Memorialising the Famine

Perry McIntyre, Famine Rock commemoration, Williamstown, Victoria, 2012. Photo by Vince Brophy 2012

Perry McIntyre, Famine Rock commemoration, Williamstown, Victoria, 2012. Photo by Vince Brophy 2012

What follows is an edited version of a talk given by Dr Perry McIntyre at the Famine Rock Memorial  at Williamstown on 18 November 2012.

The first part of this talk concerns memoralisation of the Famine, specifically the background to the building of The Australian Monument to The Great Irish Famine, named as such at the unveiling. It stands at Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney incorporated into the wall which offered protection for immigrant women, beginning with the first shipload of workhouse orphan women and, ironically, standing on the site of the original barracks kitchens.

In the second part of the talk, I want briefly to place these young Irish immigrants to Australia between 1848 and 1850 in the context of single female immigration and compare and bring them into a 21st century context.

As the current chairman of the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee I also want to encourage all of you to contribute to our vision to capture the historical data on these young immigrant women so that it can be shared globally – through our website – not just by descendants but by historians everywhere including by people in Ireland who until now had thought these people lost from their families and homeland.

While the memory of the Famine in Ireland may have long lingered in the psyche of the Irish people, it was little spoken of until the sesquicentenary approached in the 1990s. I remember being involved in Sydney with visitors from the Commemoration Department of the Irish Government and historians from across the country gave seminars and lectures at that time. (Dr. Val Noone was  involved and The Famine Rock monument at Williamstown grew from the impetus of that time.) In this paper I want to tell you a little bit about the Sydney monument.

In March 1995 President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, visited Sydney. Her left-of-centre politics, her strong commitment to human rights as well as her concern and compassion for victims of the famine endeared her to many, particularly the Irish-Australian community. She called on the Irish community in Australia to mark the memory of The Great Famine in some special way, just as she had done at Grosse Isle in August 1995 where she said ‘The Great Irish Famine Commemoration is a moral act because it is a part of the shaping of us in our sense of Irishness. We are shaped by that dark time’.

Tom Power from Clonmel, Tipperary on the Waterford border was at that time Chairman of the Tipperary Association in Sydney. He was inspired by Mary Robinson’s call and with the help of many Irish-born supporters after some considerable lead-up, he formed a committee to fund-raise, select a statue (the thought at the time) and a place to erect it.

Richard O’Brien was the Irish Ambassador to Australia. He was (and is) an eloquent and entertaining speaker whose understanding of commemorating The Great Famine was different from the way it was understood by the rank and file in the Irish community. He said, ‘It is appropriate that Irish people and those of Irish descent everywhere should rescue the famine dead from the oblivion of that awful time.’ In 1996 a fund was sent up, the Irish Government brought a 45-piece orchestra from Ireland to launch Dr Charles Lennon’s composition ‘Famine Suite’. Concerts were organised in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. These events gave further  impetus to the initiative to commemorate Earl Grey’s Irish workhouse immigrant women and remember the Famine and its legacy.

In November 1995, at a meeting of the Irish County Associations, Tom Power was elected Chairman of the Commemoration Committee with a project brief for the monument to be erected in 12 months. It took almost four years to become a reality! It is not appropriate here to give a full history of that time but finally with the co-operation of the Historic Houses Trust, particularly Mr Lynn Collins who was Curator of the Hyde Park Barracks at the time, the NSW Premier Bob Carr, the Irish Government, both in Ireland and through the work of the Irish Ambassador, the Australian Government, the descendants of the girls and interested members of the Irish and Australian community, fundraising began. It was often against some very strong public objections.

Tenders were called – there were 160 requests for the tender brief for the memorial and 41 serious tenders were submitted from all over the world. Finally, on 4 December 1997, the design chosen was that of Hossein and Angela Valmanesh (immigrants themselves – from Iran). By then budgets had risen to $200,000. The final figure was in the region of $350,000. On 28 August 1999,  Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, unveiled the memorial in the presence of an estimated 2,500 people including 800 Famine orphan descendants.

Today the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee runs three outreach programmes. One supports a programme for Sudanese refugees run by the Sisters of Mercy at Mamre House, St Mary’s. We also fund a prize at Macquarie University and have established a bursary at University of Western Sydney for a female student who came to Australia as a refugee. We hope that in time this bursary will become a fully supporting scholarship. In this way, the memory of the Irish orphan girls and the famine – in fact, modern global famines – is kept alive in the mind of the public through current-day refugees.

Since the unveiling, a commemoration event has been held each year on the last Sunday of August. This reminds people of the legacy of the Famine orphan girls and, in the spirit of Mary Robinson’s first call, remembers those who are victims of famine today.

The commemoration continues in Ireland today. I’d like to draw your attention to a book recently published in Ireland: The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine (John Crowley (editor). In a review of that book in The Irish Times, historian and friend, Kevin Whelan wrote:

 It is incorrect to describe this event as the Irish Famine; it is more accurately the British famine, occurring within the United Kingdom. And if we adopted the term the British famine, it would encourage us to think harder about how surprising it was that famine should sweep so unhindered through the most powerful state on the planet. Its utterly astonishing geopolitical location is ultimately what distinguishes the Great Famine in Ireland from modern famines, which occur in more marginal economies. A contemporary equivalent might be famine in the American heartland, such as Iowa or Nebraska. While we still call it the Irish Famine, we adopt too narrow a perspective.

