Famine Rock Memorial

famine-rock-williamstown-australia-2011_0Event: Annual Commemoration of The Great Irish Famine and the Arrival of Irish Famine Orphan Girls

Where: At the Famine Rock, Burgoyne Reserve, The Strand, cnr of Stevedore Street Williamstown

When: Sunday 20th November 2016 at 3.00 pm 

Cost: Free entry

Further information:  famine-rock-val-noone-invitation-for-20-nov-2016

• Guest of honour: Ambassador of Ireland, Breandán Ó Caollaí
• Laying of flowers: descendants of orphan girls, and others
• Music: Leo Kelly, Cora Browne and Vince Brophy
• Opportunity for other tributes, spoken or musical
• MC: Val Noone

Further details: Val Noone

The following speech was delivered by the His Excellency Noel White, former Irish Ambassador to Australia, in 2015 at the Irish Great Famine and Orphan Girls’ Commemoration Day Famine Rock Williamstown, Victoria, 22 November 2015 

Mayor Hemphill, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen 

A chairde

Is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo libh ar an ócáid speisialta seo. Ta mé fíor bhuíoch díobh as an cuireadh bheith i bhur measc um thráthnona.

I am delighted to be here this afternoon in Williamstown at the annual Famine Commemoration. I am deeply grateful to Debra Vaughan. It is a particular honour to meet the descendants of the ‘orphan girls’ commemorated at this spot.

It is a privilege to be invited to join you in commemorating all those who suffered as a result of the Famine and to pay respects to the ‘orphan girls’ that landed here over that period of 3 years – 1848 to 1850. We remember them with respect; we salute their resilience and we acknowledge their triumph over adversity. We also celebrate them; the lives they forged; and the enduring links they established between our two countries, Ireland and Australia.

Drawing on the inscription on the Rock, this event offers an opportunity to reflect on their legacy; on our diaspora more generally; and on how to this day, the Great Famine influences Ireland’s interaction with the wider world.

Impact of the Great Irish Famine 

In memory of one million people who died in Ireland during the Great Hunger of 1845-52 

The Great Irish Famine is by far the most important story of modern Ireland. It had a profound and devastating effect. It shaped Ireland’s towns, villages and cities; its attitudes, politics and culture. It is the dividing line in our historical narrative.

And it is not confined to Ireland; its impact has been felt all over the world, including here in Australia.

The immediate consequence of the Famine is usually expressed in terms of demographics. Ireland went from being a country of some 8.5 million in 1846 to one of some 6.5 million by 1857. Close on 1 million people died as a direct consequence of the Famine. More than I million and a quarter fled the country to escape the suffering, starvation, evictions and harsh living conditions. Ireland’s population figures have never recovered to pre-Famine levels.

In praise of tens of thousands of dispossessed Irish who sailed to Hobson`s Bay to build a new life. 

The flip side is reflected here in Australia. The inscription refers to the “tens of thousands of dispossessed Irish who sailed to Hobson’s Bay to build a new life”. Apart from the substantive impact this would have on the colony – what we now call Australia – the demographic statistics tell an interesting story.

In the years 1845 to 1855, and exclusive of Famine period convicts, some 70,000 Irish people emigrated to Australia. And this to a country with a european population of 405,000. Following the Famine, another 175,000 arrived between 1855 and 1860 – reflecting the discovery of gold – but also as a result of continuing post-Famine want in Ireland. As the inscription says they came here to “build a new life”. They did that. The Irish who came here left their mark on the political, social and cultural institutions and on the evolving ethos of Australia. And in a good way. There are many examples of this. Too many to cite here this afternoon.

But. Perhaps. Just by way of example I might allowed to make two local references.

As it happens, we are approaching the 161st anniversary the Eureka stockade when Irishmen and women alongside several other nationalities made a stand for universal values – justice, equality, accountability, the rule of law – values we take as a given today.

Elsewhere, according to the literature, it has been said of Charles Gavan Duffy, well known around these parts, that his career demonstrates “the reality that there was no reach of the earth, however remote, which was not potently influenced either politically or demographically by the Great Famine”

These are the headliners. The real impact of the Irish in Australia and on Australia has been effected through the unsung heros and heroines, the thousands of ordinary decent people who came to this country, in dark and difficult times, seeking a new beginning and who, through honest, humble and pioneering toil became integral to this great country, ‘Australia’.

Ireland’s Diaspora 

The experience in Australia sits within a broader context of emigration from Ireland. Over many generations large numbers of Irish people have had to leave Ireland and make their homes and lives elsewhere. But the bond between those who stay and those who have left has always remained strong and enduring.

The net effect of this emigration is that today the Irish nation stretches far beyond the boundaries of our small island.

