The Famine Rock Commemoration 2014

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Famine Rock Commemoration

The Annual Commemoration Of Victims Of The Great Famine and of the orphan girls who subsequently arrived in Australia took place on  Sunday 23rd November 2014 at The Strand, Williamstown, Sunday, 23 November 2014

That Sunday was a typical early summer day in Melbourne, blue skies, very warm but a spanking southerly breeze of 20 knots which disturbed hats and caressed the microphones intermittently. But Ned Dawson the soundman was not defeated and he ensured excellent sound throughout the day.

Firstly, I must introduce the producer/director of this most successful ceremony, Debra Vaughan of Williamstown. She has continued, with ever-increasing success, to manage this annual event which started in 1998 but since she took it over has built up an attendance of over 130 persons. The key is her hard work, her salesmanship and enthusiasm and her warm relationship to the Hobson’s Bay City Mayor and Councillors, performers and especially the volunteer helpers.

Debra introduced Dr Val Noone, the Master of Ceremonies par excellence and the show proceeded without a flaw for over two hours. The programme was full and non-stop and I can only introduce the performers with brief comments.

A welcome to country by Val and laying of flowers at the Rock opened proceedings, followed by his welcome to the Mayor, Colleen Gates, the former Mayor Sandra Wilson and other local officials and Historical Societies’ representatives. Mayor Gates spoke first and she related how moved she was in learning of and studying the history of the Irish Orphan girls who landed on these shores in 1848 and after. She described the bigoted and racist prejudices of many locals and pernicious publications and how difficult it must have been for those young girls to cope and yet rise above it.

Val then gave a brief history of our Rock and its unveiling in November 1998, and the arrival of the six ships in turn, carrying a total of over 1700 orphan girls from Irish Workhouses. He invited those descendant attendees to name their orphan girl and her ship, and there were many happy links amongst the crowd. He explained the influence on this country’s culture of those and all the other Irish immigrants and how they put a stamp on our national character, very significant today.

The perennial Leo Kelly (he has never missed performing since the unveiling) played a lament on his Uillean Pipes and some airs, all so haunting and evocative as we gazed across the sparkling Hobson’s Bay and felt the wind on our cheeks.

The guest speaker, Dr. Christina Henri from Hobart, (Tasmanian Senior of the Year 2013 and Artist-in-Residence at the Cascades Female Factory), delivered a studious and gripping address on her published Expectations of Hope, Anticipation of Love? This was a sensitive and thoughtful tribute to these Irish immigrants who were transplanted in a foreign environment and challenged as best they could to deal with it. She used the example of orphan Anne Morrow, Pemberton to illustrate her talk. It was significant there were twenty three nationalities represented throughout the Yuille descendant generations today.

Janet Kelly, with her light and pure soprano voice, sang, unaccompanied, She Moved Through the Fair. It was a perfect tribute to those girls and to all Irish women who came out, only to dream of their beloved homeland.

And then, perhaps the tour de force of the day, the local Irish group, Taisce (pron. Tash-ka) comprising Martin Dougherty, Peter Quinn and Tommy O’Neill who played and sang Gleanntain Ghas, Gnaoth Dobhair. This strong and aggressive Irish tenor’s piece tells of forced emigration from Co Donegal. They continued with two reels, The Maids of Mount Cisco and The Star of Munster. This outstanding performance was electric, demanding and moving to a degree.

Debra Vaughan herself gave a most relevant and sentimental description of her interest in the orphan girls, she being the proud descendant of one Sarah O’Malley of the Pemberton. She also pointed out the newly installed wooden and enamel Bay Trail Marker very nearby, which the Council erected as part of the mapped walking route and which is dedicated to our orphan girls. It is a very handsome piece opposite the Rock. Graduate student, Jake Gallagher, ex St Marys Primary School, recited a famine period poem written by that school’s Headmaster of 1849. This was a repeat performance by him and it was a respectful acknowledgement of our shared commemorative history.

Cora Browne, an impressive Irish soprano, then sang quite beautifully A Woman’s Heart and another romantic song.

Kathleen Kiernan played the tin whistle in a very polished style as she has done at many of these ceremonies. It was The Butterfly and was dedicated to the flight of the girls from their beloved native land.

And finally, Leo Kelly again arranged his pipes and as ever, closed this so successful commemoration with his lament.

I want to end this brief and almost abrupt report with my impression of the occasion. Discussing the afternoon with several separate groups of those attending, I found the common reaction was one of a deep and sincere appreciation of the civility and gravity of the prevailing atmosphere of this gathering. How welcome to be present and part of a civilised and serious occasion, and how relieving to be in an atmosphere far from coarse and aggressive, so different to what we were about to return to in the hurly-burly of our Australia today. There were no arguments over this, no qualifications. Were we all deluded? I think not.

Peter Kiernan

Peter is a founding member of Tinteán