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  • Writer's pictureBridget Walsh

Jane Leary: An Irish Famine girl

Updated: Sep 23, 2023

Jane Leary was one of one hundred and ten girls sent out to Australia from Skibbereen Workhouse during the Irish Famine of 1845-50.

Here's a short prose poem about Jane Leary.


Born in 1834, Jane was fourteen when she left Ireland on a ship to the other side of the world with one hundred and nine other girls. This was a grand scheme devised by the British Government, the Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme, to send out Irish workhouse girls who would be wives to the male British settlers and freed convicts in New South Wales. At the same time, Irish workhouses and ratepayers would be free from the upkeep of these young orphan in the Irish Famine years.

A first glance at this photograph. Who would guess Jane, pictured here in her best bombazine dress, was once a starving child in an Irish famine workhouse in 1848?

A closer look shows how starvation left with a tiny body and narrow shoulders. She looks straight at the camera with haunted, defiant eyes.

Those strong hands raised eight, maybe nine, children and Jane lived to eighty years of age. Her descendants live in Australia today, proud of the lives she made possible.

It's easy to separate children, from their family and country, for often they are orphaned and powerless. Yet many survive and leave their mark, as did Jane Leary, a Famine Workhouse girl.


While researching characters for my novel about the Irish Famine, I came across a project by Toma McCullim at the West Cork Arts Centre in 2018 entitled 11o Skibbereen Girls. Jane Leary was one of the Skibbereen girls.

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