A Feature by Dr Perry McIntyre, Chair, Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee
This is an edited version of a paper delivered at the 23rd Irish Studies in Australia and New Zealand (ISAANZ) conference, December 2018 in Sydney by Dr Perry McIntyre, Chair, Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee
There are two significant memorials erected in Sydney in response to major events in Irish history: the 1798 Memorial at Waverley Cemetery built at the time of the centenary of the ’98 uprising, and the Australia Memorial to the Great Irish Famine unveiled in 1999 and built in response to President Mary Robinson’s call for Irish people at home and in the diaspora to remember those who died or were forced to emigrate as a result of the Famine in mid-nineteenth century Irish history. These substantial and important memorials built in Australia are far from the source of the history they commemorate, but are they relevant today?
The Waverley Memorial
A banquet was held on 25 August 1897 at the Grand United Order of Oddfellows’ Hall in Sydney to commemorate the founding of the order of the Friendly Society, the Irish National Foresters in New South Wales. It was a large affair, attended by 200 men including prominent Catholics such as John Sheehy, General Secretary of the Foresters, Tipperary-born Dr Charles William MacCarthy who among his other activities was Cardinal Moran’s personal physician, and Sydney-born solicitor Francis Bede Freehill whose Australian Dictionary of Biography entry claims he was ‘an organizer of most Irish Catholic movements in Sydney’. Apologies were received from Cardinal Moran, Rev. Dr Higgins, Richard O’Connor, QC, MLC and other politicians, priests and members of various organisations. The chairman, Laurence A Finegan (High Chief Ranger, Irish National Foresters) noted that the following year would be the centenary of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland and he appealed to ‘the Irishmen of this colony to do something to honour the remains of one who in that year helped the cause of Ireland’. He was referring to Michael Dwyer, a man who was ‘unhonoured and unsung’, and he hoped that Dwyer’s ‘relatives would allow his remains to be removed to some place where they could be adequately honoured’.
As a result of the Foresters’ meeting, a preliminary meeting was convened on the evening of Monday 11 October 1897 and a circular inviting Irishmen and their descendants to co-operate in ‘honouring the memories of the heroes of the ill-fated struggle’ was signed by Dr CW MacCarthy, Dr AM Johnson, Laurence A Finegan, Mr TJ McCabe (Warden General, Australian Holy Catholic Guild), Mr WM Fox (District President Hibernian Australian Catholic Benefit Society) and John Sheehy. A large number of supporters were present and others who wrote letters of support included Fr Patrick CP, St Brigids retreat, Marrickville; Francis Timoney (an Ulsterman), ‘Mount Eagle’, Newtown, Sydney; barrister Richard Edward O’Connor, John Graham O’Connor, Kings County-born journalist and politician of ‘Fairylawn’, Newcastle, and William Ellard.
A provisional executive committee of the ’98 celebration met on 16 October 1897 at Dr MacCarthy’s residence in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, to frame resolutions for a public meeting chaired by him. Those present included Rev. Francis Timoney, Rev. T Fitzgerald OSF, Dr Johnson, Dr Kearney (Parramatta), Messrs John Woods, PE Quinn, PJ MacCarthy, TJ McCabe, WM Fox, E McSweeney, T Bourke, CJ Morrissey, PJ Dorahy, Laurence A Finegan (who died the following month) as well as John Sheehy, elected as the honorary secretary. A set of resolutions was submitted and the Guild Hall chosen as the venue for a public meeting on 2 November to set in place steps to ‘honour during the coming year the memory of the heroes of the ’98 struggle in Ireland’, including Michael Dwyer, William Davis and ‘other Irish insurgents’ whose remains rest in Australia.
Advertisements signed by MacCarthy and Sheehy, called for ‘Irishmen and their descendants of every shade of Irish political belief, and also ladies of Irish birth or descent and all sympathisers’ to attend the meeting. The call for subscriptions to build ‘a befitting memorial’ went out to ‘every town, village and district in the Australasian Colonies’. Weekly meetings were held in Sydney, letters received and subscription lists published in the press with the Freeman’s Journal office receiving the funds. The Catholic Press was keen to point out that following the original meeting of the Foresters, the cause was warmly taken up by that society but was not run by them or the Guilds, ‘but by Irishmen’. Note that that some of these prominent Irishmen were Australia-born of strong Irish stock.