For a state of just over four and a half million people and an island of about six million people, it is believed that there are over 70 million people around the world claiming Irish ancestry and heritage.

Ireland’s relationship with its Diaspora is complex. It precedes the founding of the State. It touches all corners of the world.

This connection now finds formal legal expression today in the Irish Constitution which recognises that “The Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage”. 

There can be no more clear-cut statement of the importance of the relationship between Ireland and its Diaspora.

In substantive terms it finds expression in our diaspora policy, entitled, simply, ‘Global Irish’. Published in March this year, it is the first clear statement of Irish Government policy which recognises that Ireland has a unique and important relationship with its diaspora that must be nurtured and developed. It sets out a vision of “a vibrant, diverse global Irish community, connected to Ireland and to each other”.

The Irish abroad are successful, resourceful and creative. They have built families, businesses, communities, arguably even countries. They have displayed great generosity of spirit towards the mother country in times of need. It is interesting to note that despite the challenges and privations they faced, the Irish in Australia collected £98,000 for famine relief, a higher proportion of support than that of any other national group.

That tradition of generosity, of lending a helping hand, continues today. In recent times we have been able to draw on the skills and expertise of the Irish abroad; the Diaspora has made a real and significant contribution to Ireland’s economic recovery and development and to rebuilding our international reputation.

In solidarity with all those who suffer hunger today. 

This event today commemorates the victims of a past Famine but it also points up the appalling reality of global hunger today. The Famine is deeply ingrained in our collective memory. Its legacy brings with it – necessarily and appropriately – a compassion for those who suffer from hunger, and a commitment to humanitarian aid.

It is not by accident and it is not unconnected with the events we mark today that Ireland has become a leading advocate in the fight against global hunger. Ireland is now committing 20 per cent of its development aid budget to improving access to food and to reducing under-nutrition in the world’s poorest countries.

This is at it should be. Ireland, by virtue of its history, is uniquely placed to play a lead role in prosecuting the argument in favour of global action – decisive and definitive global action – to address challenge of continuing hunger and under-nutrition in the world today.

1916 Centenary 

The Famine gives us much to reflect on. What we haved lived through. The events that have shaped us a nation. Those events will also be in sharp focus next year as we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016. This will be an important milestone for Irish people at home and abroad, presenting a timely moment to take stock of our place in the wider world.

We have many positive stories to tell in terms of the past one hundred years, of our creativity, our peace process, our contribution to peace-keeping and to the fight against hunger, the achievements of our people at home and abroad.

So, we are inviting the global Irish family and friends of Ireland from all over the world to join us in remembering, reflecting and re-imagining Ireland through a programme of events including here in Australia through which the 1916 Rising is remembered in an appropriate inclusive and respectful way.

Ireland – Australia 

Reflecting on our Famine past today at Williamstown shines a light once more on the close relationship between Ireland and Australia. It may seem self-evident. But it should still be said. We have much in common.

There is nothing new or particularly startling in the observation that the Irish have contributed to the development of the political, cultural and social fabric of this country; to the institutions of this country; to the values of this country.

Ours is an important relationship. It runs deep. We – Australians and Irish – are the stakeholders of a shared narrative.

And it is through events such as this one today that we inform future generations, ensuring that Australia does not forget its Irish past. For our part, from the Irish side, we must do all in our power to ensure that the converse remains true – that Ireland does not forget its Australian past. With that in mind I would like to pay tribute to and thank the organisers and participants in today’s ceremony, and all those whose commitment has ensured that the victims could be solemnly remembered. This is important and valid in itself and a key dynamic in ensuring a better understanding and appreciation of the rich relations between our two countries. The memories – and the respect that goes with them – are not passively retained. It takes work. It takes effort.

Today started out about hunger and want. Let us work together to honour the memory of the victims of famine in the best way possible – by ensuring that it does not happen again that hunger is consigned to a dark and distant past.

We are all shaped by our history. It is the duty of this generation to harness the lessons of our history to safeguard a secure and prosperous future for successive generations, underpinned by universal values. And to make a principled contribution to the collective international effort to build a better world.

Last word to the orphans. In the well-known words of the surgeon on the Thomas Arbuthnot, these were indeed, ‘a decent set of girls’. They were that, and more than that too. They were made of the right stuff. They endured hardship, fear and anxiety as they crossed four oceans, in voyages that lasted more that 120 days, and all to a new and uncertain future. They were pioneers for a new country; torch-bearers for future generations; and a link in the chain that binds Ireland and Australia.

We do a good thing and a right thing here today. We salute them.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

Thank you.

Noel White, Irish Ambassador to Australia 2015.

See also Debra Vaughan‘s ‘Farewell to the Ceremony organization; continuation of Irish Famine Heritage’ newsletter.



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