I think everyone who delves into their family history finds a skeleton or two. We might discover Granny and the maiden aunts weren’t so prim and proper after all and the genial great uncle did time for fraud. My surprise was finding an Irish convict in our family tree
Poverty, disease and famine were rampant in 19th century Ireland, and desperate to emigrate, Eleanor, a widow with two children, and her brother Thomas were caught stealing seventeen sovereigns, a lot of money when the poor were begging or working for a couple of shillings a week. Thanks to Ireland digitising their historical records and Tasmania’s Family History Society I discovered Thomas got cold feet, putting the bulk of the blame onto his sister. He spent three years in an Irish prison, Eleanor’s sentence was fourteen years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, Australia. I can only imagine her heartache while boarding the convict ship Hope knowing she’d never see her children again. It took four months to sail the thirteen thousand miles to this notoriously harsh penal colony. Male convicts worked in chain gangs building roads and bridges and floggings were common for any misdemeanour. Female convicts were sent to the grim Female Factory for assessment before working as domestic servants or on farms. Eleanor was assigned to a landowner at Green Ponds where she worked as a housemaid for the next six years, earning her ticket of leave, a conditional pardon. It was during that time she met Richard Barnett. They asked permission to marry, and Eleanor’s prayers were answered. She was eligible to apply for her children to emigrate from Ireland to join her – if they could be found and if they had survived the terrible potato famine. It was almost a year and half later one son and his wife and two small daughters arrived in Van Diemen’s Land.
A Convict’s Prayer in the anthology Desire Me Again, is my tribute to this strong woman who survived betrayal, an unjust sentence and backbreaking work before finding happiness again.
Eleanor walked to the opposite wall, took a deep breath and returned to her bunk. Two days ago, it was the Protestant chaplain’s visit, so today must be Thursday, the Roman Catholic chaplain’s visit. Please God, let it be Father Duffy.
The door opened. “Craddock!”
Eleanor was on her feet. “Sir.” Her wrists were shackled, and she walked beside the gaoler to a small room where—her heart sank—another priest waited. The door closed behind her, and the priest raised his hand in a blessing.
“I’m Father Usher. May God be with you.” Eleanor dutifully crossed herself. “Good afternoon, Father.” She swallowed nervously. “Where’s Father Duffy? He promised to find out where my children are and if they are cared for.”
“Father Duffy could not be here today, but he spoke to me about your children.”
The priest hesitated. “Perhaps we should sit down. Your two children are being cared for by the Stanfords in Ballinasloe. Father Duffy assured me the eldest is working for the blacksmith, and the younger is working with an uncle in the fields.” The priest pursed his lips. “The other reason I am here is to inform you that Father Duffy and a Mr. John Connelly have written character references for your brother, both declaring that he is an honest, hardworking man and it is beyond their comprehension that he would commit such a crime.”
Eleanor’s mouth fell open. “Father Duffy wrote Thomas a reference? But Mary gave us the box; we took the money.”
The priest frowned at her. “Let me finish. The child, Mary Ward, has sworn before a Justice of the Peace that she was wrong in accusing Thomas. That he knew of the money but wanted to repay it immediately, and now she feels great remorse for her earlier statements. That it was you who filled her with false promises to steal. Applications have been made to Earl de Gray, Lord Lieutenant Governor and General Governor of Ireland, to commute his sentence.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means to reduce the sentence. In your brother’s case, from fourteen years’ transportation to three years’ imprisonment in an Irish gaol.”
Dumbfounded, Eleanor stared at him. “No, Father, no!” She burst into tears.
“Your brother, Thomas, had denied the charge. After hearing evidence from Mary Ward and her randparents, the court found him guilty. You pleaded guilty,” the priest said quietly.
Eleanor wiped her wet face on her sleeve. “Because I was guilty and so was my brother. I had no money, and I walked to Kilconnell to beg his help and—” Her breath caught in her throat. “Oh, Father, I was so stupid.”
The priest nodded. “Yes, you were stupid, Eleanor.”
Eleanor wiped her eyes again. “I’m trying to say, I didn’t know anyone in Kilconnell but my brother and his wife. I did not know Mary Ward or her grandparents. Thomas did. He’d deliver the faggots or the peat in his cart, and it was Mary who’d run outside to give him the pennies. It was Mary who told him of her grandparents’ money.”
The priest studied her for several seconds. “What are you saying, Eleanor? Start at the beginning, and I want the truth.”