President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, remembered the Irishwomen sent to Australia as Famine Brides at the unveiling of a memorial yesterday.
The sculpture depicts a grieving mother “bent low by the crushing loss of her children” and President Higgins praised the Irish Australians, Charlie and Joan Smith, who designed what he called a, “most beautiful and moving depiction of the sense of desolation.”
The calamity of the Great Famine has long been summed up in the phrase “A million dead, a million fled” and among the teeming masses who left Ireland’s shores were some 4,000 destitute women who were sent to Australia.
Sometimes derided as the “potato orphans” they were to be married off to convicts in the sparsely inhabited British colony, choosing the unknown over certain penury at home.
Some were as young as 14 years of age and their descendants still live under the baking sun of Western Australia today.
“If you could imagine how they spread throughout the community and then multiply that by the number of Irish girls who came out, they were virtually the backbone of Western Australia,” 78-year-old William Marwick told the Irish Times at the unveiling.
His great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Taylor, originally left Galway aged 17 and eventually pitched up at a town called Fremantle, just a few miles north of Western Australia’s capital, Perth, but nearly ten thousand miles from her home in Galway.
Whilst firmly focused on remembering the generation that fled Ireland under the most desperate of circumstances, Higgins was at pains to remember the poor of today too.
“Is the plight of those risking everything today to cross continents and seas in search of refuge or a better life so different from the choices that faced our own people?” he asked to applause from the audience.
“Most usefully, we should let the memory of our great pain color our reaction to our fellow human beings facing similar threats today,” he concluded.
Later in the day the President and his wife, Sabina Higgins, were taken to Government House for a “Welcome to Country” ceremony performed by local aboriginal elders and a meeting with the Governor of Western Australia, Kerry Sanderson.