Jimmy gets family insight on Oz visit

Deenihan speaking in Sydney
Deenihan speaking in Sydney

Donal Nolan

MINISTER for the Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan followed in a distant relative's footsteps as he took part in this year's International Famine Commemoration, which was held in Sydney on Sunday.

The event took place in the centre of Sydney at a monument marking the arrival of 4,000 young Irish women to Australia at the end of the Famine. Of those women, 117 mostly teenaged orphans, came from workhouses in Listowel, Dingle, Kenmare and Killarney. Among them, Minister Deenihan believes, was one of his own relatives, a Mary Brandon from Ballylongford.

The visit also afforded Minister Deenihan (pictured right speaking in Sydney) a chance to meet many of today's young Kerry emigrants when he officiated at presentations at the New South Wales GAA Championship finals.

"The interest surrounding the commemoration was remarkable and reflective of the interest among modern Australians in their heritage," Minister Deenihan said. "It was once the case that people there were ashamed of their convict past but I think they have come to a much deeper understanding today of what their ancestors went through and there was massive interest at the weekend with the event covered by all the major news channels and media."

The commemoration, which was attended by the NSW Governor, took place at Hyde Park Barracks - the first Australian home of the 117 Kerry girls.

"It seems they were looked after very well and only left Hyde Park Barracks on gaining employment. The choice was theirs to leave, but as they were living in squalid workhouses at home it was little surprise so many of them opted for Australia."

He met numerous descendants of the girls, including Vivienne Melville who is descended from Tarbert native Catherine Ryan and a Julia Evans descended from Listowel native Bridget Ryan.

A book celebrating the girls' stories - by Listowel native Kay Caball - is to be published next year and it is hoped to bring many Australians back to their ancestral home for its launch.

It was the presence of Mary Brandon on the commemorative piece that was of most personal significance for the Minister. "There was only one family of Brandons in Ballylongford prior to the Famine and an American researcher traced the Deenihan connection to them so it's extremely likely I am related to her," he said.

Meanwhile, he said he was pleased to see how well current young Irish people are getting on and thanked the Australian state for the welcome it extended them.