Image: Melita Rowston’s research into the experience of Irish convict history in Australia took her to Ireland as well as the remains of the Parramatta Female Factory.  

A cacophony of wailing will be the audience’s first peek into the experience of Irish convict women in Australia when UNE Theatre Studies PhD student Melita Rowston’s production ‘The Incorrigibles’ opens.

Melita’s research and creative work is shining a light on a little-known corner of Australian history, but one that resonates today. Her drama highlights life at the Parramatta Female Factory, which operated from 1821 to 1848 as Australia’s first institution built to control women, where all convict women converged. While over 50 per cent of the women were Irish, little is remembered about their experience.

The play opens at the scene of a real-life event – an 1831 riot at the factory, with the Irish convict women protesting having their heads shaved. The rest of the play focuses on the building tension over the previous night.

“These women had hair down to their ankles, it was an Irish tradition. There are many Irish songs that talk about long, unwinding hair. It’s really the last thing that could be taken from them to further dehumanise the women and mark them as convicts,” Melita says.

That taking began on the other side of the seas, with the women leaving their homeland, family and even young children behind.

Overall, I was struck particularly by the petitions I came across from so many of the women to bring their young children with them when they were transported. Many were denied, and would never see their children again.

“Others had their children taken when they arrived and placed in an orphanage. I was shocked by the extent of it. There was this belief convict women could never actually love a child. It had these echoes of what happened to First Nations people.”

The power of voice 

What they had left, Melita said, was their voices. The more she uncovered about these women and their harrowing experiences in her research, the more she found the powerful way they used their voices – from rioting to wailing in grief. 

“UNE’s Faculty of HASSE funded a fieldwork scholarship so I could go to the archives, the National Folklore Collection at University College in Dublin. The Irish culture was an oral culture, with high illiteracy, so the folklore archives started writing down oral histories, as well as audio recording some of them in the 1930s.”

During the process of studying these Irish records with a team of historians and translators, Melita learnt about the performance tradition of Irish caoineadh, or ‘keening’ songs, which was a way to pass down stories and “express inexpressible emotions”.

I photographed hundreds and hundreds of these records, and took a selection to the Irish language experts. it opened a door to a whole other world. It’s a learned tradition, and something women would do over a corpse at a funeral or in the throes of loss. It was a way of releasing grief,” Melita says.

Reconstructing these powerful sounds became an important element of Melita’s drama, including the “unearthly” wailing during the riot to open the play expressing anger about the situation.

Later in the play she uses the transcription of a song lamenting the loss of a child. Her characters also turn to keening songs in moments where words fail to express how they’re feeling – such as when placed in solitary confinement. The songs link them to their homeland and ancestors, and give them hope they too can survive. 

Aside from the “mammoth” research element required, Melita said a challenge of her work has been making an unknown history relatable to an audience.

“But I’ve had one cold read of the script with the actors, and the drama feels formed, it’s getting positive responses from the actors and industry, and people are getting quite invested in the play’s outcome.

“I’ve been very well supported by my supervisors, Dr Julie Shearer and Dr Richard Jordan. Their beautiful guidance and provocation means I’ve pushed myself as a playwright.”  

History past and present

Though not well known, Melita says the history explored in the play should be meaningful to many Australians.

“About 1 in 10 Australians today are descendants of women held at the Parramatta Female Factory,” Melita says. “That place set the tone for how women transported to Australia were treated.

“But with most records deliberately burnt, there are huge gaps in knowledge of what happened there, which is one reason for this PhD. Local family history research is also playing a role rediscovering some of this history.”

Melita says efforts to reconstruct this history help make sense of the present.

“People think history is in the past, but it has so many reverberations and gives insight into why we’re where we are now. We wonder about our culture, and why there is so much toxic masculinity, domestic violence, assault, even pay gaps and gender inequality.

“There’s still this notion of immigrants and refugees being ‘other’ – we still treat people so poorly.

“Understanding past traumas gives us tools to move forward and a better understanding of humanity to be able to make change in present society.”

Melita hopes her play, ‘The Incorrigibles’, will be able to be staged in 2025.