Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Finding Irishness in Ballarat

It is one thing to be given the task of writing a novel about the Irish in Ballarat, it is another to decide exactly what that novel will focus on. What themes will be pursued, who the characters will be and how their story will be shaped.

To find out I had to get to know these Irish of nineteenth century Ballarat better. That meant reading everything that had been written about them and Ballarat since the first shovel full of gold bearing dirt had been dug in August 1851 at a place the miners called Poverty Point.

Gold was so important to the story I would tell. because there was so much of it and, after the initial burst, so hard to wrench from the ground, it shaped the place that Ballarat would become. Unlike some of the Victorian goldfields which are now only faint scars on the landscape, or marked by slowly decaying buildings, Ballarat with its grand architecture, wide tree lined streets, and other signs of past opulence, stands as a monument to a time when the colony was gripped with gold fever.

And there were Irish there from the very beginning. Not the typically poor, downtrodden, priest ridden Irish which are the stereotypes of the anti-Irish establishment, but men, and overwhelmingly they were men, who were filled with the spirit of adventure, who had enough money to pay the considerable passage cost the ship owners were charging. Some were the sons of gentry like Peter Lalor of Eureka fame whose father had been a member of the British parliament. There were young lawyers, too, unable to find a place for themselves at the Irish Bar had struck out expecting to dig their fortune from the ground only to find that there was more money to be made in practicing the law on then goldfields.

There were others too, medical men, hoteliers and those with no particular profession who had sold everything they owned to relocate themselves, and sometimes their families, to the goldfields.

Some of the Irish were at the Eureka uprising. Some, no doubt, kept well away, determined to get on with the business of making money while others protested, on behalf of all the goldfields oppressed, for more equitable conditions, the abolition of the gold licence, parliamentary representation and manhood suffrage.

And contrary to popular myth, Eureka was not an Irish fight. Sure, there were plenty of them there. After all, the stockade had been erected on the Eureka Lead where most of those sinking shafts through the layers of alluvial deposits in search of ancient gold bearing streams, or deep leads, were Irish. Until a short time before the disastrous uprising, the leaders of the protest movement had been Welsh chartists, some of whom had been committed to a non-violent policy of moral persuasion. When this approach failed to bend the colony's governor, it was the Irishman Peter Lalor who took the reins, but those who followed him to the stockade included an Italian who had fought with Garabaldi, a Prussian who styled himself as a military leader and some Americans. Their purpose in arming themselves and drilling was for defence against the soldiers and the police who were spoiling for a fight.

Unfortunately for me, though, the story of Eureka has been told many times in history, movies and is re-enacted nightly in a brilliant sound and light show called Blood on the Southern Cross which is conducted by the Sovereign Hill Museums Association.

Blood on the Southern Cross

The Liberator's Birthday and Brigid

Monday, April 25, 2011

You are all invited to Twilight Talks

 Each year the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute hosts a series of Friday night talks called Twilight Talks. The first for the year will be held this Friday in the Humffray Room of the Mechanics' Institute, 117 Sturt Street, Ballarat commencing with refreshments at 5pm. 
As it is the first talk for the year and just a few days after Anzac Day our speaker will be:

The Secretary Victorian Committee for the Battle of Australia

Lieutenant Colonel Ted Lynes

Who will use the first Twilight Talk after Anzac Day to talk about

The Battle for Australia

His talk will encompass all actions between Japan and Australia and her Allies from mid 1940 to the Japanese surrender 2nd  September 1945

Ballaarat Mechanics Institute,
Sturt Street, Ballarat
April 29
5.30 – 6.30pm – refreshments at 5.00pm

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Getting to know the Irish

 Facts, written and oral records, eye witness statements. These are the sources the historian must use to write credible history. Hence it is relatively easy to write about events and issues for which there are contemporary accounts or where there are physical remains. Likewise recording the lives of famous people is made easier by the existence of diaries, letters and other records.

But what about the people who have left no written record of themselves? How does the historian write about them? With difficulty! The fears, hopes, aspirations they had for themselves, the cohesive forces that held their communities together , and those that divided them, can only be gleaned from the observations of the more learned or literate who, as often as not coloured their opinions with their own prejudices.

The Irish I chose to write about for my PhD were just such a group. At first glance they were the Catholic laity, the people who filled the cathedral on Sundays, donated to building funds and sent their children ot Catholic schools. They also drank heavily, bemoaned their own and Ireland's misfortunes as if they were one and the same, and they exhibited a blind obedience to their clergy. They were all the same, or were they?

Sure, there were some who were still 'worshipping the sorrowful legends of Ireland' as James Joyce has one of his characters in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man doing. They were giving themselves an excuse for their own failings. Every misfortune, every blunder, every offence could be added to the accumulated persecution Ireland had suffered at the hands of its colonial masters.

But these people, as I found out, were no more typical of the Irish in Ballarat than were those who had seized the opportunity that gold digging had offered them, or others who had seen the possibilities that were to be had in becoming a provider of goods and services to the gold diggers. The Irish who were to be the subjects of my study were all sorts. Some were devoutly religious, others antagonistic to the power the church tried to exert. Among them were the ambitious, the lazy, the drunken and sober, the proudly Irish and those who classed themselves as Australian. I needed to included the whole range in my novel.

