Athy trunk carried workhouse migrants' hopes and dreams

Replica presented to Athy Heritage Centre Museum

Paula Campbell


Paula Campbell


Athy trunk carried workhouse migrants' hopes and dreams

Michael Blanch, Liam Dowling, Frank Taaffe, Mark O'Brien and Margaret Walsh

A young orphan girl named Rosanna Fleming would have recieved a travel box when she left Athy workhouse for Australia in the 1840s to escape the Great Famine.

In that box was an item of clothing for her so she could look her best when she arrived, a bible, a needle and thread and a good health and character reference. Perhaps this was her last link to home.

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Rosanna (19), from Ballyadams, was the oldest of the 34 orphans girls who left the greater Athy area with their travel box under their arms as part of an emigration scheme, intended both to alleviate overcrowding in Irish workhouses, while at the same time lessen the gender imbalance in the Australian population.

To commemorate the young girls sent to Australia from Athy Workhouse in the mid-1840s, the Athy Heritage Centre was presented with a replica famine travel box on Tuesday, September 26.

The historic box bears the name Rosanna Fleming and was presented by the Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims, and the Arbour Hill Prison Authorities.

It was made as part of the Famine Travel Box Project, which has seen replica orphan emigration travel boxes made in the prison presented to President Higgins, the United Nations and museums in Australia.

The travel boxes were born from the idea that they symbolised emigrants and their travels to foreign shores to start new lives away from Ireland. They were given to women who went to Australia from workhouses all over the country. Made locally, or in the workhouse, there are no original examples left in existence, so the new boxes are described as being an interpretation of those originals.

Women and young girls, some as young as 10 or 11, were encouraged to emigrate to Australia to seek new opportunities. This practice was known as assisted emigration.

In the box was an item of clothing that was paid for by the Poor Law unions. This was to make sure the girls arrived at their destinations in good order and with enough clothing to start anew.

The Rosanna Fleming travel box will form part of Athy’s permanent local history exhibition in the Heritage Centre, to remind visitors of the terrible effect that the great famine of 1845- 1849 had here.

Local historian Frank Taafe said that when he approached the two groups they generously agreed to make a travel trunk for presentation to Athy Heritage Centre.

“It is fitting that Athy Heritage Centre is to be the recipient of a famine travel trunk as here in Athy we have participated in the National Famine Day’s commemorations with a ceremony each year in St Mary’s famine cemetery.

Mark O'Brien with Arbour Hill explained that every box made is as unique as the person who would have carried it.

He added that the Athy box is representative of the goods carried by women leaving the greater South Kildare area prior to, during and after the immediate famine era.

“There was a time in Australia when people learned of their convict past and it brought shame. Some even employed officials to destroy documents. Now it is a badge of honour for many Australians and now they are coming home to find their ancestors, both convict and non-convict emigrants. We should be here to help that.”