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


  1. A few years ago my husband began the trek to Ireland to uncover his family roots. It was so interesting to me to see how different the country is (compared to the US) and how they still kept records in churches!
    Best of luck with your book

  2. Having a quest when you take a trip somewhere makes the journey all the more exciting. I hope your husband found that.