‘An Gorta Mor’
Memorial to the Great Irish Famine 1845 - 52.
Subiaco, Western Australia.
Artist’s Concept & Symbolism
The purpose of creating an Irish Famine Memorial here in Perth, is to fulfil a long standing desire of the West Australian Irish Community to express and commemorate the soaring spirit and astounding resilience of their Irish forbearers in overcoming this enormous disaster, that while decimating the population of Ireland, had vast consequences globally. It therefore also commemorates the 'Great Irish Diaspora' that followed and the shocking, disproportional impact that this 'outpouring' of desperate people out of Ireland from the 1840s onwards, had upon subsequent world affairs. Our focus is particularly on the part all these Irish expatriates played, not only in the development of democracy and the concept of individual freedom in Australia, but also in America both North and South, and right across Europe in the latter half of the 19th Century. This is an extraordinary story that is very little known outside academic circles.
The Memorial concept takes the form of a Celtic Spiral motif, representing the winding and unwinding of birth and death, expressed as a spiritual ‘Labyrinth’, with which it shares its symbolism as a ‘walked maze’ that draws the visitor inexorably on a journey of grief, remembrance and ultimately discovery, in the heart of the design. Here we developed the concept into the form of a bronze, stylised, grieving ‘Keening Woman’, in an anguished, crouched position, referring to this ancient Celtic tradition at burials. We wanted to express this enormous sense of inconsolable loss with minimum simplicity of expression, avoiding theatrical over-wrought gestures which have been exploited and used abundantly to such cheap effect in so many other Famine Memorials. She crouches in utter desolation, her empty womb a symbolic ‘ void,’ expressing an enormous sense of inconsolable loss, not only for all the countless dead children of Ireland, but also the millions of those torn from the land of their birth and scattered around the world….never to return!
Thus, this grieving ‘Mother’ is a personification of “Uaigneas”, an eternal expression, in the Irish language, of loneliness and loss. She ‘keens’...in anguish; her image reflected in the eternal black depths of a polished slab of granite underneath.
But hope is not extinguished. It never is!...because the human spirit always soars over adversity in the end-and the Irish gift to the whole world, out of this overwhelming suffering, lives on in the words, deeds, and laws written into the constitutions of far flung lands. This comes out of a burning sense of social justice that no human being should ever have to suffer so horribly, from what was an entirely preventable agricultural event, a ‘blight’ which only affected the humble potato, while all around, the land literally flowed with ‘Milk and Honey’!
Thus, the Irish Famine Memorial we have designed has a much broader historical context than only memorialising those who actually died in the Famine. It commemorates ‘all’ those who suffered and all those who were torn from their homes, in the words of WB Yeats:
”They went about the world like wind “…………
Apart from the many free settlers who came to Australia, directly fleeing the Famine, there were many, many so called ‘prisoners’ who were transported for petty theft etc. Most of these were desperately, only trying to survive. Also, there was the mass transportation of thousands of young Irish girls taken from the overflowing workhouses of Ireland in a deliberate policy of suppling young females to an overwhelmingly male settler population in Australia at the time.
There are also many historical connections to significant WA historical figures. Paddy Hannan would have come from a family displaced by the Famine as were the Duracks. CY O’Connor’s family used up all their wealth trying to save famine victims which directly led to CY himself, having to leave Ireland. Of course the St. John of God Nuns were founded in response to the Famine as was the Christian Brother Order.
Both orders set up institutions here in WA, the Nuns settling in Subiaco.
Most of the Irish Miners, who revolted at Eureka in Victoria in 1853, would have been in Australia, fleeing the famine. It is no coincidence that today the site of the Eureka Rebellion is now designated as the ‘Museum of Australian Democracy Eureka’!
The revolutionary ‘explosion’ of the latter half of the 1800s, which overtook first Europe, then the Americas-North and South, and directly affecting 50 nations, toppling repressive governments etc., was in no small part fueled by the millions of displaced Irish, driven by a burning need to achieve some measure of individual freedom and social justice wherever they settled.
A large number of the countries in South America owe their freedom from Spain to Irish revolutionaries and their descendants such as the great Bernardo O’Higgins. All were determined to uproot the rule of oppression, which created the Great Famine in Ireland, and replace it with some form of individual rights. Even Che Guevara’s grandmother was Irish. The origins of the Democratic Party in America, through the founding of the Society of St.Tammany, was driven by these same dispossessed Irish and, most pertinently in this context, that the roots of Australian Labor is quintessentially Irish also.
It is our intention to develop these ‘other’ consequences of the Great Famine as an example of this indomitable soaring human spirit, in overcoming adversity and the subsequent unleashing of titanic forces of justice and individual liberty upon the world. This should be included in text engraved into either bronze or stone with a summary of some of the concepts outlined above. These ‘sign posts’ would be placed along the ‘path of healing’ leading into the centre of the memorial.
Thus, this little tragic mother figure expresses something small and poignant but with enormous historical consequences. Many of these ‘consequences’ that washed up on the shores of Western Australia are directly connected to the Great Irish Famine.
We firmly believe that this Irish Famine Memorial sited in Subiaco will generate a vortex of energy, simply by being there. It will be a beacon for every Australian with an Irish Heritage - a noteworthy percentage of the population. It could also become an official ‘significant site’ for every Irish dignitary visiting Australia. Most particularly, it is designed to speak to all human beings of whatever colour, rank or faith, in an effort to generate compassion for the poor, the disenfranchised and the unfortunate, still suffering untold deprivations in our supposedly ‘enlightened age’, We would therefore like to extend the concept to embrace the subsequent social and political disasters which still beset the world today, where Famine still stalks its prey!
To this end, we would like to offer the original bronze maquette of “Uaigneas”, the centerpiece of the memorial, as a fund-raising item that can be reproduced and purchased by wealthy corporations, with the profits donated to third world hunger relief.
We believe this small version of the sculpture “Uaigneas” has the potential to generate funds which could be directly supportive of aid agencies working in the fields of despair in the dark corners of the world – and thus the winding of the spiral will have real meaning and purpose
Notes on symbolism:
This is a highly complex symbol which has been used in Ireland since Paleolithic times. It is a ‘Vortex’, a great creative force winding and unwinding as it journeys symbolically from birth to death! It also signifies continuity, the spinning and weaving of the web of life.
The Spiral also shares the symbolism of the ‘Labyrinth’ and the ‘danced’ or ‘walked’ maze. This symbolism is variously suggested as the ‘return to the Centre’. It is Paradise regained; attaining realization after ordeals, trials and testing; initiation, death and rebirth and the rites of passage from the profane to the sacred; the mysteries of life and death; the journey of life through the difficulties and illusions of the world to the centre as enlightenment; a proving of the soul; a knot to be untied; the courses of the sun from winter to summer.
It is also traditionally presided over by a woman.
The final ‘layer’ of symbolism within this complex Memorial is the planting scheme which will border the path. We would suggest local limestone gravel for the path itself with the planted border in three colours; Green, White and Gold. These are the colours of the Irish Flag but also refer to the Green and Gold of Australia.
The obvious choice for ‘gold’ is a low growing variety of native Wattle. The choice of the green and white planting varieties would be chosen in consultation with Subiaco Council Parks and Garden dept, as would the physical scale of the Spiral/Labyrinth.
Joan Walsh-Smith and Charles Smith.
Aislinn Studios – Gidgegannup – WA. 28th May 2017
The Memorial Artists - Smith Sculptors
Charles Smith and Joan Walsh-Smith are an award winning husband and wife team originally from Ireland working internationally on large scale public artworks, in a wide variety of media and throughout Europe, Asia and Australia, where they settled with their three children, in 1984. They specialise in large scale monuments and memorials amongst other civic works.
