EJANZH: Irish Convicts


Reviewed by Kevin Blackburn, School of Arts, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

At the above website location, there is an Irish convict database called ‘Transportation Records for 1791 to 1836’, which is part of the much larger National Archives of Ireland’s Family History and Genealogy website. The database is constructed from card records of thousands of Irish convicts sentenced to transportation to Australia.

Using the database in class is so easy that students require hardly any computer skills, little preparation, and only a few instructions. These attributes alone are enough to recommend the website to teachers in the schools and universities conducting classes on the convicts transported to Australia. The most obvious advantages of the database are that it is free and can be used simultaneously by all students in a fairly basic computer lab. In contrast, printed databases in book form are of limited use if the teacher wants all the students in the tutorial group to look at the data at the same time. This is because there is usually only one copy of the book available in the library.

A tutorial with the students using the Irish convict database increases interest in the subject. Using the database gives the students an indication of the crimes that the convicts were convicted of and who they were. The students enjoy the freedom to go through the entries on individuals. Many students tend to be conversant with information technology before they set foot in the classroom. However, even students with comparatively low levels of computer skills can go through the database and easily analyse, interpret, and draw conclusions.

A variety of activities can be set for students, but these are somewhat limited by the range of data on the convicts that can be analysed. A simple activity that I have usually set is to get the students to use the data to assess the image of the Irish convicts as protestors who were convicted of ‘political crimes’. Besides searching the records for individuals by name, students can also enter in a ‘crime’, and come up with the number of offenders, and then list them. Information on each convict also includes their age, where and when they were sentenced, as well as the length and some circumstances of their sentence. Unfortunately their occupations are not given.

The Irish convict database does not come with explanations of the crimes that the convicts committed. It needs to be used in conjunction with printed sources that explain the types of crimes the convicts were committing. Using Lloyd Robson’s 1965 book The Convict Settlers of Australia is reasonably okay for this purpose. Robson constructed his own database which went into the details of the crimes that the convicts were convicted of before they were transported to Australia. However, Robson’s descriptions of these crimes can be very short. His explanations of the ‘crimes’ of being a Whiteboy or a member of the Ribbon societies are so short they do not even appear in his index. From reading Robson, students would not feel that they were familiar with these crimes to give more than just a one sentence description of them, eg they were crimes of political and social protest, which is not really satisfactory given the prevalence of these ‘offenders’. Unfortunately, for comprehensive answers, students using the database need to be directed to more specialised literature. It is desirable that detailed descriptions be available on the spot for the students as they come across them during their individual searches of the database. Therefore it is tempting to ask those who maintain the Irish convict database to provide some explanations of what constituted the more general crimes in Ireland at that time.

Ideally, I would like to have many of the so called ‘crimes’ clarified. Quite a few of the crimes on the database do not really give an indication of what the convict was actually doing, eg treason, high treason, larceny, etc. However, I like the one for Anne Brady – transportation for stealing a hanky. This is a good specific description, but leaves the researcher wondering what were the circumstances?

Anyway, these are the problems in constructing a convict database and simplifying it so generalisations can be made. My students and I over the last 3 years have enjoyed using the Irish convict database and recommend it because it is freely available and the easiest of the computerised convict databases to use.