Convicts: From Ireland to Australia
The Irish national archives hold a digital database where you can search the Irish convicts who were transported to the colonies in Australia. We will look at the history that lead to this transportation, how to effectively search the database and the information that can be found within them.
Irish prisons were full to the brim and were in dire conditions, therefore transportation was seen as the best way to get rid of what the ruling British saw as "undesirable". However this was merely a way of subjugating the Irish population, by having them live in fear of harsh and unfair treatment. Most of the individuals who were sentenced to transportation were only guilty of petty crimes, as you will see below. Violent or treasonous crimes were punishable by death and therefore these cases were rarely sentenced to transportation. The American colonies were the location of choice for the British Crown during the early to mid 18th century. However the American revolution meant another site had to be found. The first fleet of ships arrived in Botany Bay in 1788. Between 1788 and 1868, 40,000 men, women and children were sent away from their homes, most of who would never return. This number is the same as the modern day population of County Longford. Today 20% of Australians are descended from at least one 'convict'.
How to search the database
Find the Ireland-Australia transportation database here. The search engine is very basic and the site is slow, so follow these steps to get the best out of database.
Click 'switch to advanced search'.
Click ' create new search filter'.
Choose search option ( I recommend Last name).
Click 'add this filter to your query'.
(Optional) add more filters like first name or sex.
In the 'search any field' box, add the county of origin.
Because the site can be slow, I would recommend searching for Last names only at first, so that you browse through, instead of having to reload the page for each search.
Records will provide the basic information: name, sex, age. The trial place will most likely be their home county though not always.
You will find the Date of the trial, crime description and the sentence.
Those sentenced for transportation were normally for the duration of 7 years, after which they were made free.
Some records provide more information, such as this record of Mary Murphy's sentence. Here you see she was imprisoned in a different county than her normal residence. The comment section gives you a townland, county and her family situation. This kind of detail is useful when trying to confirm if this Mary is a distant relative.
This record shows the gross injustice of the Australian transportation sentence. The crime of stealing a shirt can hardly warrant a boy of ten to be sent away to the other side of the world, separated from his widowed mother, most likely for ever.
This database is both fascinating and devastating. It is not only relevant to the direct descendants of the transported, as you may find extended family members in the records. A discovery in this database may explain why you were not able to find that death record for an ancestor. I would recommend playing around with the search fields, making sure to vary your ancestor's name, and locations. Whether or not you make a discovery, this record collection provides insight into the British legal system at that time, and how it affected 40,000 families across Ireland.