Monday 19 August 2019

True grit of girls who became 'short grasses'

Lay of The Land

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Fiona O'Connell

Girls in this country town, both school and college students, are looking forward to the summer holidays.

But their adventures abroad will be a far cry from the precarious one embarked on by over 4,000 orphaned girls from Irish workhouses, ranging in age from 14 to 20, who were sent to the Australian colonies between 1848 and 1850 to meet the demand for domestic servants and marriageable women.

Some were city kids from Dublin, Belfast and Cork; others hailed from famine-ravaged rural districts around Skibbereen, Ballina, Roscrea and Loughrea - but all faced an insecure future when they arrived in Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide.

Hostility met them on all sides, as they became punch bags in a political clash between Imperial and Australian interests, as well as being subjected to a brutal barrage of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic and anti-female prejudice. The South Australian Register referred to them as "workhouse sweepings", while the Melbourne Argus went for the jugular of these vulnerable females, calling them "trollops...whose knowledge of household duty barely reaches to distinguishing the inside from the outside of a potato, and whose chief employment hitherto has consisted of occasionally trotting across a bog to fetch back a runaway pig".

It went on: "Our money ought to be expended upon the rosy-cheeked girls of England, upon the braw lassies of bonnie Scotland, instead of being wasted upon these coarse, useless creatures who, with their squat, stunted figures, thick waists and clumsy ankles promise but badly for the physique of the future colonists of Victoria."

Not surprisingly, the scheme was soon abandoned. As were these girls, who had been thrown into a rough masculine society that stripped them not just of their status as fellow human beings but even their crowning glory.

A young Scot called James Porter describes how the orphans who came to Moreton Bay in 1849 were "treated more like criminals than objects of pity. There (sic) hair had been cut short and consequently they were called 'short grasses'."

The 'short grasses' got the short straw, marrying men who often soon dumped them. Parker describes one distraught girl who refused to leave, so "her husband by main force got her to the camp, padlocked a bullock chain about her waist and fastened it to the tail of the dray".

Success is relative, especially when applied to girls stranded on the other side of the world from a home where they had none. Eighteen months after that wretched young wife was tied to the back of a cart and dragged away, Porter recognised her in a gold digging region of New South Wales, "living under the protection of a man other than her husband, keeping a sly grog shop".

It may not seem much. But she was still alive. Reminding us that those 'short grasses' were Irish girls of true grit who bravely battled being mown down.

Sunday Independent

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