The Sydney Irish community paid ₤50 for a plot at Waverley cemetery on which to erect a memorial using the reinterment of the Dwyers as impetus for remembering the 1798 uprising. Driven and led by Dr MacCarthy the supporters, all with strong Irish affiliations, engaged John Francis Hennessy of architects Sheering and Hennessy to draw a plan for a memorial over Dwyer’s tomb and the ’98 committee accepted the plan at a cost of £2000. The Sheerin and Hennessy architectural drawing appeared in the press in early April 1898.
In May 1898 the Dwyer vault at Devonshire Street Cemetery was opened. The remains of both Michael and his wife Mary were placed in a casket and taken to St Mary’s Cathedral from whence, on Easter Sunday 21 May 1898, massive crowds followed the hearse to Waverley for burial where Dr MacCarthy laid the foundation stone for the future monument to be built over the vault. The Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser published two photographs of ‘the first celebration in honour of the Irish patriots of 1798’. Up to 200,000 people lined the route from St Mary’s Cathedral to the cemetery to watch the long cortege follow the immense gold-plated cedar casket borne on a garlanded ultra-marine hearse drawn by six black horses, each attended by a page. At the cemetery a fund was opened and ₤2000 subscribed.
Twenty-three months after the laying of the foundation stone over the resting place of the Wicklow Chief and his wife, a white marble memorial designed by Dr MacCarthy was erected. The impressive and extensive memorial, surmounted by a 30-foot carved Celtic cross, was unveiled on Easter Sunday, 15 April 1900.
The Hibernian Australian Catholic Benefit Society was the initial trustee of the Memorial, followed by the the Irish National Association (INA). The INA was formed in July 1916. In April the following year the Secretary of St Francis Literary & Debating Society wrote to the INA about ‘the deplorable condition of the floor on the Ninety-Eight Memorial at Waverley Cemetery’, thus sparking the INA’s interest in the memorial at this early stage soon after the association’s formation. This interest continues to this day with a commemoration held at Waverley Cemetary each Easter Sunday.
The Australian Memorial to the Great Irish Famine
Almost 100 years after the centenary of the 1798 uprising and the building of the Sydney ’98 memorial at Waverley Cemetery, a memorial commemorating another key event in Irish history which impacted on the history of Australia was erected in central Sydney at Hyde Park Barracks.
The Australian Memorial to the Great Irish Famine is very much a modern sculpture, intended by the artists to provoke thought and contemplation. Apart from the plaque on the nearby wall there is no guidance to the viewer about what it depicts. This is unlike the 1798 memorial with its images of battles, portraits and names of the key players together with Irish icons and symbolism such as wolfhounds, pikes, the round tower at Glendalough and inscriptions in Irish and ogham script.
The Famine memorial consists of a simple table intersecting a wall rotated on its axis to indicate the old world and Ireland at the time of Famine. On the Irish side is a loy, some potatoes and a bottomless bowl to symbolise the absence of food. In the New World, inside the wall, there is a plate and spoon set on the table at which sits a three-legged stool. Nearby, an integral part of the installation in the Australian Lilly Pilly tree is a soundscape of Irish voices. There are no overt Irish symbols. There is little space here to go into the details of the sculpture, but you can view them at www.irishfaminememorial.org to read. This website is in the process of being upgraded and more details will be available later in 2019.
Like the Memorial at Waverley the vision to build the Famine memorial was driven by Irish people living in Sydney who were strongly supported by the community, particularly those with Irish blood who felt an affinity with their ancestors who were forced to leave their home because of economic or political stresses. It was instigated by a response to President Mary Robinson’s call in August 1994 at Grosse Ile where she asked all ‘to reflect on what inspired or drove those ordinary men and women … to leave their homeland and set out … to the New World’. She said it was very important to her that within the Irish culture, ‘the voiceless, desolate dead of such places as Grosse Ile, are remembered and honoured’. It was this plea to her Irish people in the diaspora that was heard by Clonmel-born Tom Power living in Sydney. President Robinson’s visit to Sydney the following year in 1995 further stimulated thoughts of a Famine memorial. While Sydney was mobilised by Tom Power, Val Noone and his committee were working in Melbourne to build the ‘Famine Rock’ on the Strand at Williamstown.
