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World heritage status win for Australia’s iconic convict sites

The Gatehouse at Fremantle Prison (Image courtesy of Fremantle Prison)Convict sites across Australia – rich with Irish history – have been added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List.

The sites include Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, Port Arthur in Tasmania, and Fremantle Prison in Western Australia.

Professor Elizabeth Malcolm, Gerry Higgins Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne, was one of those to welcome the move.

“Anything that goes to protect convict heritage would have to be welcomed by anyone working in the field of Irish studies,” she told Irish Australia.

Australia’s Environment Protection and Heritage Minister Peter Garrett also welcomed the World Heritage committee’s decision to inscribe 11 local convict sites on the list, helping to ensure their preservation into the future.

The recognition of Hyde Park Barracks has particular significance for the Irish community in Australia. Acting at times as a prison, immigration processing centre, orphanage, infirmary and ‘madhouse’, among other things, the site now also hosts Australia’s Monument to the Great Irish Famine.

Another recognised site, Fremantle Prison, was home to one of the most infamous and audacious prison yarns in Australian history. The Catalpa Escape of 1876 saw six members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood escape on the whaler which travelled 11 months from Massachusetts to collect the convicts in Bunbury.

Bevan Beaver, the executive manager of Fremantle Prison, said he was delighted with the news.

“It is significant because it is recognition of the convicts’ efforts,” said Mr Beaver.

“Western Australia was set up as a free colony. But it was failing. So from our perspective the story of forced migration is what got Western Australia up and running. Basically convict labour saved the day.”

Five of the 11 World Heritage listed sites are located in Tasmania.

State Minister for Environment, Parks and Heritage, David O’Byrne said that obtaining World Heritage recognition of Australia’s convict past is a significant milestone.

“Forced penal migration had a particular impact on Tasmania because of its sheer scale in relation to the general population,” Minister O’Byrne said.

“This is a major part of the Tasmanian story. “I’m quite proud to own up to some convict ancestry — my family is descended from four brothers, the O’Byrnes, who were convicted in Ireland and transported.”

Other sites included in the announcement are Cockatoo Island Convict Site and Old Great North Road, in NSW; Brickendon and Woolmers Estates, Darlington Probation Station, the Coal Mines Historic Site and the Cascades Female Factory in Tasmania, and Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area on Norfolk Island.

www.unesco.org

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