Earl Grey’s famine orphan scheme brought 4412 young women to Sydney, Port Phillip (as it was then) and Adelaide between the years of 1848 and 1850. About one third came to Port Phillip—a significant part of the total, and it is wonderful that through the enthusiasm and energy of  Val Noone and his committee, we now have The Famine Rock at Williamstown.

The Melbourne Famine Rock Memorial

In 1998 this Memorial, The Famine Rock at Williamstown, was dedicated by the Irish Ambassador and both Sydney and Melbourne have now developed their own way to remember the Famine immigrants and those who were forced to flee their homeland because of economic, political or social pressures. On behalf of the workhouse orphans, their descendants, historians and the local community I would like to thank Val Noone for organising to have this memorial erected at Williamstown. His ongoing enthusiasm for Ireland, its history, its language and the fate of its people is an inspiration to many of us. I would also like to thank Debra Vaughan for her work holding events such as this and for inviting me to speak today and giving me an opportunity to meet you. Memorialisation is important because ‘those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes’.

Australia had always had a shortage of women due to the larger number of men who were transported and the larger male workforce. The story is, of course, much more complicated than that. You will have to read your history books for the in-depth story. It is very important to read beyond the single story of your ancestors if you want to understand the context of their lives – both in Ireland and in Australia. Two books I can recommend which, among others, are Farewell My Children (Richard Reid) and Fair Game (Liz Rushen and Perry McIntyre).

Farewell My Children covers immigration schemes and gives a fantastic and very readable overview of Irish emigration to Australia from the time of the Famine through the 19th century, with background to Famine emigration including the workhouse orphans. (Its author, Dr Richard Reid, will be well known to many of you as a historian and engaging speaker.)

Fair Game looks at the first group of single women who came to Australia in the 1830s. Two ships, the Red Rover to Sydney with Irish women and the Princess Royal to Hobart with English women, were selected by the emigration commissioners in London as a trial to see if the importation of large groups of single women would work for the colonies. Such was the success of this scheme that 14 more ships with single women sailed to Australia during the 1830s and a significant number of these women were from Ireland. Some, like the orphan girls, were from institutions but most were from very respectable families. You need to always keep in mind that no immigrant group is homogeneous.

Almost all these women survived the first difficult years of settling in, of being indentured servants and finding a life partner. These women, both those of the 1830s and the later women from the Irish workhouses, contributed to the pioneering communities throughout Australia. A number who sailed into Hobson’s Bay and landed at Williamstown were quickly absorbed into the local population. The descendants of these women are the people who we, as historians, owe a great debt, for rounding out their life stories, for providing photographs of the women and thus allowing us who write about them as a group to tell the overview story.

The experiences of the Emigration Commissions in bring women to the colonies in the 1830s enabled them to put in place solid procedures which benefited all future emigrants – surgeons on the ships took care of emigrants, they were housed in depots until they were able to find employment and the single women were protected from prying and lecherous eyes until hired out.

Like the Famine orphans, the Red Rover and the Princess Royal girls of 1832 were considered a successful group of immigrants.

Dr Liz Rushen, a Victorian historian well known to you all, wrote a fine PhD on this topic which is now available as the book, Single & Free. Other than Fair Game, together she and I have written two more books on the 1830s emigrant women: Quarantined and The Merchant’s Women. These books are not just about these individual women but provide important information you need to know about the commencement of single, free, female immigration, the conditions under which they emigrated and their colonial reception. The 1830s experience allows us to understand better the experiences of the workhouse orphans who came in the mid 1840s under the regulations of land and emigration commissions.

I encourage you all to contribute the details of your ancestors so we can add them to the Famine orphan website. I manage the website that has been helped by the Irish Government emigrant programme and, while managed in Sydney, it is for everyone – whether you live in Sydney, Melbourne, Bourke, Ballarat, Perth, Darwin, Ireland or India. Of the six ships that came to Port Phillip, at present we have contact with descendants of 243 women. This is great but I want to capture details of all 4,412 for the website. Most of today’s audience probably live in Victoria but I’d be surprised if all those who are descendants of workhouse orphans are descendants of those who sailed into Port Phillip. They were a mobile lot and so are we. In the modern age the best way to contact you is by email. Part of the job of the website is to share our information, no matter where you live.

I might be of Sydney for several generations but I have at least four ancestors who came into Victoria in the 1830s-1850s – Irish, English and Greek. We are here to celebrate our Irishness, our multiculturalism, as well as remember the Aboriginal nations who were here before us.

I want to finish with a poem written by a Canberra poet, Frank McMahon, who died a few years ago and, I am sure, would be delighted to have his poem read at this gathering. It is sobering but I think we need reflection as well as celebration on days like this. Archaeologists in Ireland are beginning to find the scars of the Famine on the landscape and this poem deals with the landscape and the psyche of the Famine.

Famine Shadow
(Clonakilty, Co Cork)

This ditch ran through our family’s legends – bleak
and gully-deep with tellings handed down
from stories that her mother’s mother told.
Of how they lay the dead here heads to feet,
blessed them, tipped them in then turned away
to bring the others out. How in the time
they counted dead by miles not heads, they lined
The road to Castlefreke.
And standing where that half-seen scar runs on
through granite, green and lead, unyielding hills
the ditch seems such a narrow thing – four
five feet wide, three feet perhaps – no more.
But god, it’s long.

Frank McMahon

Dr Perry McIntyre 

Perry is a genealogist, an historian, and Adjunct Lecturer at the Global Irish Studies Centre, University of New South Wales, and chairman of the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee (Sydney).