Sunday 15 July 2018

Banished by history but now these women can stand proud

The Irish were victims of injustice in Tasmania, but also persecuted the first occupants, writes Kirsty Blake Knox

Untold stories: President Higgins and his wife Sabina at Hobart in Tasmania, where President Higgins spoke at the unveiling of the Footsteps Towards Freedom project by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie, seen here with Kate Warner, the governor of Tasmania. Photo: Maxwell's
Untold stories: President Higgins and his wife Sabina at Hobart in Tasmania, where President Higgins spoke at the unveiling of the Footsteps Towards Freedom project by Irish sculptor Rowan Gillespie, seen here with Kate Warner, the governor of Tasmania. Photo: Maxwell's
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Once considered the most-feared penal colony in the southern hemisphere, the wave-carved rock of Van Dieman's Land saw the arrival of President Michael D Higgins as he continued his state visit to Australia.

More than 14,000 Irish convicts were sent to Tasmania during the early to mid-1800s. Yesterday, President Higgins unveiled four statues in memory of the 'Banished Women', or Mna Dibeartha, who were sentenced to transportation.

These women were convicted for what would now be considered petty crimes such as theft, arson or even vagrancy.

Designed by Blackrock artist Rowan Gillespie, the Footsteps Towards Freedom artwork mirrors the famine memorial on Dublin's Custom House Quay, which he also sculpted.

Stressing the need to focus our historical gaze on women's voices, President Higgins said one of the greatest achievements of the 1916 centenary commemoration was "the welcoming of the untold women's stories into the main historical narrative".

By building these statues, he told the audience they had rescued the 'founding mothers' of Tasmania from obscurity.

President Higgins also said Irish people must acknowledge their responsibility in the persecution of the first occupants of Tasmania, the Palawa.

Speaking about the harsh treatment the women endured, he said it was also necessary to also focus on the atrocities inflicted by the Irish on those people.

"The Palawa occupied Tasmania for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans; original occupants who were brought to the brink of extinction in the 19th Century. They are also victims who should be remembered."

He pointed out that it was necessary to acknowledge the "Irish participation in part of those experiences".

Earlier in the week, President Higgins touched on the matter while addressing the joint houses of Western Australia in Perth. He said: "We must acknowledge that while most Irish emigrants experienced some measure - often a large measure - of prejudice and injustice, there were some among the number who inflicted injustice, too."

Laen Mourant (29), from Hobart, one of the women Rowan Gillespie based a statue on, was at yesterday's unveiling. The figure is wearing a bonnet and cradling a baby in her arms. Mourant found watching the unveiling very emotional.

"Not only was the status modelled on me but that baby was modelled on my one-month-old son Harvey at the time," she said.

Yesterday, President Higgins also drew parallels with contemporary migration and the social and ethical responsibility we all shoulder.

"We Irish are a migratory people so much more than a sedentary one," he said. "It is reflected in every aspect of our being. It places responsibilities on us too, as to our response to contemporary migration."

Sunday Independent

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