Paying a bonnet tribute to Down’s ‘convict’ women

Paying a bonnet tribute to Down’s ‘convict’ women

18 September 2013

A UNIQUE event will be held in Downpatrick next month to commemorate the plight of women who were forcibly sent to the other side of the world 200 years ago.

Between 1796 and 1830, the old Down County Gaol in Downpatrick was home to dozens of women – some of them young girls — who were sentenced to be transported to Australia.

Among them was 13 year-old Jane Armstrong, who in 1820 received the draconian sentence for stealing two silver teaspoons belonging to an aristocrat. Sixty one year-old Mary Atcheson and her daughter Anne were transported just for stealing a few fowl, while Margaret McEvoy, a single mother with two children who lost the use of her right arm, was transported for stealing money.

Also in 1820 Elizabeth Dougherty was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation for having a forged bank note. She had five children, one of them a baby, but despite a plea for mercy to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, she and the baby were transported. No-one knows what happened to the other four children.

These and over 60 other women will be remembered at the Down County Museum next Wednesday when around 200 specially made bonnets will be ‘blessed’ before being sent to Australia.

Earlier this year, the museum welcomed Australian artist Christina Henri, from Hobart, in Tasmania, who is seeking to commemorate the thousands of Irish and British women who suffered transportation.

Her project, entitled ‘Roses from the Heart’, involves the making of thousands of bonnets created by people all over the world. Christina has travelled extensively, inviting groups, schools and individuals to make bonnets and learn more about how convict women contributed to Australian history and society.

She chose bonnets as a symbol for these women because many of the female convicts were assigned to work as servants in private houses once they arrived in the Australian penal colonies.

Groups and organisations taking part in the Downpatrick project included Downpatrick Primary School, Our Lady and St. Patrick Primary School, Downpatrick, Down High Preparatory Department, Action Mental Health, Friends of Down County Museum, Downpatrick Presbyterian Church, Abbeyfield Downpatrick, Assumption Grammar School and Blackwater Integrated College.

Down Council chairwoman Maria McCarthy will attend next Wednesday’s event, which will also feature readings, music and drama presented by local school children and groups.