It all started with a Google search in 2008
In a suburb of Sydney, Australia in 2008 a part-time teacher named Julie Evans was researching her family tree. She knew that her great great grandmother, Bridget Ryan had left Ireland in Famine times as part of the Earl Grey Scheme. Bridget was one of the “Famine Orphans” who were sent from the workhouse in Listowel to settle in the other side of the world.
The Earl Grey Scheme was devised by the British Government to solve twin problems at opposite ends of The Empire. Workhouses in Ireland were massively overcrowed and struggling to cope with the numbers of starving people arriving daily. Meanwhile far away in Australia, colonists were decrying the lack of suitable (white) female house servants. Earl Grey decided to identify suitable girls in Irish workhouses, to kit them out and send them to Australia. The Australian people were to foot the bill for the scheme. The definition of orphan was very loose. Some girls had one living parent and some even had two. Bridget Ryan, it would appear, fell into the second category.
Julie knew all this when she Googled Listowel Co. Kerry, Ireland and she found this website http://www.iol.ie/~coganj/ maintained by Jim and Mary Cogan. She sent off an email and thus began an adventure whose latest twist was a TG4 project called Tar Abhaile (Come Home).
When I received Julie’s email in 2008, I knew little of the workhouse and nothing at all of The Earl Grey Scheme. A correspondence began and we emailed to and fro, filling in more and more of the story until 2011. North Kerry Reaching Out was set up and I began this blog. One of the aims of NKRO was to help the diaspora with research into their family trees. Julie was one of this diaspora whose story we took on board. We soon discovered that Bridget Ryan was no ordinary orphan and her story began to take on many aspects of a soap opera. There was crime and punishment, poverty and wealth but with a little smattering of social grace and ladylike accomplishments.
Through this blog I made contact with an avid historian and genealogist, Kay Caball. Kay grew up in Listowel . She is writing a history of all the Famine Orphans who left from Kerry workhouses. She and Julie formed a partnership to advance research into Bridget’s background.
Fast forward to 2013 the year of The Gathering and RTE is commissioning some TV programmes about descendants of emigrants.
So, Julie Evans, her husband Glyn, her third cousin, Jeanette Greenway from California and Jeanette’s daughter, Peta arrive in Ireland; Julie to participate in the making of the TV documentary and her cousins to learn more about their ancestor, Bridget Ryan.
Over two days last week we filmed hours of footage which will be distilled into 12 minutes of a Tar Abhaile programme to be aired on TG4 in September or October. Don’t worry, I'll keep you posted.
I can't spoil the programme by telling you the story but I can tease you by telling you that it is an interesting tale with a few elements to illustrate the adage that truth is often stranger then fiction.