Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sydney Monument Recalls Grit, Achievements of Irish in New Land

By Trevor McClaughlin
Special To TheWildGeese.com

SYDNEY, Australia -- A 1995 visit to Sydney by then Ireland-President Mary Robinson spurred Australia's most populous city to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Great Irish Famine with a monument. The Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, commissioned the piece, on behalf of the Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee, chaired by Tom Power, commissioned the piece. The setting is the iconic Hyde Park Barracks. (The barracks, interestingly enough, is among the dozens of buildings in Sydney designed by Francis Greenway, who died in 1837. He himself was transported to Australia, convicted of forgery.)

Above: A view of Sydney's Irish Famine Memorial, which lists the names of hundreds of girls and young women orphaned by the Famine who sought a new life in Australia.
Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee photo

In September 1998, construction of the monument was inaugurated by Ireland's president, Mary McAleese, when she removed the first stone from the south wall of Hyde Park Barracks. The project was financed by contributions from the Commonwealth of Australia, The Republic of Ireland, the Government of New South Wales, the City of Sydney, the Land Titles Office, with donations from Irish clubs, associations, corporate bodies and individuals throughout Australia and overseas.

Right: Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney, drawing by Hardy Wilson. National Library of Australia

On August 28, 1999, after an ecumenical service in nearby St. Mary’s Cathedral, the monument was unveiled by Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, in the presence of some 2,500 people. According to a Historic Houses booklet:

"The artist’s brief was for a monument to symbolize the victims of the Great Irish Famine and to commemorate the survivors from Ireland who settled in Australia. … The central themes of the sculpture were to be hunger and forced migration, with particular reference to the suffering of Irish women but also their survival and achievement in a new land." Hence, the adolescent 'Irish female orphans' who came to Australia between 1848 and 1850 became a central focus of the monument design.

An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) afflicting Ireland in the 1840s has been described as the single most crucial event in that nation’s history. Between 1845 and 1851, Ireland lost almost a quarter of its total population of about eight million. One million people died through hunger and disease -- a further one million were shed in the emigration of Irish men, women and children pursuing their hopes of abundance in colonies in North America and the Pacific.

Among this number were many single or orphaned young women selected from Irish poorhouses and offered the opportunity of work and marriage in New South Wales. Between 1848 and 1850, 2,200 Irish women arrived in Sydney under assisted-immigration schemes administered by the British government and funded by the sale of Australian Crown lands. Through the immigration of these women to New South Wales, the British government sought to alleviate the pressures on poorhouses, while also soothing the fractious colony’s demand for a supply of domestic servants and "suitable" wives.

Below: Another view of Sydney's Famine Memorial. Great Irish Famine Commemoration Committee photo

Hyde Park Barracks, for three decades a residence for convicts, was selected for their reception and emptied of its convict remnants in late 1848. The arrival of 200 orphan girls from the Earl Grey ushered in the building’s role as the Immigration Depot. The first refuge for these Irish women in Australia, it fulfilled the role of reception and labour exchange for single female assisted immigrants from 1848 until 1886.

Some 43 submissions were made to the designated "Sculpture Committee," the winners being Hossein and Angela Valamanesh from South Australia. Hossein Valamanesh was himself a refugee from Iran. 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." WGT


Irish Famine Monument, Sydney, Australia www.irishfaminememorial.org.

Francis Greenway, Wikipedia.org http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Greenway

More on Australia in WGT's Archives http://www.thewildgeese.com/pages/archives.html#australia

More on An Gorta Mor in WGT's Archives


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