Thursday, February 7, 2008

From the Shamrock Shore to Van Diemen’s Land

In 2001, Peter Carey’s book on The History of the Kelly Gang was published to critical acclaim and won for its Australian author the Booker Prize. What I had found interesting in Carey’s account of Ned Kelly was the knowledge displayed by the writer of little-known events which occurred in provincial Ireland during the 1798 period. Here is an extract from his book.
‘At Beveridge Catholic School, we learned the traitors better than the saints so at 5 yr of age I could recite the names John Cockayne Edward Abby even poor Anthony Perry who finally betrayed the rebels after the English set his head alight with pitch and gunpowder. Likewise but contrary I knew the names of the Athy blacksmiths Tom Murray and Owen Finn they would not betray the rebels though they was flogged and tortured the whole town echoing with their screams.’

Clearly news of what had occurred in Athy in ’98 had crossed the world and in particular to Australia, in all probability courtesy of some unfortu-nate convict from this area deported down under after conviction at the local assizes and after a spell spent in the local jail awaiting transfer to a waiting hulk in Queenstown or Dublin.

Students of Irish history will be familiar with Australian place names such as Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land, the first the bay into which convict ships sailed and the latter, now renamed Tasmania, where the unfortunate Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish convicts, male and female, were to serve out their sentences. How many men and women from South Kildare were deported it is unclear, but among the numbers were undoubtedly many of our townspeople who after serving their sentences made a new life for themselves in Australia.

Added to their numbers were the young girls who as part of the Orphan Emigration Scheme which followed the Great Famine left the workhouse in Athy and other Irish workhouses on the long journey which ended in Australia. The first group of girls from South Kildare went out in 1849. The Emigration Scheme was stated to be a voluntary scheme, which presupposes that the Board of Guardians cooperated, but I wonder to what extent the young girls or their parents, where known, were consulted or volunteered to emigrate to the far side of the world.

What happened to these young girls after their arrival in Botany Bay is the subject of continuing research, but it can be expected that their descendents are now part of the wider population of Australia and perhaps even Tasmania, the island state which received its last convict from the old world in 1852. Four years later, the island’s name was changed from Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania in honour of the man who had discovered it over 200 years previously.

Australia has always had a strong Irish connection and the influence of Irish settlers is evident in the country’s heritage of song and literature. The most popular Australian ballad, insofar as the Irish are concerned, must surely be The Wild Colonial Boy.

The exploits of Jack Duggan, ‘born and reared in Castlemaine’, was immortalised in a song which perhaps reflected his fellow country-men’s affection for Irish outlaws and a dislike for authority born and nurtured out of decades of state oppression in their homeland.

The literary output of Irish emigrants, despite their contribution to Australian literary heritage, may not have been as strong as might be expected, given that by 1891 more than 23% of the Australian population consisted of Irish-born men or women. This is understandable, given that the majority of Irish emigrants were relatively uneducated. The Irish Australian writings which have come down to us include the works of Charles Gavin Duffy, Peter Lalor and Dunbrin-born James Malone. Lalor from County Laois, brother of the Irish patriot James Fintan Lalor, was the leader of the gold miners who, in blockading the Eureka Stockade in 1854, struck a blow for democracy, creating what is generally acknowledged to be one of the great symbolic events in Australian labour history. The famous American writer Mark Twain later wrote of the events at Eureka Stockade, where the gold diggers rebelled against oppressive laws and corrupt officials, as “the finest thing in Australian history. It was a revolution - small in size but politically it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for a principle, a stand against injustice and oppression”.

Peter Lalor who had emigrated from County Laois just two years previously was 27 years of age when he took charge of the rebel miners at Eureka, and by the time government troops had regained control 14 miners were dead and another eight were later to die of their wounds. Among the wounded was Peter Lalor himself. Most of those involved were Irish and the ‘failed’ revolt led to the democratisation of the Australian State of Victoria.

Almost 38 years later, Fr James Malone, a native of Dunbrin, Athy left Ireland for Australia where he would remain a Parish Priest in various Australian parishes until his death in 1948. A man of exceptional literary taste, he wrote several books and contributed many articles to Australian magazines during his lifetime. The Purple Dust published in 1910 was his account of a tour through Egypt and Palestine, originally written for an Australian magazine Austral Light and serialised in that magazine over a two-year period. The trip started in February 1907 and ended in Athy, where Fr Malone was visiting his family and relatives for the first time since emigrating in 1892. He was a lecturer and writer on English literature and poetry and published in 1915 his lectures which he titled Talks about Poets and Poetry, having published some years previously a work titled The Australian Poet. Of particular interest to Athy readers is his own book of poetry Wild Briar and Wattle-Blossom, published in Melbourne in 1914, in which a number of photographs appeared. The captions accompanying the photographs were A Home on the Barrow, A Scene on the Barrow and The Old Whitewashed Schoolhouse in Shanganamore. The poems, some of which were Australian in content, were reflections of an Irishman’s memories of his home place, the most well-known of which was The Old Whitewashed Schoolhouse of Shanganamore, the opening lines of which read: Through the bogs of Dunbrin, leaping pool after pool, ‘Up and follow the leader’s the law of the school; A plunge at the stile with the risk of a spill, For the best bunch of cowslips on green

Cowsey’s hill - A race for the rath through the long meadow grass, Through the boldest heart quakes at the dread “fairy pass” - A leap for the hazel, a rustling of boughs - Hush! It’s only the gadfly that’s driving the cows.

And ended with the lines: And some day I’ll come back from that South Ocean’s shore To sleep ’neath the shamrocks of Shanganamore.

Fr Malone, so far as I am aware, never did return to Ireland and when he died on 16 July 1948, he was buried in the mortuary chapel at Geelong, Australia.

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