Orphan Girl

By Imelda Hughes

As they stood in line

in the workhouse refectory,

Peggy’s lips moved in silent prayer –

Please God, let me be chosen

or let me die.

Despite the raven of death

that hovered over her days

and haunted her dreams,

a feather of hope still fluttered

that there might be a God after all.

To the shrieking of gulls

and the creaking of timbers,

the chosen ones stood, arm in arm,

on the Panama’s deck

and bade their homeland good-bye.

As the ship rolled

around the Cape of Good Hope,

Peggy Walsh tossed her past

into the crashing waves

and looked to the stars;


would be her guide 

in a strange new world.

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, written by the poet, Thomas Gray in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, describes the many who perished in Ballinrobe workhouse during the famine years in Ireland, 1845-1852 and who are buried in unmarked graves with no names, nothing to say they ever existed.

However, some survived and were offered a means of escape. One such lovely flower was Peggy Walsh from my native parish of The Neale. She availed of The Earl Grey scheme for teenage workhouse orphans. On leaving her homeland for good she was in a precarious position. Her parents were both dead, she probably spoke only Irish and she could neither read nor write.

She survived the perilous sea voyage to Australia, was hired as a domestic servant by a Mr J Peacock, Windmill Lane, Sydney, and in 1855 married Charles Shannon.

(Ref. Dr Perry McIntyre, historian, Sydney)

Sadly nothing further is yet known about her life thereafter. I hope she experienced kindness and happiness, had a loving family and became one of the great pioneering Irish women who, like many of the other brave, resilient Irish orphan girls, contributed much to the culture and economy of the Australian continent.

This section of a patchwork quilt embroidered by women from all over the county of Mayo, (Ballina Costume Company) commemorating the 137 Earl Grey orphans sent from Mayo workhouses to Australia in 1849 to relieve overcrowding, has PeggyWalshe’s name stitched clearly. The commemorative quilt is on display in Balina in the Jackie Clarke Museum.


Course: Remembering our Heritage – Ballinrobe Workhouse

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