Great Irish Famine

Australian premiere for orphan girls play

The cast of Highlands Theatre Group's production of  Belfast Girls .

The cast of Highlands Theatre Group's production of Belfast Girls.

Belfast Girls, a play which dramatises the journey of Irish orphan girls to Australia in the mid-19th century, is to have its Australian debut this month.

The play, written by Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick and directed by Stephen Clancy, will be performed by the Highlands Theatre Group (HTG) at the Mittagong Playhouse in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

Set in 1850 in the immediate aftermath of the Great Hunger (an gorta mór), the play follows the fortunes of five young women who set sail for a new life in Australia aboard the Inchinnan. Each carried with them their own dark and shocking secrets of the past.

As their journey nears its end, they battle with memories of past deeds and confront the reality of what their futures in this new land, may actually hold for them.

Between 1848 and 1851, more than four thousand young women - many of them orphaned by the famine - left Ireland under the Earl Grey Scheme to boost the female population of the colony.

The HTG is one of only nine amateur theatre groups throughout the world to be given permission to stage the show. 

Writer Jaki McCarrick became interested in the orphan girls story when she found a namesake,  Nora McCarrick, from Easkey, Co Sligo, who had travelled to Australia under the scheme.

"This was a chapter of Irish history I knew nothing about," she said.

"I read what books I could find on the subject, including Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, Thomas Kennelly’s History of Australia, Trevor McClaughlin’s Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, Irish Women and Irish Migration, edited by Patrick O’Sullivan.

"In my reading of these books and articles, I discovered that a particular group of ‘orphans’ were considered to have been especially feisty and colourful, known for their use of obscene language and riotous behaviour. These were known as ‘the Belfast girls’."

The HTG will stage six performance of the play. For more information, and bookings, visit htg.org.au or call Destination Southern Highlands directly on (02) 4871 2888.

 

Famine monument pioneer Tom Power dead at 87

Tom Power with President Mary McAleese at the Hyde Park Barracks in 2003.

Tom Power with President Mary McAleese at the Hyde Park Barracks in 2003.

WITHOUT Tom Power, there would be no monument to the Great Irish Famine in Sydney. Perhaps more importantly, we would be less likely to know about the more than 4,000 Irish orphan girls who came to Australia during and after the Great Hunger.

These girls and young women became the mothers and grandmothers of Australia and as many as seven million Aussies may be able to trace their ancestry to them. It was back in 1995, during her state visit to Australia, that President Mary Robinson suggested that some memorial be erected in remembrance of the Great Famine, which had driven so many people to Australia in the 19th century. A committee was formed to do just that, with Tom Power as chairman.

“It all started in 1995 and we got to work from there,” Tom told the Irish Echo back in 2012. “We had a meeting of all the county associations and decided to build this memorial. It was four hard years of fundraising and it was a lot of work with dinners, dances and raffles. Hopefully it’s something that will be there forever. It’s a marvellous thing.”

Tom, who died on December 28, aged 87, was the man who envisioned the monument; who worked tirelessly and selflessly alongside his committee colleagues to raise the funds necessary to complete its design and construction.

The Irish Famine Memorial at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

The Irish Famine Memorial at Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney

The result, located in the grounds of the Hyde Park Barracks – one of Australia’s oldest and most significant buildings – is a breathtaking structure. Each year, descendants of the orphan girls, whose names are inscribed on the glass walls of the monument, gather there to honour their Irish ancestors. It’s a profoundly moving event and a wonderful legacy to Tom’s dedication, passion and vision. But most of all, his hard work has gifted this part of the Diaspora a sacred site in a prestigious location which will forever remind us of the depth and complexity of Australia’s Irish heritage. 

When Tom Power left his home village of Powerstown in Co Tipperary to set sail for Australia back in 1956, he could hardly have known the lasting impact he would have on the cultural heritage of his new home. 

He was farewelled by many family and friends at St Kieran’s Catholic Church, Manly Vale on January 5 and is survived by wife Trish and sons Robert and John.