Tuesday 17 October 2017

President Michael D Higgins explores haunting history of Ireland's 'Famine Brides'

President Michael D Higgins
President Michael D Higgins
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

At the age of 17, Mary-Ann Taylor finally found escape.

A chance for her to leave the dismal workhouse in Galway where she was incarcerated as an orphan, and start a new life in Australia.

There was a shortage of women in the British colony, and Mary-Ann was to become a “Famine Bride”.

Both her parents had died in the 1840s during the Great Famine, and she would become one of thousands of Irish women to be shipped to Australia to marry a convict.

Yesterday, as Micheal D Higgins continued his exhaustive 24 day tour of Western Australia, he unveiled a new famine Memorial which paid tribute to women like Mary-Anne.

“It is a sobering to think of the desperate situation that these girls faced, where the option of travelling to the other side of the world… to a future that they could scarcely comprehend was preferable to what was around them,” he said.

The statue, which shows a woman bent over and keening, was created by Charles Smith and Joan Walsh-Smith and sits in the suburb of Subiaco Park.

A large  crowd had gathered in the park to view the new artwork.

Among them was Mary-Anne’s great-grandson Bill Marwick (78).

“She died in 1926”, he said, "and was survived by 45 grandchildren, 92 great grandchildren and two great great grandchildren”.

According to Bill, “These women who came here created the backbone of Western Australia.”

President Higgins added that it was heartening that the communities remembered the women’s contribution to Irish society following their ‘traumatic departure’ from Ireland.

“Remembering their lives, and their legacy is important,” he told the crowd.

Hazel Antonio, from Sligo but living in Perth for 10 years, arrived with her children Maeve (2) and Conor (eight weeks).

“It’s important for them to connect to their culture, so it means a lot that the President is here today.”

Earlier in the day, President Higgins had visited the Government Building in Perth.

He was greeted by Aboriginal Elder Dr Richard Walley, and the Governor of Western Australia, Kerry Sanderson.

Along the South West coast of Western Australia, and now they are in the middle of Kambarang – the Season of the Wildflower.

Acknowledging Kambarang and Western Australia’s aboriginal heritage, Higgins took part in a ‘Wagu Smoking Ceremony’.

Dr Richard Walley and his children Olman, Alton, and Rikeeta, burnt Sandlewood before and performed a ritual dance with branches of peppermint.

Handing President Higgins a ‘welcome stick’, Dr Wally explained that it represented the close ties between Ireland and Australia.

There was a moment of embarrassment when the stick was knocked from Higgins hands, but everyone quickly regained composure.

Then the President, his wife Sabina, Dr Wally and the Governor of Western Australia Kerry Sanderson headed inside for a discreet tete-a-tete, where they discussed the strong ties between the two countries.

Meanwhile, outside the building, Rikeeta and Olman told some of the President’s 26 strong delegation where to go if they wanted to see the pint-sized kangaroos called quokkas.

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