In Ireland their work ranged from 'City People', 'The Art In Context Public Sculpture Competition Award' in Derry, Northern Ireland, a 30m long Concrete Relief Wall, The St Oliver Plunket Bronze Portrait, at Waterford Cathedral, The Trinity Fountain at Doo Lough Co.Clare, ' CuChulainn '- 5m high carved Elm Wood Sculpture, Kinsaley, Dublin, The historic stonecast 24m long 'Ossary Bridge Relief,' Killkenny, and 'Triple Infinity' a contemporary Celtic triple knot, 4m high steel sculpture Entrance Statement, Leopardstown Industrial Estate,Dublin,
In Asia, having won the commission to design and create the entrance statement to the University of Science & Technology in Hong Kong in 1991, they produced many other large-scale works, including at Tai Po Park, celebrating the re-unification of Hong Kong & China plus other significant projects such as the ‘Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Recovery Memorial’ in Kobe, Japan.
They have created many well-known landmark commemorative artworks in WA, from Perth City centre, to as far north as Broome to the South West of the State and other Memorial projects in Victoria and NSW.
The first major commission undertaken in Australia was the National Memorial to the Australian Army, Anzac Parade, Canberra, as winners of a National competition in 1988. Their most significant project of this kind in Western Australia, is the Memorial to HMAS Sydney II, Geraldton. Other war memorials followed and have become a major part of Charlie & Joan’s work, and a crucial commitment in their lives. The Sydney Memorial covers the top of Mount Scott and involves major symbolic elements telling the narrative of this, the most terrible single tragedy in Australian military history. Following on from the finding of the wreck of the Sydney in 2008, they were engaged in the design of the final element to commemorate this somber occasion. This took the form of a Pool of Remembrance entitled ‘Closing the Circle’. This was followed by the ‘HMAS Sydney Memorial Wall’ sculpted entirely in glass, in Denham,Shark Bay.
Historical works are a major feature of their commissions. In Perth, they created the Heritage Trail Sculpture Walk comprising eleven over-life size bronze sculptures and the Citizen of the Year Swan Fountain in Burswood Park, the Alexander Forrest sculpture in St. George’s Terrace. Also in the CBD, the ‘Footsteps in Time’ sculpture series comprising five bronze figures in the forecourt of St. Martin’s Centre and the extensive complex of copper and steel artworks based on the history of Perth in its interior. Their 'Heritage Circle' relief wall series in Victoria Park is also based on the history of the area.
Australian heritage and wildlife is also a major theme of their work. In the Kalamunda Shire, they have produced the Gum Nut Fountain series consisting of three major roundabout water feature bronze sculptures and at Perth City Council House, they created 5 Over-life size bronze kangaroos followed by wildlife bronze sculptures in the Shire of Ashburton, Shire of Collie, and the Dolphin Memorial at Hillarys.
Recent works completed includes over lifestyle bronze figure sculptures of Mons. Hawes at St Francis Xavier's Cathedral Geraldton WA; 'Sr. Mary', the 50th Anniversary Sculpture, Sacred Heart College Sorrento WA , 'The Blessed Oscar Romero' Centenary Sculpture at Holy Cross Collage Ellenbrook WA, VC winner Hugo Throssell ANZAC Memorial Northam WA and other Major ANZAC memorials at Joondalup, Onslow WA, Swansea NSW and Ocean Reef. They are currently are working on the Monument to the Australian Sailor, Rous Head, Fremantle WA.
Awards:In recognition of their work both Charles & Joan were individually awarded the Federal Centenary Medal in 2000 for ‘ outstanding achievements in the field of Large Scale Public Art’.
Joan Walsh-Smith and Charles Smith also were individually awarded The 2012 The Paul Harris Fellow Award by Rotary International for ‘their work on the HMAS Sydney II Memorial in Geraldton WA.’
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