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Finding ‘Irish Iris’ at the Adelaide Destitute Asylum

People of Adelaide

Emma Ashmere is a widely published South Australia writer. Her newest book, Dreams They Forgot, is a collection of short stories exploring the lives of diverse characters through time and space - from a grand 1860s Adelaide music hall to a dilapidated London squat, from a modern Melbourne hospital to the 1950s Maralinga test site, to the 1990s diamond mines of Borneo. 

Undercut with longing and unbelonging, absurdity and tragedy, thwarted plans and fortuitous serendipity, each story offers glimpses into the dreams, limitations, gains and losses of fragmented families, loners and lovers, survivors and misfits, as they piece together a place for themselves in the imperfect mosaic of the natural and unnatural world.

Below, Emma shares the inspiration behind Irish Iris, the protagonist in her short story, Nightfall.  This story was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and is published in her new collection, Dreams They Forgot (Wakefield Press, September 2020).

Tucked away behind the State Library on North Terrace is the old Lying-in Home. It’s the only remaining building from the Adelaide Destitute Asylum, and is now part of the Migration Museum. I must have walked past it hundreds of times, but it wasn’t until 1990, when I began a social work degree at the University of South Australia, that I learnt its purpose and its history.

During a tutorial on the pros and cons of the welfare system, our lecturer took us out of the classroom, and across the university grounds to the site of the Destitute Asylum. We stood in the courtyard, shielding our eyes from the midday sun. Despite the warmth, there was a chill, as I tried to picture the people who’d lived within those stone walls, the women who’d peered down at their uncertain futures from the now-empty balcony.

In the 1830s, Adelaide was touted as a ‘utopia’ for white free emigrants. But by 1841, the colony teetered towards collapse. Two years later, an Act was passed, an attempt to address the growing problem of ‘Deserted Wives and Children’ and ‘other destitute persons’.

After ministering ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor relief’ from tents in the West Parklands, several centres were established, including the buildings on Kintore Avenue. Shelter, water and food of varying quality were provided to those deemed to have met strict criteria. First Nations people were eligible, but were housed in separate quarters. Unmarried women and girls gave birth in the Lying-in Home, which closed in 1918.

On the day my class visited, we must have considered how far we’d come as a society – and how much further we still had to go.

Rear wall and archway of the Women¹s Quarters
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Rear wall and archway of the Women¹s Quarters

In 2018, the image of the Asylum resurfaced in my mind. I’d watched in horror as millions of people attempted to migrate to or across Europe, tramping miles along rubbish-strewn railway tracks, camping out in brutal weather, carrying their children, the elderly, the sick, and a few material scraps of their former lives – towards a hopefully better reality. Others washed up on the shores of fashionable tourist haunts.

I’d previously worked as a research assistant for several history books, and had read accounts of Irish mass migration, particularly the women and children sent to work as servants in Australia. Many ended up in crowded depots, or were farmed out to remote properties.

Now I was plugging away on a novel set in the 1800s, trying to decide if my impoverished characters would sail to Adelaide to escape their plight. The researcher’s friend, Trove, gave access to old newspaper articles about the parlous state of carriage-horses on Adelaide streets. Through these glimpses at the past, I tiptoed down greasy stairs to smoky basement opium dens along Hindley Street, dashed across the slimy-floored Turkish baths, and out into the chip-and-chiselling symphony of stonemasons constructing Parliament House.

View of the quadrangle and women¹s ward The photograph was taken in 1918 after the closure of the Asylum

View of the quadrangle and women¹s ward. The photograph was taken in 1918 after the closure of the Asylum. State Records (South Australia)

Photographs showed telegraph poles leaning precariously over a dusty King William Street. Men in top hats gathered on corners. Women strolled, their faces and dresses blurred by the slow-eyed cameras of the day. I dug out a friend’s photograph of the Old Queens Theatre, which once hosted the Prado Music Hall. Now, a high-rise office block loomed at its back.

I found an article about labourers renovating a former anesthetist’s rooms on North Terrace. When they jimmied up the floorboards, they discovered human bones. A sentence snaked into my head. They call me Irish Iris. They say I have eyes everywhere. There was no ‘Irish Iris’ in the novel I was writing. But here she was – this insistent voice, demanding a story of her own.

I wrote my short story, ‘Nightfall’, in one sitting after Irish Iris led me on a self-guided tour of her invented life, passing through the rough Port Adelaide docks, the Prado Music Hall, a respectable doctor’s rooms on North Terrace, and the Destitute Asylum.

Mary Cleary’s book Behind the Wall: The Women of the Destitute Asylum Adelaide, 1852-1918 covers the genesis of the Destitute Asylum, and the lives of several women who lived there. There’s nothing like reading the words, or seeing photographs of people you’ve tried to imagine: their silvered eyes, over-laundered clothes, work-worn hands, their babies dressed in probably borrowed finery. A pair of battered shoes and gloves still holds the shape of the absent woman (or women) who wore and mended them. There was a sketch of the Lying-in Home after it was restored in the 1980s – with its empty balcony.

The archway built in 1854 which led into the Women¹s Quarters in the Destitute Asylum

The archway, built in 1854, which led into the Women¹s Quarters in the Destitute Asylum. State Records (South Australia)

I’m not a historian. I’m a writer, and I sift through other’s hard-won finds, sorting the gold from the grit. From these glittering scraps, I try to create plausible people, places, and plots by enlisting particular verbs, nouns, adjectives, while taking care to anchor my confections in fact – or the blank spaces between those facts.

I wasn’t there when the Asylum brimmed with loud, quiet, sad, enterprising, angry, meek, tenacious residents, whose days and nights revolved around the ringing of a bell, whose next breath and meal depended on somebody else’s charity. But imagination lets you walk through walls, to enter its musty crowded rooms, to hear the sound of matron’s boot clipping across a flagstone, and see the face of a woman mourning a lost love as the evening light is coming in. I wanted to conjure how this might have felt.

The rear south facing wall of the Women¹s Quarters The photo was taken in 1924 after the closure of the Destitute Asylum

The rear, south facing, wall of the Women¹s Quarters. The photo was taken in 1924 after the closure of the Destitute Asylum. State Records (South Australia)

I never did finish that social work degree. My colleagues went on to secure important, rewarding, challenging jobs. I returned to a half-finished Bachelor of Arts degree, made my first forays into writing fiction, and eventually into further studies on the gaps and silences in history.

On the day when my social work class walked through the Destitute Asylum grounds, and we were asked to consider how decisions affect other people’s lives – how they reverberate through the centuries – it was 110 years after South Australian women were formally permitted to earn university degrees. That day, perhaps a few old souls lifted their eyes from their books, or their laundry-work and glove-mending, to watch us – and remind us – as we passed.

Dreams They Forgot by Emma Ashmere

‘Nightfall’ is one of 23 stories in Emma Ashmere’s collection Dreams They Forgot, published by Wakefield Press. This story was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize (Pacific Region).

Read Nightfall here.

Article by

Emma Ashmere

Emma Ashmere


Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia. Her short stories have been widely published. The short stories in her collection Dreams They Forgot have been variously shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016.