country you landed in, in 1850 conjures images of bushrangers, vast undeveloped areas, native peoples dispossessed and British settlers trying to shake off the image of a brutal penal colony. It would be naïve of me to think that you had an easy life, having to contend with so much that was different, climate, flora and fauna, religion, culture, but I choose to believe that you were comforted and enthralled by the bright things, the exotic colours of parrots, finches, fairy wrens, the song of the kookaburra and of course the iconic koala and kangaroo.  I think your Irish sense of humour, your experience of grief and suffering during famine years, your faith in a merciful God, and the songs of home you had locked in your heart would have equipped you to deal with whatever obstacles you had to overcome in your life’s journey in a new world.

I pray that your employers treated you well and that your wishes came true, that you married a kind man, raised a loving family.  Did you black out all the bad memories of a famished homeland or were there moments when ghosts of the past returned to haunt your dreams?  Were there days when you fancied you heard the plaintive cry of a curlew and you became again the little girl who romped through the wet fields of Lackaun or evenings when Sydney Harbour became Cushlough Bay, a fiery Irish sun slowly sinking beneath the waves?

Peggy, you will forever be remembered with love and respect here in The Neale, where you came from, as I have no doubt you are in Australia by friends and family down through generations inspired by you and whose lives you touched.

In fond memory,

Imelda Hughes


Course: Remembering our Heritage – Ballinrobe Workhouse

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