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Tuesday 25 September 2018

Higgins recalls plight of Irish women in historic speech to Australian Parliament

President Higgins and his wife Sabina arrive at Western Australia’s Houses of Parliament in Perth. From left, Stephen Dawson, Minister for the Environment and Disability services; the Speaker, Peter Watson; and the president of the Legislative Council, Kate Doust. Photo: Maxwells
President Higgins and his wife Sabina arrive at Western Australia’s Houses of Parliament in Perth. From left, Stephen Dawson, Minister for the Environment and Disability services; the Speaker, Peter Watson; and the president of the Legislative Council, Kate Doust. Photo: Maxwells

Kirst Blake Knox

President Michael D Higgins made history on his final day in Perth when he became the first head of state to address the joint Houses of Parliament in Western Australia.

Today, the President and his 26-strong delegation will travel to Melbourne as he continues his tour of Australia.

His speech, which touched upon his own family ancestry, was warmly received, with parliamentarians jumping to their feet and applauding once he had concluded.

It was both a historic address and something of a history lesson, with the President describing the various waves of Irish migrants who arrived in Australia.

"The migrants came from all social classes and would in time include a diversity of experiences, from gentlemen and lawyers to farmers and cottiers," the President said.

Over 90,000 Irish-born people live in Australia and two million Australians record their ancestry as Irish, according to the most recent national census.

President Higgins's own great uncle, Patrick, and his sister, Mary Ann, emigrated on the Montmorency sailing ship from Co Clare in 1862 and the President now reckons he has 243 relatives living in Australia.

"Patrick was a tiller of the soil, brought up to the plough from a young age," he told the Houses of Parliament.

Later in his trip, he will travel to his family plot in Warwick Cemetery in Queensland.

He told the house: "Our harps are hung in the towering trees and the mulga low and grey."

It wasn't all positive, though, and he also emphasised the hardships that many of the migrants faced.

In particular, he spoke of the thousands of young girls who travelled to Australia under the Earl Grey scheme, which aimed to meet the labour force needs and the gender balance in the new colony.

"These girls were exposed to humiliation based on the threefold prejudice of gender, religion and nationality," he said.

Later in the day, he was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Western Australia.

The conferral ceremony took place at Winthrop Hall, which is named in honour of Irishman Sir John Winthrop Hackett.

The honorary doctorate was a "great privilege", the President told the crowd.

"I was the first member of my family to attend university," Mr Higgins said. "At that time in Ireland a secondary education was a privilege, while further education was viewed as the preserve of the wealthy and the elite."

After the conferral, President Higgins and his wife Sabina attended a concert, 'Another Sense of Ireland'.

Irish Independent

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