"…Dear son, it may be that never will we meet on earth but I hope we will meet in heaven above the starry frame…"
Joseph Irwin, County Tyrone, 1854
When writer Helen Townsend was researching her family history, she found a series of letters written to her great grandfather , William Irwin, Ballarat, Australia, from his family in Ireland. The letters span a period of forty years – from 1852 to 1892.
William was born and reared in Co. Tyrone, but like many before and after him, left the country of his birth to build a new life in Australia.
“I began to see what a complex story the Irish Diaspora was,” says Helen, who narrates the program. “There were eight children in the Irwin family, but their land couldn’t support them. The potato famine of the 1840s brought that home very starkly. Along with some of his siblings, William had no choice but to leave. Then, when he got to Ballarat in Australia, he struck gold. He sent a lot of money home, but even though there was only a few members of the family left in Ireland, they struggled to survive.
This is the very human story of those left behind in the emigration experience.
“William’s father was an amazing correspondent,” says Helen. “The wonderful thing about these letters is all the family news they contain– news about the farm animals, about the crops, the weather, the family’s health, and neighbours who were leaving for the new world. The letters from old Joseph Irwin are scattered with little bits of fatherly advice to son William – the sort you can never resist giving your children.”
The making of this radio documentary has also been kept in the family, with Helen’s daughter Sophie Townsend co-writing and producing.
“William was on the other side of the world,” says Sophie. "Australia was almost unimaginable for those back in Ireland. The family were in Ireland, barely surviving, and watching the population shrinking.”
The forty years of family letters attest both to the strength of family bonds over the period, and their eventual disintegration. “It was sad and extraordinary,” says Sophie, “because this was happening all over Ireland, a sense of loss, of dislocation. Being an immigrant country, we tend to see the successes and benefits. This is a reminder of the other side of the emigration story.”
'The Starry Frame' is an Australian, ABC Radio National production and was first aired as part of their Hindsight series.
'The Starry Frame' is produced by Sophie and Helen Townsend.
A radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries