Subiaco: Irish president Michael D. Higgins unveils sculpture remembering country’s diaspora

President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins unveiled An Gorta Mor in Subiaco. Picture: Jon Bassett
President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins unveiled An Gorta Mor in Subiaco. Picture: Jon Bassett

IRISH president Michael D. Higgins had a simple message when he unveiled the An Gorta Mor sculpture remembering his nation’s diaspora that escaped the 1840s Potato Famine and headed across the world in Market Square, Subiaco yesterday.

“Their shared story, wherever they landed, in Birmingham or Boston, in Sydney or Subiaco, was a common striving for a better life,” Mr Higgins said.

About one million died and two million left Ireland when a reliance on potatoes as a food staple, a blight that killed the plant, British negligence towards the disaster and the prejudices of Empire combined to gut the island nation of its population and start a trend of migration which lives today.

However, those who escaped the famine were often subject to the deprivations of prejudice, even when Australia’s mid-19th century Irish population was only about 70,000.

“In the very different context of the terrible post-Famine years, those who arrived in their new destinations often found their Irishness to be a source of marginalisation, of stereotypical presentation of their cultural status as inferior, be it in terms of language or behaviour,’ Mr Higgins said.

Subiaco’s sculpture by Perth artists Joan Walsh-Smith and Charlie Smith joins others in Boston, Sydney and New York depicting a childless mother in a pose known in Celtic as ‘keening’.

The sculpture allows reflection on the loss of both mothers and Ireland of their sons and daughters to destinations across the globe.

“That same legacy came to Western Australia in 1853 on ships such as the Travancore and the Palestine when many Irish girls between the ages of 18 and 23 were sent from workhouses in Ireland to Western Australia in the 1850s and 1860s,” WA Irish Famine Commemoration Committee chair Fred Rea said.

Subiaco’s claim of Irishness extends to the history of St John of God Hospital, St Joseph’s Church, the 1970s relocation of the Irish Club and street names including Dublin and Wexford.

“Subiaco has a long-standing tradition of welcoming people from all parts of the world and we are proud of our diverse community,” Subiaco Mayor Heather Henderson said.

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