As Denis McCarthy, his wife and seven children prepared for bed one summer’s evening in 1846, little did they know that within hours they would be awoken by the police. Their house in Mountshannon, Limerick was on fire, soon to be burned to ashes. In the early hours of the morning on 15 June – and after an hour of battling flames – the McCarthy’s escaped, luckily unharmed.
Nearby in Annacotty, a young Irish woman was in police custody. Later charged and found guilty of Arson, Ann Mahony, aged 22 and also from County Limerick, was sentenced to transportation for 15 years.
They were two very different parties, with two very different outcomes. But they each had something in common: escape. The McCarthy family may have escaped a fire, but Ann Mahony was about to escape from something as well; the hunger, death and destitution surrounding (and no doubt overwhelming) her.
At the time of Ann’s crime in 1846, The Great Famine had hit. In its infancy – but already having a devastating effect – this period of mass starvation and disease in Ireland would last for six years. Six years that would not only see a million Irish leave their homeland through emigration, but for those left behind, a staggering amount of deaths. By the end of the famine, an estimated one million people had lost their lives.
Ann wasn’t to know that, but she had likely seen enough and experienced enough to want her escape. To plan her survival. It’s also likely that she set fire to the McCarthy house with exactly that on her mind.
And unsurprisingly, she wasn’t alone.
Arson was a popular crime for women during convict times, and 248 were transported to Van Diemen’s Land between 1841 and 1853 for just that. During the Famine and post-Famine period, at least 79 of these women appear to have done so with transportation as their end-goal; some stating it on arrival, others confessing outright. A deliberate act for an almost assured outcome.
For Ann, achieving this involved conveniently committing her crime near the police station in Annacotty. According to the trial reports, this ‘wretched-looking woman’ also sought out the authorities and confessed to the ‘monstrous outrage’ that same night.
Ann Mahony’s Convict Conduct Record and Convict Indent Record further paint a picture of just how desperate things had become; prior to her conviction in Limerick on 15 July 1846, she had spent the previous 12 months ‘on the town’ (and quite possibly battling to survive).
Ann didn’t know what the future would hold, but it’s easy to imagine her hope that it would be better than the life she was leaving behind. For Ann, and the women like her, this uncertainty was deemed worth it. In such chaotic and desperate times, theirs was a survival strategy – taking control of their own lives, and a leap of faith into a new one.
Before Ann could begin her ‘new’ life, she first had to spend time in both Dublin County Gaol and Grangegorman Female Prison. Her escape was not yet complete.
While at Grangegorman, Ann would have spent time learning domestic skills. Like the other women held there, this – along with moral instruction and advice – was to help them settle into a new life in a new land.
Finally, after almost five months of incarceration – including learning these ‘desirable skills’ – Ann began the journey to a far-away country to serve her time.
Joining 149 other female prisoners and 27 children, Ann embarked on board the convict transport Arabian at Kingstown, Dublin. Setting sail in November 1846, theirs was a voyage of almost four months – during which time seven children and one convict died. Unlike some of her fellow shipmates, Ann’s journey appeared to be a smooth one. She experienced no sickness or ill health, but in fact, was quite likely one of the many convicts described by the Ship’s Surgeon Superintendent in his report as being ‘in as good, & some better condition, than that in which they Embarked’.
Things looked like they were starting to turn around after-all.
On 25 February 1847, hazel-eyed, brown-haired Ann Mahony arrived in Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land. From summer in Ireland to summer in Australia and a distance of around 9,500 nautical miles, the difference would have no doubt been a startling contrast.
Upon arrival, Ann was one of 133 convicts transferred from the Arabian to the Anson hulk; the other 16 being sent to either the Hospital or the Dynnyrne Nursery. The Anson, a refitted warship moored near Hobart, had been used since 1844 to house female convicts prior to them being sent out for service.
We can assume that Ann spent the next six months on board the Anson, and was one of the 106 women advertised by the Convict Department as ‘per Arabian…eligible for private service as Pass-holders’ from 1 September 1847.
After more than a year since her crime of Arson was committed, Ann Mahony was now able to be assigned for service. Following time spent in two different prisons, months at sea on board a convict ship, and moored on a convict hulk, she could finally commence the next stage of her 15-year sentence.
Now aged 23, Ann Mahony had many years remaining before she would be considered ‘free’.
She may have escaped famine-stricken Ireland, but ahead of her was more hardship, more obstacles to overcome, and more despair.
But she wasn’t to know that.
Also ahead of her was happiness; a large family and a settled life. She wasn’t to know that, either.
What she most certainly didn’t know was that her many descendants today are thankful for this ‘lass from Ireland’ who followed her survival instincts and had the courage to escape.
And to Denis McCarthy’s family (and descendants) – we’re glad you escaped, too.