Local History – Irish Monument, Waverley CemeteryWaverley Cemetery is a special place. There are the extraordinary people for whom it is their final resting ground, there’s the beautiful statuary on some of the older graves, and there’s its stunning location at the top of sheer cliffs overlooking the sea.
One of the most unusual monuments in the cemetery is also one of the most imposing, the ‘1798 Memorial’, or, as it is frequently known, ‘The Irish Monument’. This memorial is significant not only for its beauty and majesty, but because it is the world’s largest monument to the Irish Rebellion against English rule in 1798.
Built mainly of white Carrara marble, the huge structure is a rectangular shape, nine metres wide and seven metres deep, with a white marble Celtic cross rising nine metres above its rear wall. Carved on the base of the cross are the words: ‘In loving memory of all who dared and suffered in Ireland in 1798. Pray for the souls of Michael Dwyer the ‘Wicklow Chief’ and Mary his wife, whose remains are interred in this vault.’
Irish patriot Michael Dwyer (1772-1825) was 26 when the 1798 rising began and was soon involved in the conflict. When the English largely subdued the rebellion against them, Dwyer and his men continued the fight as a highly successful guerrilla unit. His bravery caught the imagination of the Irish people and he soon became a folk hero, evading capture until late in 1803 when some of the men serving under him surrendered voluntarily on condition they were sent to America, the ‘promised land’.
Despite initially agreeing to this the English reneged, and without a trial sentenced Dwyer and his men to transportation for life to the penal colony at Botany Bay. Ironically, because they were classified as state prisoners not convicts, when they arrived in Sydney in 1806 they were treated as free settlers. Even more ironically, Dwyer later became a constable and served in the Georges River area.
He received a full pardon in 1814 and lived until 1825. At his death he was survived by his wife Mary and seven children. Buried in the former Devonshire Street Cemetery, now the site of Central Station, his grave was the site of an annual pilgrimage from 1886 onwards, which was organised by the Shamrock Club, an Irish social group.
Just before 1898, with the centenary of the Irish Rebellion soon to be celebrated, the Irish community decided that a suitably grand resting place for the ‘Wicklow Chief’, as Dwyer was known, was needed. A committee led by Dr Charles McCarthy paid ?50 for a plot in the centre of Waverley Cemetery. Two thousand pounds was needed to pay for the memorial’s grand design, an extraordinary amount of money at the time. To raise this, ‘1798 Committees’ were established all over NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, with fundraising efforts at one stage reaching all the way to New Zealand. So many ordinary Australians contributed that there is an inscription on the monument that reads ‘Erected by the Irish People and Sympathisers in Australia’.
Michael and Mary Dwyer’s bodies were moved and reburied in Waverley Cemetery on May 22, 1898. Their funeral was a massive event, the largest funeral ever seen in the country with 400 horse-drawn carriages following the hearse and a procession of approximately 10,000 people. Enormous crowds lined the street to watch the funeral cortège move from St. Mary’s Cathedral to Waverley Cemetery.
Today the memorial is a place of global pilgrimage for the Irish, with visitors including political leader Gerry Adams and the former Irish President Mary Robinson.
For more information about the Cemetery contact the Cemetery Manager, Martin Forrester-Reid on 9665 4938 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Cemetery is open 9am-5pm Monday to Friday and 9am-3pm on Saturdays.