Thousands of Irish women and girls shipped to Australia due to the 1840s Irish Famine will be remembered in a ceremony in Williamstown, Victoria, in Australia this weekend.
Irish Ambassador Noel White will attend the memorial service to remember the some 4,000 Irish women sent to Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide in a program aimed at emptying workhouses in Ireland and pairing Irish women with Irish convicts also sent to Australia at the time. These women were sometimes known as “Potato Orphans.”.
Organizer of the event, Deborah Vaughan said, “In Hobson’s Bay, the arrival of six shiploads to Melbourne spanned December 1848 until March 1850.”
“More than 1,700 girls were processed by Government Depot 26, William St, Melbourne.
“Perhaps you shall be surprised at the wealth of local and world history, and how the struggles and displacement of these women pioneers, the refugees of their day, mirror life today.”
The “Potato Orphans” were young Irish women, some as young as 14, who were brought from their homes in Ireland to Australia to marry convicts.
Even though many young women may have survived the worst of the famine years, they were left orphaned or abandoned and forced to enter workhouses. The already struggling workhouses could not deal with the growing numbers seeking help and became increasingly overcrowded and under-resourced as the famine worsened.
In order to deal with overcrowding in workhouses, Secretary of State for the Colonies (and he of tea fame) Earl Grey began the Pauper Immigration Scheme between 1848 and 1850 to send female Irish teens to Australia.
Grey proposed that young, marriageable women could serve as wives in Australia (often to Irish convicts) and provide female labor in the male-dominant and (at the time) hugely underdeveloped country.
Up to 4,000 vulnerable and lonely Irish girls left for Australia to either work for as little as £11 a year or to marry an Irish convict, who were also being sent down under by the shipful. Aged between 14 and 45, the women were shipped out in batches of 200 to 300 at a time.
Williamstown is already home to one of the many worldwide monuments to commemorate victims of the Irish Great Hunger.
In 1998, on the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the ship “Lady Kennaway” a bluestone rock was erected in the town as a beacon of warning and of welcome for the arrival of 191 girls on that ship.
The stone was unveiled by Victor Briggs of the local Bunurong people, in an act of reconciliation for the role Irish people played in the displacement of the local people in Australia and in recognition of the shared history of repression suffered by the two peoples.
The plaque reads:
In memory of one million people who died in Ireland during the Great Hunger of 1845-52.
In praise of tens of thousands of dispossessed Irish who sailed to Hobson`s Bay to build a new life. In sorrow for the dispossession of the Bunurong and Woiworung people but in a spirit of reconciliation.
In solidarity with all those who suffer hunger today.
Around the main text are inscribed words from the poem “Na Prátaí Dubha” (“The Black Potatoes”) by Máire Ní Dhroma:
Ní hé Dia a cheap riamh an obair seo, Daoine bochta chur le fuacht is fán.
(“God didn’t make this work, Making poor people cold and wandering”)
The memorial ceremony will take place at the Famine Rock at 2.30pm on Sunday on the foreshore at The Strand, opposite Stevedore Street in Williamstown.