This poem derives from my research into the children of Irish famine refugees in Australia. It was inspired by my visit to the site of a workhouse and fever hospital in my native County Clare in the west of Ireland.

Clare was one of the worst-hit counties – which lost one third of its native people, my people, during the five years of the Great Irish Famine, a humanitarian crisis which eventually resulted in a halving of the Irish population from eight million to four million people. The impacts of the famine for my people were greatly exacerbated by British colonisation and their policies in Ireland at the time. The British government failed to intervene and prevent Anglo landlords from exporting vital food supplies out of Ireland while millions starved.

Workhouses like this one in Kilrush were the last resort of the most desperate starving Irish people; the aid provided there was inadequate. Surrendering to the workhouse was tantamount to a death sentence as they suffered high death rates due to malnutrition and disease.

As I stood outside under barren winter trees, crows circling overhead seemed to be calling to me in my native language, which had been prohibited by law during colonisation… ‘Cá, cá, cá?’ – meaning ‘Where, where, where?’.

This poem recalls the practice in workhouses of separating children from their mothers when they reached two years of age. Families were split up – mothers and babies going to women’s wards, children over two to girls’ and boys’ wards and men to adult male wards. Many families never saw each other again, never knew if any others had survived.

I wrote this poem as it came to me – in the Irish language, Gaeilge. Here, I use my native language as a form of political resistance, to decolonise our history and to restore lost voices – including the voice of my maternal grandfather who was beaten as a child, during British rule in Ireland, for speaking in our native tongue.

I will read the poem entirely in Irish first. I will then read the English translation which I have also written. I hope you will allow the sound of the Irish language to wash over you. Maybe you will hear those crows speaking to you too, or the ancient voice of my home country…