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

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