Irish Times
5 Apr 2012

Gail Mulhern yesterday visiting the cell in Wicklow jail in which her great-great grandmother Eliza Davis was held. (Photograph: Eric Luke)

THE MEMORY of an Irish woman convict transported for life to Australia will be celebrated tonight at Wicklow’s historic jail.

Eliza Davis had a miserable upbringing. Raised in a Dublin foundling home, she had severe epilepsy from birth and was sent out to work as a servant to a farmer when she was 17.

She had a child by the farmer, but he was not obliged to marry her because he was Catholic and she was Protestant.

She asked him for £2 a year and he refused. Eliza lost her job and home and was refused entry to the poor house, probably because of her epilepsy.

Worse followed when her little boy drowned and she was convicted of infanticide and sentenced to death at the age of 22. Her sentence was commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania, in 1844.

Eliza made a new life for herself in Tasmania, eventually ending up with a Yorkshire convict with whom she had six children, having previously had three with a man who was sent to a lunatic asylum.

She ended her days as a midwife and lived to the ripe old age, for that time, of 68 or 69.

She will be remembered tonight in a play to be staged in Wicklow gaol, where she was incarcerated before being sent for transportation.

The play will be watched by her great-great granddaughter Gail Mulhern (61), who grew up in Tasmania.

Ms Mulhern said she was “very proud” of her ancestor, particularly given her success in surviving against the odds.

Ms Mulhern also contends that the evidence to convict Eliza was questionable and she may have accidentally killed her child during a fit.

While having a convict ancestor was once a source of shame in Australia, it is now something that Australians are happy to acknowledge or even boast about.

Eliza’s story will be re-enacted before the Australian ambassador Bruce Davis and his wife this evening, along with 100 other guests.

Her story is meant to symbolise the 25,566 women who were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1853 from Britain and Ireland. It was the only alternative to the hangman’s rope for many.

Ms Mulhern has brought with her a hand-sewn bonnet made to commemorate both Eliza and all the other female convicts who were transported to Australia.