In 1998, a group of Melbourne locals realised a dream to erect a standing stone on Williamstown’s foreshore – the Famine Rock – in memory of the Irish Famine orphan girls.
As the Great Hunger of 1848-1852 decimated the population of Ireland, with over one million deaths and two million emigrants forced to flee starvation, the Earl Grey Scheme contrived to bring orphan girls aged 14-19 from workhouses (poorhouses) across Ireland to Australia, to work as servants and help populate the new colony. During the years 1849-1851, some 4000 girls participated in the scheme, 1700 of whom came to Melbourne on six ships; Lady Kennaway, Pemberton, Diadem, New Liverpool, Derwent and Eliza Caroline.
The orphans stepped onto Australian soil in the place where a volcanic bluestone (basalt) sentinel – the Famine Rock – now marks their story. The ‘Rock project’ inspired many in the community and their support enabled the choice of the three-metre high Rock, while Hobson’s Bay Council positioned it, the donated skill of stonemasons and builders firmly secured it by steel rods into several tons of concrete, and a public appeal raised funds to finish the project.
“The Irish Australian community was keen to see a public memorial to those who died in the Famine and those who migrated,” said group member, Dr Val Noone OAM, now Chair of the Irish Famine Orphan Girls Commemoration Committee in Melbourne.
“On 6 December 1998, Irish Ambassador Richard O’Brien unveiled the Rock in the presence of Brad Matheson, Mayor of Hobsons Bay, and a few hundred people. Victor Briggs of the Bunurong people gave the Welcome to Country. Frances O’Mara played the pipes and Loretta Brennan sang”.
A tribute plaque in Irish and English commemorates the orphan girls who survived catastrophic famine and emigration, the local Aboriginal people dispossessed by colonisation, and the plight of peoples still enduring hunger in this world.
“In memory of one million people who died in Ireland during the Great Hunger of 1845-1852. In praise of the courage of tens of thousands of dispossessed Irish who sailed to Hobson’s Bay to build a new life. In sorrow for the dispossession of the Bunurong and Woirurung people built in a spirit of reconciliation. In solidarity with all those who suffer hunger today”.
The Irish Famine was a great human tragedy of the 19th century. But it is also a story of resilience and strength. And we are privileged to embrace and pay tribute to the memory of the brave souls who lived it, survived and triumphed.
Guest speaker this year is Dr Val Noone OAM, who will share the story of the Famine Rock.
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Nature of Event: Irish Famine Orphan Girls Commemoration event
WHEN: Sunday 17 November – 2.30pm-4.30pm
WHERE: Famine Rock, Burgoyne Reserve, The Strand, Williamstown, Melbourne