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The West Australian Irish Famine Memorial - Speech

Speech by President Higgins at the unveiling of an Irish Famine Memorial

Subiaco, Perth, Australia, 9 October, 2017


A Dhaoine Uaisle,

Is mór an pléisiúr dom a bheith libh inniu  i Subiaco chun an saothar chuimhneacháin álainn seo a nochtadh.

I would like to thank you all for your welcome here today and for your kind invitation to me, as the President of Ireland, to dedicate this beautiful, poignant and profound artwork within your community.

I particularly want to pay tribute to the City of Subiaco Council and Mayor Heather Henderson for their generous support of this memorial, which has a most fitting home in the community of Subiaco, which is so closely associated with the Irish in Western Australia.

May I congratulate Fred Rea and all the members of the Western Australia Irish Famine Commemoration Committee for their vision and their unstinting resolve in bringing this project to fruition. I understand that many, many people - far too numerous to mention by name - have supported this project and contributed to it. Your collective efforts and generosity have delivered a remarkable memorial in a remarkable location. I have no doubt that this will become an iconic landmark for Perth and for its Irish community.

I must also acknowledge the sculptors, Joan Walsh-Smith and Charles Smith. Both are artists of great renown, not only in Western Australia but internationally. You have accomplished a most beautiful and moving depiction of the desolation that unfolded during and following those apocalyptic famine years in the 1840s.

A mother, bent low by the crushing loss of her children. A people, hollowed out by starvation and forced exile. Caoineadh - keening, from the Irish word for weeping, so clearly and sensitively presented is a metaphor perhaps for the collective trauma that the Famine undoubtedly was for the Irish people, and the long shadow that it cast on successive generations scattered throughout the globe. For me, the work also brings to mind the perhaps unresolved feelings of loss, grief, anger and even guilt, of the survivors in Ireland, of those who fled, and indeed of all of their descendants, including those of us gathered here today.  

We have struggled to come to terms with this seismic event in our shared story. Over recent decades scholars and historians have compiled a solid exposition of the factors that contributed to the great calamity that led to so many deaths and so much dislocation. The Famine, of course, was never merely an accident of nature, nor can it be explained as merely a series of mistakes. It was not providence, as was claimed at the time. It occurred within the philosophical biases of Empire and an imbedded atmosphere of conquest and conflict. It was allowed to unfold within a prevailing mindset of economic theory, of land ownership and an emerging desire to industrialise agriculture.

There were structural features, which created the social vulnerability that is famine. Dependency on a single source of food is obvious, but other factors also come in to play. In 1841 Ireland had a population of over eight million people. Land-ownership was largely concentrated in the hands of an elite of 8 to 10,000 families. Below them 45% of the land holdings were under 5 acres. In the West of the country, the areas most severely hit, 75% of those who scratched a living from the land lived on holdings, where they had them, with a valuation of less than £4.  Much of the population led a precarious existence, with little reserve or resilience against what was to come.

The Act of Union 1800, had seen Ireland’s industrial and commercial structure slip into decay. We can also discern the emergence of certain assumptions in the years leading up to the Famine that came to dominate political and moral thinking. The new citizen of the post-industrial revolution period was to be thrifty, industrious and motivated by individual welfare – characteristics very different from those assumed to be the characteristics of the Irish peasant.

In the throes of the Famine, it was concluded that the giving of relief directly to those dying would constitute a “moral hazard”. It was important, in the minds of those administrators and politicians who sought to respond to the Famine, to continue the project of moral reform even as the death toll soared. Ultimately over 1 million Irish would die of hunger and related diseases, and 2 million would flee from their country. Meanwhile, avoiding the creation of dependency, as imperial elites saw it, was a target that could not be allowed to slip.

But it is also true that the reaction of official Ireland and Britain was complex. We must be aware of how the treatment of the Irish Famine changed as one year succeeded another: the first identification of the crop failure in 1845 was different to 1846 in terms of policy response; any resilience in the existing structures of poverty relief was soon overwhelmed; the rhetoric as to providence became a central feature of the discourse in 1847; and by 1848, in response to the William Smith O’Brien revolt, we have cartoons presenting the Irish as ingrates towards those who are supposedly saving them. 

News of the emerging catastrophe in Ireland was slow to reach these shores. Word of the potato crop failure of 1845 reached Sydney in February 1846, but the extent and seriousness of the situation was not clearly reflected in media reports. However, by August of that year, the first of a series of relief fund meetings was held in Melbourne, followed quickly by Sydney and a number of other centres. By the end of 1846, over £4,600 had been raised and transmitted to the Catholic and Anglican Archbishops of Dublin for relief of the poor. It is notable that these sums were made up of thousands of small contributions from all sectors of Irish Australia. In 1847 – 1848 over £8,400 was similarly raised and transmitted. This was a significant achievement given the small size and modest means of the Irish community in Australia and its relative isolation from the unfolding events back home.

At that time, the Australian colonies hosted an Irish population of only 70,000. Unlike Britain, Canada or the US, Australia did not witness the arrival of tens of thousands of emaciated women, men and children fleeing during the years of starvation. Between 1845 and 1848 it is estimated that about 14,000 Irish arrived here, mostly not direct victims of the Famine, but those who feared they might become so.

