Mary Athy wore this wedding dress when she married James Murney in the Milton Catholic church on 2 October 1871. Mary’s dress is a fine example of an early 1870s day dress. The crinoline cage support of the 1860s has gone and the skirt, while still voluminous, is now tucked up behind to form a bustle, accentuated by the apron effect. It fastens centre front with decorative buttons and is machine-stitched with just some hand finishing. The fabric is a lavender silk with a finely striped pattern. It is liberally decorated with purple and cream fringing as well as braid, both typical of this period. The bright colours reflect the impact of the new synthetic dyes: purple shades were highly popular from about 1860-1874. There are clear marks of wear and tear – perspiration stains and slight tears – that suggest that Mary wore the dress a number of times after her wedding.

Mary was born at Oranmore, County Galway, Ireland in 1848. She was part of a steady flow of Galway people who emigrated to Otago from the late 1850s. Usually one member of a family, or even a locality, would make the journey. Once they were established they would send home for friends or relations, often standing surety for them in provincial immigration schemes. These ‘nominations’ for assisted passages helped many Irish Catholics circumvent the selection criteria for Otago migrants that favoured Protestants. The provincial agents would include Irish Catholics only when they were struggling to fill a ship and often felt obliged to explain their presence on Otago-bound ships. Chain migration was thus more significant for Irish Catholics than among other Otago migrants and helps explain why so many of the early Irish arrivals came from the same home parishes.

Mary Athy arrived with her father and eldest brother in 1863 on the Mataura. Her mother and five other siblings followed two years later. Mary worked for two years in Dunedin before moving to Milton to be near her family. Here she met James Murney, a labourer and a fellow Catholic, who had emigrated to Otago from County Down. Following their wedding the couple set out by dray on the arduous five day journey south to Tapanui, where James had bought land. Their farm ‘Mourne Park’ became the place where South Otago Catholics gathered for Mass in the early years. Mary lived there for over fifty years until her death in 1925. She had four sons and three daughters and was highly regarded by her fellow settlers in the Tapanui district.
Production Date
1565(h) x 600(w) x 480(d) mm