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The West Australian Irish Famine Memorial

Artists Concept

An Gorta Mor’
Memorial to the Great Irish Famine 1845 - 52.
Subiaco, Western Australia.
Artist’s Concept & Symbolism

 The purpose of creating an Irish Famine Memorial here in Perth, is to fulfil a long standing desire of the West Australian Irish Community to express and commemorate the soaring spirit and astounding resilience of their Irish forbearers in overcoming this enormous disaster, that while decimating the population of Ireland, had vast consequences globally. It therefore also commemorates the 'Great Irish Diaspora' that followed and the shocking, disproportional impact that this 'outpouring' of desperate people out of Ireland  from the 1840s onwards, had upon subsequent world affairs. Our focus is particularly on the part all these Irish expatriates played, not only in the development of democracy and the concept of individual freedom in Australia, but also in America both North and South, and right across Europe in the latter half of the 19th Century. This is an extraordinary story that is very little known outside academic circles.

Design Concept:
The Memorial concept takes the form of a Celtic Spiral motif, representing the winding and unwinding of birth and death, expressed as a spiritual ‘Labyrinth’, with which it shares its symbolism as a ‘walked maze’ that draws the visitor inexorably on a journey of grief, remembrance and ultimately discovery, in the heart of the design. Here we developed the concept into the form of a bronze, stylised, grieving ‘Keening Woman’, in an anguished, crouched position, referring to this ancient Celtic tradition at burials. We wanted to express this enormous sense of inconsolable loss with minimum simplicity of expression, avoiding theatrical over-wrought gestures which have been exploited and used abundantly to such cheap effect in so many other Famine Memorials. She crouches in utter desolation, her empty womb a symbolic ‘ void,’ expressing an enormous sense of inconsolable loss, not only for all the countless dead children of Ireland, but also the millions of  those torn from the land of their birth and scattered around the world….never to return!

Thus, this grieving ‘Mother’ is a personification of “Uaigneas”, an eternal expression, in the Irish language, of loneliness and loss. She ‘keens’ anguish; her image reflected in the eternal black depths of a polished slab of granite underneath.
But hope is not extinguished. It never is!...because the human spirit always soars over adversity in the end-and the Irish gift to the whole world, out of this overwhelming suffering, lives on in the words, deeds, and laws written into the constitutions of far flung lands. This comes out of a burning sense of social justice that no human being should ever have to suffer so horribly, from what was an entirely preventable agricultural event, a ‘blight’ which only affected the humble potato, while all around, the land literally flowed with ‘Milk and Honey’!

Thus, the Irish Famine Memorial we have designed has a much broader historical context than only memorialising those who actually died in the Famine. It commemorates ‘all’ those who suffered and all those who were torn from their homes, in the words of WB Yeats:
”They went about the world like wind “…………
Apart from the many free settlers who came to Australia, directly fleeing the Famine, there were many, many so called ‘prisoners’ who were transported for petty theft etc. Most of these were desperately, only trying to survive. Also, there was the mass transportation of thousands  of young Irish girls taken from the overflowing workhouses of Ireland in a deliberate policy of suppling young females to an overwhelmingly male settler population in Australia at the time.
There are also many historical connections to significant WA historical figures. Paddy Hannan would have come from a family displaced by the Famine as were the Duracks. CY O’Connor’s family used up all their wealth trying to save famine victims which directly led to CY himself, having to leave Ireland. Of course the St. John of God Nuns were founded in response to the Famine as was the Christian Brother Order.
Both orders set up institutions here in WA, the Nuns settling in Subiaco.
Most of the Irish Miners, who revolted at Eureka in Victoria in 1853, would have been in Australia, fleeing the famine. It is no coincidence that today the site of the Eureka Rebellion is now designated as the ‘Museum of Australian Democracy Eureka’!
 The revolutionary ‘explosion’ of the latter half of the 1800s, which overtook first Europe, then the Americas-North and South, and directly affecting 50 nations, toppling repressive governments etc., was in no small part fueled by the millions of displaced Irish, driven by a burning need to achieve some measure of individual freedom and social justice wherever they settled.
A large number of the countries in South America owe their freedom from Spain to Irish revolutionaries and their descendants such as the great Bernardo O’Higgins. All were determined to uproot the rule of oppression, which created the Great Famine in Ireland, and replace it with some form of individual rights. Even Che Guevara’s grandmother was Irish. The origins of the Democratic Party in America, through the founding of the Society of St.Tammany, was driven by these same dispossessed Irish and, most pertinently in this context, that the roots of Australian Labor is quintessentially Irish also.
 It is our intention to develop these ‘other’ consequences of the Great Famine as an example of this indomitable soaring human spirit, in overcoming adversity and the subsequent unleashing of titanic forces of justice and individual liberty upon the world. This should be included in text engraved into either bronze or stone with a summary of some of the concepts outlined above. These ‘sign posts’ would be placed along the ‘path of healing’ leading into the centre of the memorial.
Thus, this little tragic mother figure expresses something small and poignant but with enormous historical consequences. Many of these ‘consequences’ that washed up on the shores of Western Australia are directly connected to the Great Irish Famine.
We firmly believe that this Irish Famine Memorial sited in Subiaco will generate a vortex of energy, simply by being there. It will be a beacon for every Australian with an Irish Heritage - a noteworthy percentage of the population. It could also become an official ‘significant site’ for every Irish dignitary visiting Australia. Most particularly, it is designed to speak to all human beings of whatever colour, rank or faith, in an effort to generate compassion for the poor, the disenfranchised and the unfortunate, still suffering untold deprivations in our supposedly ‘enlightened age’, We would therefore like to extend the concept to embrace the subsequent social and political disasters which still beset the world today, where Famine still stalks its prey!
To this end, we would like to offer the original bronze maquette of “Uaigneas”, the centerpiece of the memorial, as a fund-raising item that can be reproduced and purchased by wealthy corporations, with the profits donated to third world hunger relief.
We believe this small version of the sculpture  “Uaigneas”  has the potential to generate funds which could be directly supportive of aid agencies working in the fields of despair in the dark corners of the world – and thus the winding of the spiral will have real meaning and purpose
Notes on symbolism:
The ‘Spiral’
This is a highly complex symbol which has been used in Ireland since Paleolithic times. It is a ‘Vortex’, a great creative force winding and unwinding as it journeys symbolically from birth to death! It also signifies continuity, the spinning and weaving of the web of life.
The Spiral also shares the symbolism of the ‘Labyrinth’ and the ‘danced’ or ‘walked’ maze. This symbolism is variously suggested as the ‘return to the Centre’. It is Paradise regained; attaining realization after ordeals, trials and testing; initiation, death and rebirth and the rites of passage from the profane to the sacred; the mysteries of life and death; the journey of life through the difficulties and illusions of the world to the centre as enlightenment; a proving of the soul; a knot to be untied; the courses of the sun from winter to summer.
 It is also traditionally presided over by a woman.

Joan Walsh-Smith and Charles Smith.
Aislinn Studios – Gidgegannup – WA. 28th May 2017



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