Tuesday 6 December 2016

Driven to despair and destroyed by dreams of gold

Fiona O'Connell

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

'Fremantle Harbour was probably O'Connor's greatest triumph, as his proposal to build it within the entrance to the Swan River (pictured) was regarded as almost impossible'. Photo: Robyn Mackenzie
'Fremantle Harbour was probably O'Connor's greatest triumph, as his proposal to build it within the entrance to the Swan River (pictured) was regarded as almost impossible'. Photo: Robyn Mackenzie

This little island has a long history of emigration. Many a family in this country town have at least one child living abroad, whether just across the water or further afield.

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Such is the case with my late brother's friend, Finbarr, who lives in the major port city of Fremantle in Western Australia.

He tells me that if you wander down the beach to watch the sunset, you will also see a bronze statue of a man on horseback in the ocean, looking back over his shoulder at Fremantle Harbour.

You might assume this mythical sight is connected to the Aboriginals, who have the longest continuous cultural history of any group of people on Earth. Their creation myth teaches that ancestor spirits made the world, before changing into trees, the stars, rocks, watering holes and so on - making nature, and not man-made objects, sacred.

Yet that statue of a man on horseback almost submerged in the sea is actually an Irishman. Charles Yelverton O'Connor found fame and glory as an engineer in Western Australia during the succession of gold rushes that caused a population explosion in its barren and dry desert centre.

Fremantle Harbour was probably O'Connor's greatest triumph, as his proposal to build it within the entrance to the Swan River was regarded as almost impossible. But his work on the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme - perhaps the world's longest water main - was his downfall.

For a vicious campaign, motivated by political agendas and individual greed, plagued O'Connor towards the end of the project. A typically libellous article in the Sunday Times in 1902 accused "this crocodile imposter" of corruption.

Mental illnesses caused by overwork and worry, along with many health problems - including cirrhosis of the liver - meant O'Connor never got to see his engineering wonder at work when it was completed in 1903. Because on March 10, 1902, O'Connor mounted his favourite horse and rode out into the Indian Ocean - where he shot dead both horse and himself. The statue stands on the spot he committed suicide.

But they say that the real cause of O'Connor's demise was a curse placed on him by local Aboriginals for destroying their environment. Specifically, by blasting away the limestone bar across that part of the Swan River, which was a source of food for tens of thousands of years before European settlement.

The fact that O'Connor died near where their tradition says that the spirits of the departed leave the coast to travel over the sea to the island of the dead, lent credence to this belief.

Perhaps it is true O'Connor was cursed - but not by the Noongar people. For the statue seems symbolic of a culture driven demented by its destructive fever for gold, which fuelled a rush to ransack the natural world.

Leaving one Irishman with many monuments to his name - but his sanity all at sea.

Sunday Independent

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