The True Story Behind "Orphan Girl"
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
Lately, I’ve enjoyed creating videos of me singing some of my favorite songs. While my recorded music features what I’ve written, there is a large repertoire of music that has inspired me over the years. As much as I love singing my original songs, I also love creating my own versions of my favorite songs by other artists.
I’m devoting more time to my YouTube channel to share some songs that have been really special to me for a variety of reasons. I made a playlist of the cover songs I’ve posted thus far, and over the next several weeks, I will be posting more. If you ever have any requests, let me know!
My most recent cover, Orphan Girl, is a song with a rich history behind it. It was written by Brendan Graham, whose internationally renowned anthem, You Raise Me Up, was made popular by Josh Groban. The Irish songwriter was commissioned to write Orphan Girl for the Annual Great Famine Commemoration in 2012.
Starting in the 1840s, the Great Irish Famine, or the “Great Hunger,” devastated not only the Emerald Isle, but all of Western Europe. The famine is largely responsible for the Irish diaspora, and those of Irish decent are found in countries all over the world to this day. Even so, the famine claimed the lives of over one million, and inevitably left behind orphaned children who had to make a way for themselves. Many found work in the already overpopulated workhouses in an attempt to scratch out a living.
In the meantime, the British Empire had acquired Australia as a British colony and there was a severe shortage of women. Men outnumbered women in some areas by eight to one.
Thus, the Earl Grey Scheme.
Earl Grey was the Secretary of State for the Colonies and suggested a government sponsored program to alleviate the surplus of girls in the Irish workhouses and help populate Australia.
To qualify for the voluntary program, orphan girls had to be 14-18 years old, and had to pass inspection to ensure they were healthy, of good character, and hard workers. Candidates were also tested for literacy, but many were accepted despite lacking in this area. From 1848-1850, nearly 4,000 Irish orphan girls made passage from Ireland to Australia under this program.
These were brave young women. While Australia offered the hope of a better life, the passage meant a (most likely) permanent goodbye to their Irish homeland and any remaining family. Records show that some faced abuse and discrimination upon arrival, but most flourished, married, and had children of their own. Their contribution to Australian history is significant.
Sadly, their story has been forgotten or unknown by many, but Orphan Girl helps us remember. Music has the ability to help us remember what is easily forgotten, and their story stands to remind us of the bravery and hope that can be found in even the darkest of times.
“The Earl Grey Scheme and the Emigration of Girls from the Workhouses of Laois,” from the Laois Heritage Society
“The Story of the Irish Famine Orphan Girls Shipped to Australia” by Siobhan O’Neill, The Irish Times
“The Great Irish Potato Famine” from the History Cooperative