I had originally thought about setting the novel in the back room of my great grandfather's drapery business in Rubicon Street where family legend has it that he taught Gaelic to a group of friends dedicated to preserving in Ireland and abroad. But they were hardly representative of the Irish in Ballarat. While many of the Ballarat Irish had come from counties were Gaelic was still in regular use, others had never spoken it and the Church did not promote its use.

The Globe Hotel stood a few doors away from the drapery business and it seemed to me to be a better venue for the Irishmen of my novel to demonstrate their diversity as they grappled with the issues which concerned them, their Church and Ballarat generally. The Globe still stands although only the wooden bar bears any resemblance to the timber clad pub of The Liberator's Birthday

The Liberator's Birthday

Friday, April 15, 2011

Why write historical fiction when you can write history?

I have occasionally been asked why I have chosen historical fiction as a means by which to portray the people about whom I study. Why not write history instead?

I fully intended writing history when I embarked on a study of the Irish population of Ballarat in the second half of the nineteenth century for my Doctor of Philosophy degree, but when I was invited by the University of Ballarat's Professor Kevin Livingston to present my research in the form of a novel I jumped at the chance.

The Irish in ballarat were my people. My mother's ancestry was full of Irish names like O'Farrell, Daly and Dolan. Most were from Counties Cork or Clare and had left Ireland in the wake of the Great Potato Famine but were in Victoria before gold was discovered. They were probably tenant farmers for one of the two irish entrepreneurs granted special surveys of large tracts of rich volcanic soil in the Western District around Port fairy and Koroit.

The Irish in my father's family tree is less obvious among the English, Scots and German names, but it is there nevertheless. His English forebears were in Portland where the Henty family had established themselves in the 1830s, and were already established as grain and chaff merchants in Ballarat before the first sparks of rebellion began to fly in 1854. There is no record of them taking part in any of the protest meetings or of swearing allegiance to the Southern Cross. Perhaps they were onlookers or perhaps they kept right away on that fateful day.

Having been given permission to write about the people to whom my ancestors belonged I had to find a place to begin my research. More on that later.
To purchase The Liberator's Birthday

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ballarat Writers - Readings at the Ansonia

Join us April 14 at the Ansonia, 32 Lydiard Street South, Ballarat at 7.30 pm on Thursday for
 Readings at the Ansonia
 $5 non-members, $2 members

 The featured readers will be:

Tim Pegler - award-winning journalist and author.  His most recent novel is Five Parts Dead. After a decade at the Age and the Australian, he now works as a freelance journalist. His first novel for young adults, Game as Ned, was a Children’s Book Council notable book in 2008.

Leanne Hall - the 2009 winner of the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. She lives in Melbourne and works as a children’s specialist at an independent bookstore. Leanne can’t think of anything better than a life spent reading and writing young adult fiction, and has far too many future books living in her head to ever consider a full-time job. This is Shyness is her first novel.
Ballarat Writers Incorporated
Supporting aspiring and established writers in the Western Victorian region

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A review of Brigid

Australian Bookshelf has just sent me a copy of the review of my Great Potato Famine novel. It can be read at

Reviews are so important to a writer. They can be a confidence booster or a prod to work harder to impress an audience. It is easy as a writer to become so engrossed in the characters and the story that there isn't space for thinking about who the readers are and what their likes and dislikes are. The reviewers are on their side. if they don't get what you are about, or interpret the story in a way that is contrary to what you intended, the so will the readers.

In Brigid's case Lauren seems to have enjoyed what she read. Thank you.

Link to Jill's Books

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The past is another country

The past is another country. A great idea, and well used over the years, but an apt expression of the dilemma historical fiction writers face in locating their stories in an environment which no longer exists. There might, of course, be traces of that environment remaining. Buildings of the time may have survived intact and may still be in use for much the same purpose as they were in the past. I'm reminded here of my time spent researching in Westminster Abbey. Sometimes, however,  there are only ruins but, with a bit of imagination, they can be reconstructed mentally so that the novel's characters can feel at home in them. More often that not, though, nothing remains.

Even so, there is merit in visiting the place where the novel is set if only to experience such elements as the climatic conditions. it is hard for those of us who live in the wide brown land at the bottom of the world to contemplate the Northern Hemisphere without having felt the seasons for ourselves.

When I went to Ireland for the first time with the ghost of my great great aunt Brigid, I had no expectation of discovering any more that what it felt like to be in a place that was green year around and frequently wet. I soon found out that the countryside wasn't uniformly green, it was various shades of green which were dependent on the soil, the rainfall and the amount of sun and shade there was. Some of the landscape I was seeing showed the impact of the Celtic Tiger which was still flashing its teeth across the island, but underneath there were remnants of the past everywhere I looked. And there were the Heritage Centres and local history libraries which could fill in the gaps that my eyes could not tell me.

At the Heritage Centre at Corofin in County Clare I found out about Brigid's family. On a map I was able to pinpoint the exact location of the house her father had rented, but although I drove up and down the New Quay Road I could not find the lane which led down to the cluster of houses which had once formed a clachan on the edge of the bay. Then I met a couple of old codgers propping up the bar at O'Brien's pub in Ballyvaghan who could remember what their grandmothers had told them of famine times. They told me the boreen I was looking for was the set of tyre tracks across a modern paddock, I had seen but thought nothing of. With some trepidation I went back, opened the gate and began walking towards the bay. There on the other side of a second paddock were the ruins of half a dozen little stone houses one of which had been my great great grandfather's. What a thrill!
Link to Jill's Books

Monday, April 4, 2011