Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan yesterday thanked Australia for providing employment for so many young Irish people in recent years.
Addressing an audience of more than 500 at a commemoration of Ireland’s Famine in Sydney, Mr Deenihan said skilled Irish people were able to move to Australia thanks to its “very accessible visa system”.
About 40,000 Irish people moved to Australia in 2011 and 2012, with 5,000 settling permanently. The Minister said the situation was a gain for Australia but a drain on Ireland. He said he looked forward to emigrants returning as the economy improved.
Speaking at Hyde Park Barracks in the city centre, he spoke about its close links with the Famine.
“Over 4,000 Irish girls aged 14 to 20 who were in workhouses as a result of the Famine came to Australia on an assisted migration scheme between 1848 and 1850. Those who arrived in Sydney were housed initially at Hyde Park Barracks,” he said.
Yesterday’s event was the fifth International Irish Famine Commemoration, which honours Famine victims but also celebrates the strong Irish communities that developed in cities around the world as a result of emigration at that time. Such events have taken place previously in Boston, New York, Liverpool and Canada.
Mr Deenihan linked Ireland’s experience of the Famine to its strong commitment to development aid.
"A key aim of Ireland's National Famine Commemoration Committee, which I chair, is also to raise awareness of famine issues all over the world," he said.
“The legacy of the Famine in Ireland includes a deep compassion felt by Irish people for those who suffer from hunger today.”
Many of those attending were descendants of what are referred to as the Irish orphan girls. "My great, great, great grandmother was one of the girls on the Thomas Arbuthnot," said Vivienne Melville. "Her name was Catherine Ryan and she was from Tarbert [Co Kerry]. I went to Listowel a couple of years ago to see the town where she had been in a workhouse before coming to Australia."
One name on the Famine monument in Hyde Park is that of Mary Brandon, whom Mr Deenihan, who has researched his family history, said was certain was a relative of his. "These girls, so far from home, survived against the odds and assimilated into Australian society," he said. "They went on to be pioneering women in the new Australia."