Historically, Ireland has had a difficult relationship with food. The Great Famine – or An Gorta Mór in Irish – had a devastating effect on Ireland’s people. In 1845, most of Ireland’s 8 million strong population were poor and often lived solely on potatoes. This was due to the fact that the potato grew particularly well in the wet Irish climate. Just one acre could produce around 6 tonnes of potatoes – more than enough to feed a family. This diet was supplemented by buttermilk, and together this diet was in fact quite nutritious. However, the sole dependency on the potato left the people of Ireland in a vulnerable position. When the potato crop failed, Ireland lost approximately 60 per cent of its food supply. As a result, around one million people died – whether from starvation or the diseases associated with it – and over one million people fled. To put that into perspective, Ireland lost 25 per cent of its population – whether through death or emigration.
Isabella McDougall, featured in our ‘Arriving in a New World’ gallery, is just one of a huge number who left Ireland during the famine years. As a sixteen year old orphan in a workhouse in Banbridge, County Down, Isabella sailed for Australia abroad one of the first of Earl Grey’s orphan ships. Many of the Earl Grey orphans became known as ‘workhouse sweepings’ by those already there. Isabella landed in Sydney in 1848, and was then transferred to Maitland. She began work as a nursery maid until her marriage to Edward Spicer, an ex-convict, in 1849. Together, they travelled to Armidale, and later Inverell, where Edward worked as a shepherd. They had thirteen children before Edward died in 1872, at which stage Isabella had to find a way to support herself and her large family. Luckily, she found work as boarding house mistress in Inverell, until she married for a second time – this time to Angus Mackay, a farmer from Swan Vale. Isabella died in 1904, while on a visit to Glen Innes.