The Famine Attic Experience in Carrick-on-Shannon offers a glimpse of workhouse conditions in the 1840s
First published: Mon, May 6, 2013, 06:00
Dr Wratten, a gynaecologist, had travelled from her home in Adelaide, Australia, chasing the ghosts of her family. She was one of a dozen people who spent the night in the attic of the former workhouse, sleeping on bare floorboards with only straw for bedding, and a breakfast of porridge ahead of them.
The Famine Attic Experience at the former workhouse, now St Patrick’s Community Hospital, was organised by Carrick-on-Shannon Historical Society to remind people, in the year of The Gathering, of the many lives lost during the Famine.
Starving and destitute
“I spotted the building as I arrived into Carrick by bus. It is such an imposing grey building, you can imagine how it dominated the landscape in the 1840s,” said Dr Wratten who is on her first trip to Ireland. As she trudged from the town centre up “gallows hill” on the route taken by hundreds of starving and destitute families who pleaded for sanctuary at the gates of the workhouse about 170 years ago, Dr Wratten was emotional .
“I am sure there are a lot of souls still wandering around that attic,” she said.
Her great-grandmother was one of an estimated 4,000 “Earl Grey girls” sent to Australia from 1848 to 1850 as part of a government-sponsored scheme to counter the massive gender imbalance caused by an influx of convicts and other male emigrants. “We know that Bridget was 15 when she left Plymouth on the Lady Peel and 16 when she arrived over three months later” said Dr Wratten.
While Bridget may have been regarded as one of the lucky ones, her great-great-granddaughter has discovered that there was no fairytale ending for her. Having spent 47 days in a holding depot in Sydney, she was indentured to a man called Michael O’Brien but after two weeks ran away to Morton Bay, now Brisbane, then a convict colony .
“Something must have happened to make her run away. We can only speculate,” said her descendant.
At 16 Bridget married Dublin-born John Smith, described in documents as “a bullock driver” and they had “14 or 15” children.
Dr Wratten has unearthed a newspaper clipping suggesting that the marriage was not a happy one.
In 1891 when she was in her fifties Bridget went to court to have her husband bound to the peace after he threatened her and her sons with a pitchfork. Bridget was so terrified she slept overnight in the fields.
Speaking outside the workhouse, Dr Wratten said she was proud of her great-great-grandmother.
“I think she was a survivor. “I do wonder how she would feel about this. I know people used to be ashamed about being in the workhouse but I think Bridget was strong and I think she would say ‘Tell the story’.”
John Bredin of Carrick-on-Shannon Historical Society said the attic has been preserved as a monument to all those who were in the workhouse which was built in 1841.
“It’s very important to remember them. And to remember that today there are still people experiencing famine in other parts of the world,” he said.
Asked whether she felt angry about what happened to Bridget, Dr Wratten replied: “I feel sorry that she lived through such difficult times, I am sorry she experienced the workhouse and I am sorry she was taken from her family and sent to a strange land. I am sorry she met a man who did no treat her well. But I am glad she made the journey because if she did not I would not be here. And I would like to know what she would think about her great-great-granddaughter coming to Ireland. I hope she would be proud.”