Series of unusual coincidences brings Skibbereen's ‘Australian Orphan' Mary back home again

May 14th, 2016 11:50 AM

By Jackie Keogh

Geoff and Anne Cummins in front of the Orphans' display at Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

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A SERIES of eerie co-incidences happened when Terri Kearney of Skibbereen Heritage Centre was researching a book she and Philip O’Regan published last year.

‘I was just thinking of putting in a brief mention of the Australian orphans when I was contacted by one of the girls’ descendants and a strange series of co-incidences began,’ Terri told The Southern Star.

The Famine Australian Orphans scheme sent 110 girls – aged between 14 and 18 – from Skibbereen workhouse to Australia during the Great Famine.

‘These young girls were seen as ‘superfluous’ and a burden on the workhouse so a scheme to resettle them in Australia was enthusiastically supported by the workhouse guardians,’ Terri said. ‘Most of them, unfortunately, had very tough lives in Australia. At the time, it was predominately a male environment so little girls were extremely vulnerable.’

After Geoff Cummins (a great-great grandson of Mary O’Donovan from Skibbereen) made contact with Terri by email, he resolved to visit Skibbereen and bring Mary ‘home’. 

He and his wife, Anne, visited and their photo is included in the publication Skibbereen: The Famine Story representing Mary’s story.

But the co-incidences didn’t end there. Terri decided to include another girl’s story so as to make the page more interesting and she picked a name at random – Ellen Fitzgerald from Curragh, who left Skibbereen for Australia in 1850.

‘I was researching Ellen’s story on the Australian orphans’ database when I got an email from one of her descendants too’, says Terri. ‘I couldn’t believe it!’

In the process of investigating Ellen’s fate in Australia, Terri discovered that Ellen’s cause of death had been incorrectly recorded in the Australian database, so she had it corrected.

‘Believe it or not,’ said Terri, ‘we had another descendent of Ellen’s get in touch just a month later again, which led me to believe that she wanted to make sure that we got her record right!’

Ellen and Mary’s stories are included in Skibbereen: The Famine Story and are now correctly recorded on the Australian database, too.

Recently, Terri got a lovely surprise when Geoff and Anne made a return visit to Skibbereen Heritage Centre. ‘They came back to verify a few of Mary’s baptism details and they reported how much it meant to the family in Australia that Mary’s story was being told in Skibbereen, the place of her birth,’ she said. 

‘These little girls were shown so little respect in life, or indeed in death, so it is wonderful to celebrate their connection to Skibbereen and for Geoff and Anne to bring Mary back home.’

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