It was not until later, from 1848 onwards that Famine casualties started to arrive. These were in the form of several thousand girls and young women, who volunteered to be relocated from Ireland’s workhouses to a new life in the Australian colonies. Sometimes known as Famine Brides, these young women and girls had their passage funded, through the Earl Grey and similar schemes. They are sometimes described as orphans but many had a surviving parent. It is sobering to think of the desperate situation that these girls faced, where the option of transportation to the other side of the world, of probable permanent separation from their homes and surviving family, to a future that they could scarcely comprehend was preferable to what was around them. While the purpose of these schemes was largely to satisfy a need for more females in the Australian colonies, for these women it presented an opportunity to escape from the workhouses and the desolation of Ireland at that time.  

Some of the later transportations, in the early 1850s came to Western Australia. In 1853 Elizabeth Carbury, from Galway came to the Swan River colony on the Palestine with her sister Mary and other young women from the Mountbellew workhouse. Limerick woman Bridget Mulqueen arrived in the same year on the Travencore. It is heartening to hear that the communities in which they settled in Dardanup and Bunbury have been remembering them, their lives and the contribution they made here, following their traumatic departure from Ireland. I understand that memorial services were held for both women earlier this year with the assistance of Fred Rea and the Western Australia Irish Famine Commemoration Committee.  Remembering these women, their lives and their legacy is important. Indeed, recognising the full profile of the experience of our people is necessary, if we are to learn, to understand, even to forgive.

Can we, of Irish extraction, borrow from our own history when faced, as we are today, with the largest number of displaced people on the planet since the Second World War? Is the plight of those risking everything to cross continents and seas in search of refuge or a better life so different from the choices that faced our own people? Today, we have the capacity to anticipate the threat of famine. We have the capacity to take measures to avoid it; and yet we have almost a billion people living in conditions of extreme but avoidable hunger.

The moral principle remains the same: should we adjust our populations to an abstracted economic ideology, be it laissez faire or neo-liberalism, or should we, rather, use the best of our reason to craft economic and social models that can anticipate the needs and care for the peoples who share this fragile planet?

Captivating art, such as this magnificent sculpture, “Uaigneas” serves to remind us of these things. It challenges us to remember and to think.  I was particularly struck by the artists’ concept in designing this thought-provoking sculpture that it should also represent and highlight the resilience of the Irish people and by extension of the human condition– in their words: “Hope is not extinguished. It never is! ...because the human spirit always soars over adversity in the end”. The lives of Elizabeth Carbury and Bridget Mulqueen are a testament to the fact that people can and do emerge from the most horrendous situations, can lead good lives and make valuable contributions in their changed surroundings.

We must therefore acknowledge that from the depths of despair and devastation some positive consequences emerged. The most notable, perhaps is the contribution that many in the Irish diaspora made to the societies they helped shape in so many places around the world.

Their shared story, wherever they landed, in Birmingham or Boston, in Sydney or Subiaco, was a common striving for a better life. Many had learned the hard lessons of the Famine and pressed for the creation of a fairer society in their new homes, and a more prosperous and secure future for the next generation. In many, it imbued a concern for their fellow citizen. This passion is still evident in so many Irish communities around the world today, including here in Perth where the work of organisations like The Claddagh Association is so vital in supporting those members of the Irish community facing times of distress and difficulty.

An Gorta Mór, the Great Famine, is the source of so much of the Irish diaspora, and was a catalyst for further emigration right up to present times. Today, Ireland and Australia are wealthy countries, full of opportunity and promise for our upcoming generations. In the very different context of the terrible post-Famine years, those who arrived in their new destinations often found their Irishness to be a source of marginalisation, of stereotypical presentation of their cultural status as inferior, be it in terms of language or behaviour. It is from this space that many overcame such prejudice to make outstanding contributions in their new homelands. And they did not forget their homeland or the challenges faced by those that were left behind. They assisted their relatives. Sometimes providing funds for the passage to follow them, sometimes simply to assist those who stayed at home with remittances sent from abroad. 

These emigrants’ remittances not only helped other relatives to follow, they paid shop debts, they built Churches, and for many of those who survived, they were a vital source of money for the purchase of food and clothes and the payment of the rent. 

The Famine diaspora was also vital in Ireland’s successive struggles to break from the shackles of Empire and to forge its own future. It is important, therefore that we remember these things, these bonds of kinship and historic mutual support. That we recall the fragility of our daily existence and the perils of doctrinaire approaches that are blind to the vulnerabilities of human beings. Most usefully, we should let the memory of our great pain colour our reaction to our fellow human beings facing similar threats today. 

Go raibh maith agaimh arís as ucht an cuireadh a thug sibh dom a bheith libh ag an ócáid suntasach seo do phobal na nGael i bPerth agus i Subiaco. Táim thar a bheith buíoch daoibh uile as ucht a bheith ag éisteacht liom.

Thank you all for your patience and for inviting me to share in this special event.


Speech by President Higgins of Ireland



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