Review of Famine Rock Commemoration

Debra Vaughan, Sarah OMalley & Ambassador White, IFO Bay Trail Marker 2015

Ambassador White and Debra Vaughan

This gathering was the eighteenth annual commemoration of the Great Famine, plus the arrival of the Earl Grey Scheme Orphan Girls to Hobson’s Bay: the largest and best of those events. Of course Melbourne’s perfect weather was a winner – blue skies, twenty five degrees and a light sou’westerly breeze off the Bay. More than 150 people enjoyed a stimulating, entertaining and educational afternoon. There was an array of professional and amateur musicians and singers, and two outstanding addresses from inspiring speakers.

The performers included Leo Kelly on Uillean Pipes, the soprano voice of sister Janet Kelly; the newly formed trio Cora Browne, Vince Brophy and Felix Meagher, Cora Browne and the Cropboys, of musical fame The Man They Call the Banjo, and Famine to Feast; 1849 poetry defending the teenaged Orphans, delivered by Jake Gallagher, and Kathleen Kiernan on tin whistle with crowd pleaser, The Butterfly. Most importantly, the sound system was perfect, thanks to Felix, Ned Dawson, with knowledgeable volunteer, Arthur Burmeister. The Altona Film Club provided two auteurs, Tom Gruevski and Marcus Cozzolino to film and video the proceedings.

The driving force of the last six annual events was Debra Vaughan, a producer and director par excellence. Debra has the capacity to draw large crowds, organise every single logistic detail and has the support of an ever-generous Hobson’s Bay City Council to give even more assistance, equipment and labour for this especial memorial visit from the Irish Ambassador. The new Mayor Peter Hemphill, a keen genealogist, with history as one of his year’s major mayoral themes, spoke warmly in support of this moving commemoration and was enthusiastically welcomed and applauded.

Lady Kennaway carried many orphans

Lady Kennaway carried many orphans

But, second to Debra, mention must be made of the second driving force and founder of the event itself, Val Noone, who acted, as usual, as MC. He was an eloquent and masterful stage manager and spoke movingly of the Famine Rock itself. The whole day ran smoothly and professionally.

A unique and popular feature of the day is the call for descendants to identify their ancestor and ship, as part of the wreath laying ceremony. This strengthens many bonds, for example of descendants sharing a particular ship, telling more of the stories, revealing ‘lost’ cousins. Part of Debra’s ongoing work and writing is in recording the stories of the Famine orphans.

Val Noone then had the honour and privilege to introduce His Excellency Mr Noel White, Ambassador for Ireland (thanks to the initiative of Debra, and the work of Deputy Head of Mission, Sarah Mangan and Executive Assistant Elizabeth Coyle). The Ambassador has a distinguished career in many important postings including ministering to Australia, New Zealand, Papua & New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, covering a huge area of the South Pacific.

His speech was a most valuable contribution to the day and kept the rapt attention of the large assembly. He covered the history of his own country and its relationship to ours. He convinced all that he was enjoying every minute of his stay in Australia and emphasised how comfortable he felt in our company, and in the particular and singular tone of the culture Australia has developed in so short a period. Perhaps the main emphasis of his address was to the impressive histories of all the Irish diaspora around the world, that population being estimated in the order of seventy million persons, of which Australia has a significant proportion! It was a truly inspiring and uplifting speech and it drew prolonged and resounding applause.

Our next speaker was Ada Ackerly, local historian with long-term positions in the Williamstown Historical Society, currently as Museum Director. Her subject Those Feisty Girls, was on the history roles played by the over 1700 orphan girls put ashore, at the very site of our ceremony, from the six sailing ships which brought them from Irish Workhouses between December 1848 and March 1850. She showed an intimate knowledge of the history pertaining to those times and was very polished in conveying that dramatic narrative to her audience. In so doing, she demonstrated her long-standing experience with her subject, since she was in Joy Roy’s Genealogical Society of Victoria’s research team for Trevor McClaughlin’s seminal work Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, Vol. 1.

Anne Barrow came as an orphan from Mallow

Anne Barrow came as an orphan from Mallow

Council was represented by this particular Ward’s Councillors, Paul Morgan, and the redoubtable Angela Altair, long-time supporter and encourager. Beryl O’Gorman, President of GSV’s Irish Ancestry Group and Blarney editor, donated many books to the cause. She survived the popularity and management of the book table, as well as overseeing the afternoon tea table, with the help of Evvo’s Mobile Coffee Van, ably manned by Ken and Ellis Evans. Extra scholarship was provided by Anchor Books, represented by Liz and Peter Rushen, author and publisher respectively.

Further support was provided by HBCC’s Cultural & Economic Development Department’s Events’ Manager Hazel Finnie, with Billie and family, and HBCC’s Community Learning Development and Libraries head, Paula Kelly.

Apologies and some but not all, of the best wishes, were from Kerry novelist Kay Caball, John O’Reilly, Barbara Barclay, Christina Henri, and Evelyn Conlon.

Siobhan O’Neill’s expertise was expended non-stop for participants at the book tent, in particular, as a volunteer guide for the Irish Govt’s website Ireland Reaching Out, linking the 70 million strong diaspora. (She will also be delivering a March 2016 Williamstown Historical Society lecture from another facet of her Irish expertise, as a respected Ned Kelly expert.)

Val Noone and Peter Kieran were able to put out a third reprint of 1998’s ceremony booklet, Melbourne and the Irish Famine, a small gem of fine scholarship and introduction. An especial thanks to Kathleen Kiernan, who worked so calmly and capably, backed by partner Arthur Burmeister, as Debra’s aide-de-camp on the day.

His Excellency circulated through the crowd, many of whom queued to shake his hand. His enthusiasm and generous affection for Australians and Irish alike was impressive. It was a mutual admiration.

What a successful day – I can’t wait for 2016.

Peter Kiernan.

Peter is a regular contributor and founding member of both Táin and Tinteán

See also: Reflection