Speech delivered at the West Gate Bridge memorial ceremony Oct 15 2012

Mr. Chairman and assembled guests my name is Henry Owens from Strokestown Co Roscommon Ireland.  I am the youngest brother of Joe whom we commemorate here today.  We the Owens family have traveled here from the four corners of the Earth you could say to be part of this ceremony which honours the memory of the thirty six construction workers that includes our brother Joe, who lost their lives on the construction of the West Gate Bridge here in Melbourne Australia.  We are grateful to the people who were responsible for the erection of the memorial and to everyone involved with the organizing of this ceremony.

The late US president Franklin D Roosevelt when addressing the American people after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, declared that the date; December 7th 1941 was a date which would live in infamy…Well to paraphrase Mr. Roosevelt I can truthfully say that to us the Owens family December 7th 1972 is indeed a date that will live in our memory as the date that Joe met his untimely death right here on the construction of the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne Australia.

To a younger generation 1972 is a lifetime ago, but to us it looks only like yesterday, but of course it is a lifetime ago.  Forty years is a long time and the world has changed immensely since.  When one looks at the advances in technology and especially in the field of transport and communications since 1972 we see a vast difference.

1972 was a time when there was no email, skype or texting we were far removed from twitter or facebook, Iphones or laptops in fact very few people in Ireland had even a landline then and when the sad news of Joe’s accident reached us back then it was by way of telegramme.  Young people today may ask what a telegramme is.  Well I suppose one could describe it as the most primitive form of an electronic mail, where a message from overseas was telephoned to a central exchange and then via numerous smaller exchanges to the local post office where the message was then transcribed onto paper and delivered by hand to its recipient. This is the way we got the news back in 1972.

Joe’s early death at the age of thirty-one years was a great blow to us all then and especially extremely heart-breaking to our elderly parents. The whole tragedy of his death at the time was exacerbated by the ordeal of waiting seventeen days for his remains to arrive home to Ireland to be buried on Christmas Eve 1972.  And we the family are forever grateful to his work colleagues and friends in the Padraig Pearse Gaelic Athletic Club who rallied around and handled the funeral arrangements on this side of the world.  

I remember the day Joe left for Australia in May 1967 – I was just a lad then – little did I know it would be the last time I would see him.  He had been working in England since 1960 and returned to work in Ireland in 64.  But the want of employment and the desire for adventure was constantly on his mind. My memories of Joe are vivid; he was an extrovert, fond of devilment, fond of sport, fond of music and fond of life.

The English writer G.K. Chesterton once noted about the Irish that “all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad” well I can tell you it isn’t true to say that all our songs are sad, but if some of our songs are sad, well there is every good reason for them to be so.  By historical fate Ireland has suffered under colonialism and oppression for centuries.  Many Irish have been forced to leave their native shores either by transportation as political felons or in search of employment and a new life in distant lands, “the curse of emigration” as the line of an emigration song goes.

Ireland and Australia have been inextricably linked for generations, from the colonial past right up to the present day. Since the days when political felons were transported by sea, a journey that took four months to sail on stormy oceans around by the Cape of Good Hope and on to Van Dieman’s land.  Wherever the Irish have settled throughout the world they have left their mark be it of an illustrious or notorious nature.  Exploits such as the great escape of the Fenian prisoners from the penal colony in Freemantle on board the Catalpa, or the activities of the famous Highwaymen has inspired many songs and tales in Irish/Australian folk history.   Songs such as “Far Away in Australia”, “The Wild Colonial Boy” and “If we only had old Ireland over here” illustrate the impact that emigration had on the Irish.

The sad songs of emigration and political persecution reflect the story of the flight of the Irish be it by forced transportation or by work necessity, and there was no better man than our brother Joe to render an Irish ballad depicting these themes. Sadly today there is another flight of young Irish people to Australia, but the reason for their flight is not because of colonial oppression, but the blame for their flight lies at the feet of inept politicians and greedy bankers.  Joe was one of the countless Irish people who had to leave home to find employment and fate deemed that it was here to Melbourne that he came and fate deemed that it was here on the West Gate Bridge he would find work and fate deemed that it would be here he would meet his death.

When I was very young I was once told that if I started digging a hole in the ground and went deep enough I would arrive in Australia, curiously I started digging one day hoping to go down under, but after some time digging water appeared in the hole so I gave up with the conclusion that I missed the target and was somewhere in the pacific ocean!  I also remember as a young lad hearing the name Ronnie Delaney, which was a household name at the time, when he won gold for Ireland by winning the 1500m run at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 which coincidentally was the same year that Joe won his first minor county championship medal for football and I’d say Joe was as proud of his simple medal as Ronnie Delaney was of his gold one.

Although Joe’s mortal remains lie in his native soil in Ireland I know that he is with us here today in spirit.  So let’s not mourn his death but rather let us celebrate his life and that is the way Joe would want it.  Before I conclude I want to pay tribute to the other thirty five workmen who tragically met their deaths on the construction of this bridge forty two years ago and I hope that lessons were learned as a result of that disaster and that such will never happen again. I will finish by naming a few of the individuals Ireland gave to Australia; we gave them Michael Dwyar, we gave them Jack Duggan, we gave them Ned Kelly, and we gave them Joe Owens.