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AN GORTA MOR

THE GREAT HUNGER

THE IRISH FAMINE MEMORIAL IN SYDNEY

AUSTRALIA

Some statistics:

  • Between 1845 and 1851, Ireland lost almost one quarter of its population of about 8 million in the great famine.
  • One million people died from hunger and disease.
  • One million men, women and children emigrated to the colonies in North America and the Pacific region, including Australia.
  • Many single or orphaned young women were selected from the poorhouses in Ireland and offered opportunity and marriage in New South Wales.
  • In all, 4114 orphans came to Australia and about half of them came to Sydney under assisted immigration schemes administered by the British government and funded by the sale of Australian Crown lands.

The Irish Famine Memorial in Sydney was dedicated on 28 August 1999.

It is located at the Hyde Park Barracks.

It marks, with great respect and dignity, the suffering, pain and displacement of those lost generations of Ireland's population.

The Memorial also celebrates the contribution which these Irish people have made to the development of Australia and so many other nations over the years.

The winning design for the Memorial was by Hossein and Angela Valamanesh, from South Australia.

The artists stated:

"The main focus of the sculpture design is the dislocation of the Barracks southern compound wall. A section of this wall will be dismantled and rebuilt on a rotated axis. In the space of the demolished wall, two glass panels bearing sandblasted inscriptions of women's names will be installed, which intersects a bronze cast table projecting outwards in either direction.

"The rotated sandstone wall represents disruption and dislocation. This enables the viewer a degree of visual accessibility to both sides of the artwork while retaining the important physical distance between spaces inside and outside the wall. The dislocation also generates more intimate areas or corners, in the otherwise exceptionally open Barracks courtyard.

"The table, split in two, has on one end a simple bowl with a void in its base that continues through the table. At the other end is a simple institutional table-setting, with bread and utensils also cast in bronze. This further symbolizes the contrast between hunger and comfort, which underpinned the role of the Barracks as shelter. The suggestion of continuity in the two ends of the table represents the continuous and evolving relationships between the site and the lives of those who immigrated. The table and the more intimate spaces created within the rotated wall evoke the domestic nature of life and work for the majority of Irish women migrants while their simplicity and sparseness allude to the subject of the Famine."

At the 10th annual commemoration ceremony in Aug 2009, in a speech "Learning from Tragedy: The Great Irish Famine and Our Humanity", Reverend Professor James Haire AM spoke about the consequences of the Irish Potato Famine and Our Humanity.

A short summary of the speech made these points........

  • Once in Australia, the Irish were determined that there should always be a vigorous and vibrant democracy.
  • There remained among the Irish in Australia constant scepticism of government and of the public service.
  • There was an insistence on the centrality of human dignity in political and social life
  • There has been strong impetus for communal support as an Irish contribution to Australia.
  • We all need compassion
  • We all need to be fed
  • Governments may be more or less competent, but they have a duty to give hope
  • The victims cannot be blamed for their own troubles

At the foundation of the Hyde Park Barracks Memorial to the Famine in Sydney in 1998, Ireland- President Mary McAleese said:

"Beyond the shores of Ireland itself the famine resulted in the formation of another Ireland - the Ireland of America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - and indeed Irish communities elsewhere. These communities of the Irish world were determined themselves never again to accept the human degradation of the famine."

While there are no Spearins listed on the official database of famine girls , I feel my ancestors from Ireland had a lot of the common characteristics of these women. They came from a country suffering from poverty and hunger , never to see or talk to their loved ones again. They came as assisted immigrants to start a new life in Australia.

Irish Women on arrival in Sydney

Hyde Park Barracks ...early scene

Hyde Park Barracks around 1850's

Hydne Park Barracks, Sydney, NSW, Australia 2011


THE AUSTRALIAN MONUMENT TO THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE

TENTH ANNUAL COMMEMORATION CEREMONY

HYDE PARK BARRACKS MUSEUM, SYDNEY

SUNDAY, 30 AUGUST 2009

SPEECH

"LEARNING FROM TRAGEDY: THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE AND OUR HUMANITY"

Reverend Professor James Haire AM [1]

First, I want to examine the Irish potato famine (An Gorta Mor) and its consequences, especially for Australia. Then secondly, I wish to see how our humanity relates to that. I shall make four points about the first topic and four points about the second topic.

So first, the consequences of the Irish potato famine. If we look at what occurred in the famine we need to bear in mind the following facts. One million Irish people died as a result of the famine, particularly in the worst year 1847, commonly known as "Black '47". A further one million people emigrated from Ireland in the years that immediately followed. Before the beginning of the famine, the Irish population stood at slightly over 8 million. In fact, it had grown between 10 and 15 per cent during the first four decades of the nineteenth century. After the famine, it fell drastically and until today has never recovered. Currently the population of the island stands at 6.3 million. When I was a child, it was only 4.4 million (2.9 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.5 million in Northern Ireland). In the ten years from 1841 to 1851, the population fell by 20 per cent. The worst was in Connaught, where the population fell 28.8 per cent. Even in the two provinces where things were easiest, Leinster and Ulster, it still fell 15.3 per cent and 15.7 per cent respectively. The famine was indiscriminate - Catholic and Protestant both died. It began with the most vulnerable and poorest part of the population but gradually moved up into the middle classes and from the rural area into the towns. Of course, death came not only by starvation, but also as a consequence of disease, particularly typhus and cholera.

The consequences, especially for Australia, were four-fold.

First, there was an abiding determination among Irish people that democracy should at all times work. The problem had been that under the Act of Union of 1801, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom but had no real democratic representation. Between 1832 and 1859, Ireland sent 105 members to the House of Commons and 28 to the House of Lords. But of these people, 70 per cent were either land owners or the sons of landowners and did not truly represent the interests of the Irish population. Once in Australia, the Irish were determined that there should always be a vigorous and vibrant democracy. Today we question the efficiency of three levels of government. For the Irish efficiency was not to be the criterion. Democracy was to be the criterion even if that meant excessive layers of government and constant debate. The price of democracy was constant debate.

Second, there remained among the Irish in Australia constant scepticism of government and of the public service. During the years of the famine, both governments and public service failed the Irish people. In 1997, at the commemoration of the famine at Millstreet, County Cork, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said: "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event. It is also right that we should pay tribute to the ways in which the Irish people have triumphed in the face of this catastrophe." The Tory governments under Sir Robert Peel, and the Whig administration under Lord John Russell, exhibited both malice and incompetence. Some analysts have gone as far as to speak of genocide. I do not think that that term is appropriate. However, I think that malicious incompetence is perhaps more accurate. Grain in an inappropriate form was imported to Ireland, however, throughout the years of the famine, Ireland still exported food, and the Whig's insistence on laissez faire made things worse for the poorest. This scepticism of governments was to be a hallmark of the Irish contribution to the political system in Australia.

Third, there was an insistence on the centrality of human dignity in political and social life. At the foundation of the Hyde Park Barracks Memorial to the famine in Sydney in 1998, President Mary McAleese said: "Beyond the shores of Ireland itself the famine resulted in the formation of another Ireland - the Ireland of America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - and indeed Irish communities elsewhere. These communities of the Irish world were determined themselves never again to accept the human degradation of the famine." The centrality of human dignity has had an abiding effect in Irish life in Australia.

Fourth, there has been strong impetus for communal support as an Irish contribution to Australia. The Irish contribution places human dignity as the basis of egalitarianism, and communal self-help as of great importance to social life. The reaction of the British government to the Irish plight made a mockery of the Act of Union of 1801. The Irish were treated as second-class colonial people and not as equal citizens of the Union. The realisation in Ireland of the hypocrisy of the Union led to the beginning of its end. Moreover, within 30 years of the famine, the Irish who flooded into Britain to seek there a viable life were portrayed in Punch and other satirical magazines, and on the stage, as apes - lazy, stupid, drunken and incompetent. How the victims could be attacked in this way in English society beggars belief.

Secondly, let us now look at our humanity. Here we see a number of things.

First, we need compassion. The Greek word for compassion (splanchnizomai) means to have fellow feeling with, to let your stomach go out to, in a very physical way, similar to the African term Ubuntu. This is something which came very powerfully into the Irish consciousness in Australia.

Second, we see the need for all to be fed, not some to be fed more and some to be fed less. Ireland in recent years has sought to play its part in international aid. Even in the poor days, before the growth of Ireland as a Celtic Tiger, it came in as the fifth or sixth most generous country in the world in terms of International aid. It has kept up that percentage of international age in the years it has prospered. Australia, under the influence of much Irish sentiment, now seeks to raise its figure to the same as that of the Irish. National boundaries cannot be absolute in terms of human need. Australia gave the Irish immense hope and they were never to give it up.

Third, governments may be more or less competent, but they have a duty to give hope. The Irish were betrayed by lack of hope in the 1840s and both nations and citizens need to give those who are distressed hope.

Fourth and finally, the victims cannot be blamed for their own troubles. That is a double form of abuse. To blame the victim is also the easiest way out of a problem.

Let us give thanks for those orphan girls who came here to this good land and who began the Irish contribution to Australian life in this way. Among their descendants are you who are here today.

An Gorta Mor ( The Great Hunger) Memorial in Sydney





[1] The Reverend Professor James Haire AM KSJ MA PhD DD DLitt DUniv was born and brought up in Northern Ireland, and was a Minister of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He served in Indonesia, and then moved to Australia in 1985. He is Professor of Theology, Charles Sturt University (CSU), Canberra; Executive Director, Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture (ACC&C), CSU; Director, Public and Contextual Theology (PACT) Strategic Research Centre, CSU; Past President, National Council of Churches in Australia (NCCA); Past President, Uniting Church in Australia (UCA); and a Member of the Executive of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA).

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Pamela Hector
Oct 2011

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