Higgins unveils Tasmania memorial to Irish female convicts

President recalls journey of 25,000 women ‘to other end of the Earth’

President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina, meet Linda Dessau, governor of Victoria. Photograph: Maxwells

President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabina, meet Linda Dessau, governor of Victoria. Photograph: Maxwells


President Michael D Higgins has unveiled a memorial to Irish female convicts transported to Tasmania, 170 years ago.

The memorial, he said, should remind us of “the suffering of migrants of our times” and that the “trauma of displacement and forced exile are not experiences confined to our past”.

In Hobart, the third stop on the President’s six-city, 19-day State visit to Australia, Mr Higgins honoured the memory of the 25,000 women, almost half of them Irish, and children who were transported during the middle of the 19th century to what was then known as Van Dieman’s Land.

The women - “Mná Díbertha or Banished Women,” as he called them - made the 16,000-mile journey “to the other end of the Earth,” he said in a ceremony at Hobart’s quayside.

They came “with small children in tow, facing an unknown country and unknown future, with little hope of ever seeing their families and native island again,” he said.

The statues are the work of Dublin-born sculpture Rowan Gillespie. They stand as companion pieces to his well-known Famine memorial of seven life-size figures on Custom House Quay in Dublin - unveiled in 1997 on the 150th anniversary of the “Black ‘47”, a term for the summer of 1847 - and a sister memorial in Toronto inaugurated on the 160th anniversary.

The Hobart memorial, unveiled on the 170th anniversary of the Famine’s worst year, depicts three women and a boy who stands apart from his mother and the other two women waiting to be sent to an orphan school. On his pedestal are the names of more than 900 children share his same fate as “orphans of state”.

Mr Higgins paid tribute to the sculptor for giving “a face to the suffering of the many starving people who departed in ships from their homeland.”

The President was particularly moved, he said, to learn that the models for the sculptures were descendants of some of the banished women and were in attendance on Saturday.

The figures depicted “should remind us that the trauma of displacement and forced exile are not experiences confined to our past, but are the lived experience of millions around the world today, including many who now call Australia home,” said Mr Higgins.

The President used the speech to return to his “ethics of memory” theme on which he has spoken many times before. “We are defined as a people by what we choose to commemorate,” he said.

Mr Higgins praised the people of Australia for commemorating difficult aspects of their history: “It shows a maturity and depth of understanding in coming to terms with Australia’s origins that Australians are now confident in transecting the multiple strands of their identify, including their convict ancestry,” he said.

“To find a convict ancestor is no longer a matter of shame but can be cause of reflection and indeed celebration.”

His speech referred to the thousands of Irish female adolescents who emigrated from Irish workhouses to Australia between 1848 and 1850 under the Earl Grey “orphan” scheme, named after its architect, the secretary of state for the colonies in the London government at the time.

Designed to attract women between the ages of 14 and 20, the aim of the scheme was to address the gender imbalance in the Australian colonies, while reducing numbers in overcrowded rates-funded Irish workhouses.

The women and children from Ireland were “just some of the victims of a brutal and brutalising imperial regime that in many respects care little for human life or dignity,” Mr Higgins said.

The President said that people should never forget those women who did not survive the journey to Australia and were unable to “mother a new generation”. Nor, he said, should they forget the survivors “broken by abuse and the troubles they encountered and by the cruelties and humiliations imposed upon them.”

“We now have the means to remember them too and to recall their suffering and sacrifice,” he said.

Mr Higgins flew on Sunday from Hobart to Canberra, Australia’s capital, for meetings on Monday with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and the governor-general of the Commonwealth of Australia, Sir Peter Cosgrove.

Later that day Mr Higgins will meet Labour Party leader Bill Shorten MP, the leader of the opposition, and parliamentarians connected with the Australia-Ireland Parliamentary Friendship Group.

Mr Higgins will start the day by laying a wreath at the Australian War Memorial. Many Irish-born men fought with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) in the First World World. An estimated 6,600 Irish-born men and women served in the Australian forces in the conflict.