In Sydney, Tom Power, chair of the Tipperary Association, and Martin Folan, chair of the Galway association were involved in early meetings and Martin was the first to donate $1000 from the Galway Association toward the construction of the Sydney Famine memorial.
Many ideas were discussed including the placement of a large rock at North Head and a figurative memorial at a proposed cost of $35,000 was also suggested. Tenders were called and eventually Hyde Park Barracks was considered the most appropriate site. This building housed the first Famine workhouse orphan girls who arrived in October 1848 as the beginning of its operation as an immigration barracks. From 1819, it had previously housed hundreds of convicts including Irish men, and this was added impetus for settling on the site.
In June 1996 the Trustees of Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums) met with the Committee and examined submitted maquettes (small scale models) but none was deemed suitable. A draft brief was presented to the Trustees in February 1997 and a Steering Committee, later known as the Sculpture Committee, was formed to manage the project. Its members included Tom Power, Martin Coleman, Dinah Dysart (Chairperson and Trustee of the Historic Houses Trust), Michael Bogle (Secretary and Curator of the Hyde Park Barracks Museum), Dr Shirley Fitzgerald (Trustee & City of Sydney Historian), Professor Joan Kerr (Trustee of Historic Houses Trust) and architect Peter Tonkin. These people are a different cohort from those involved in the Waverley Memorial 100 years previously – while the Irish community drove the project it was hugely supported by the Sydney art and history community as well as descendants of the Earl Grey famine orphan girls and the Irish Ambassador, Richard O’Brien.
A brief was advertised in The Australian newspaper in August and September 1997. During the following two months 41 tenders were received from various parts of the world, including Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand and from all over Australia. Five artists were selected and asked to further develop their proposals. The budget by this time had risen to $200,000 and with this sum in mind each artist was asked to produce a maquette, and to pay $1000. Original thoughts for the memorial envisaged a simple female statue costing around $35,000.
On 4 December 1997 the Sculpture Committee unanimously selected the proposal of South Australians Hossein and Angela Valamanesh. They met the Committee on 12 January 1998 and by June had presented a final costing of $279,000. Fundraising was already well under way, fully supported by the Australian Irish Community, Irish Ambassador Richard O’Brien and others. A meeting facilitated by Peter Nagle MLA, at Parliament House was attended by a number of successful businessmen from the Irish Community, including Fergus Doyle, Frank O’Connell, Steve Carey and Michael Daly who all agreed the project should go ahead and were prepared to underwrite any shortfall in funds should this be necessary. Fortunately, some very large donations were received over the next 12 months which allowed work to commence.
A key aspect of the Famine memorial is the focus on the single female workhouse orphans who immigrated during the Famine years of 1848 to 1850 as a hook into 20th century Irish Australian emigration. Four hundred and twenty of the 4114 names of these young were engraved in the glass panels to represent all who died or emigrated. Their names fade on the glass as does our memory. The Famine Memorial was unveiled by the Governor-General, Sir William Deane on 28 August 1999.
The legacy and ongoing remembering
Both the ‘98 memorial at Waverley Cemetery and the Famine Memorial at Hyde Park Barracks are living memorials. Each venue sees an annual commemorative event designed to keep the memory of the particular historical event relevant in Ireland and Australia today. At Waverley there is a gathering each Easter Sunday, on the anniversary of the reinterment of Michael Dwyer and his wife, Mary and the unveiling of that memorial two years later – both on Easter Sunday, a day that has added significance since the 1916 Easter Uprising. At the Famine Memorial the annual event is held on the last Sunday in August which was the day it was unveiled. In recent years Ireland has had a Famine commemoration day each year, but the Irish Government also strongly supports such a day in a chosen place outside Ireland. In 2013 Sydney hosted this International Famine Commemoration and on the 28 October 2019, Williamstown in Melbourne hosted the International Famine Commemoration at the Famine Rock.