Protestant boys were sent to England and later Australia in 1922 after their Connemara orphanage was torched, writes MICHAEL PARSONS

Michael Parsons
Irish Times
19 Mar 2012

The Protestant boys from the orphanage pictured in England before they left for Australia

PHOTOGRAPHS OF Protestant boys burned out of their Connemara orphanage during the Civil War have been discovered after 90 years.

The previously unpublished photographs came to light in Australia, where many of the boys were sent in 1922, and include the only known images of the orphanage building before it was destroyed and of the boys and the staff in London after they were evacuated to safety.

The photographs were sent to The Irish Times from Australia by the daughters of Albert Farrell – one of the orphans whose names were published, for the first time, last month.

In June 1922 the boys’ orphanage at Ballyconree, Clifden, Co Galway was burnt down by anti-Treaty troops who regarded it as a “pro-British” institution. The boys – some as young as 5 – and the staff were evacuated by the Royal Navy, taken to London and given emergency shelter in a hostel.

The orphanage at Ballyconree, Clifden, Co Galway.

Their plight came to the attention of Andrew Reid – a wealthy, Scottish-born Australian businessman and philanthropist who was visiting London. He provided funds for most of the boys to be sent to Australia. They sailed from England aboard the SS Euripides in third-class cabins and were accompanied by a matron, Emily White from Surrey, who settled in Australia and became a life-long friend and mother-figure for the boys. After a six-week voyage they arrived in Sydney and began new lives in the Burnside Homes orphanage at Parramatta.

Letters and emails to The Irish Times in recent weeks suggest the boys were well-cared for. Susan Farrell, for example, said her late father had “often described his time at Burnside as ‘a new heaven and a new Earth’ ”.

As far as is known, none of the boys ever returned to Ireland, and many seem to have lived happy and fulfilled lives in Australia. All are now presumed deceased. But they passed on memories of their childhood in Ireland and the burning of the orphanage. Those for whom records have been found were not natives of Connemara but were transferred to Ballyconree from different locations in Ireland.

Emily White, the matron from Surrey who accompanied the boys to Australia and became a mother figure to them

Some of their families are actively engaged in the complex, and often frustrating, task of researching their roots, and are anxious to contact long-lost relatives in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the fate of Connemara’s Protestant orphan girls remains unknown. Although their orphanage was not attacked, the British authorities also evacuated the girls and staff as a precautionary measure.

They were taken to Devonport by the Royal Navy in July 1922 and, with the assistance of Lady (Nancy) Astor, the MP for Plymouth, were provided with temporary accommodation.

No records have come to light about their subsequent lives.

The trustees of the Ballyconree boys’ orphanage submitted a claim of compensation for £6,438 to the government of the Irish Free State – which formally took office in December 1922, some five months after the burning. It is not known if the money was paid.

A 1922 newspaper report from Australia has come to light which asserted the attackers tried to burn the boys alive in a hay barn after the main orphanage building was destroyed.

The Argus newspaper claimed to have interviewed the boys during their stopover in Melbourne, en route to Sydney, and reported: “According to the stories of some of the boys, they were afterwards locked in a barn, which was sprinkled with petrol and set on fire, and some of the boys bear marks of healed burns.”

The Irish Times has contacted descendants of three of the orphans in Australia who said, to their knowledge, their fathers had not been physically hurt during the incident.

It has also not been possible to verify claims that local people in Clifden looted the orphanage after the fire.

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