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Diaspora with a difference: Irish history revealed Down Under

An archaeologist has identified the site of an Irish 'clachan' established by mine workers in South Australia. Simon Caterson reports

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Fragments of an Irish past: Susan Arthure with artefacts from the Baker’s Flat site

Fragments of an Irish past: Susan Arthure with artefacts from the Baker’s Flat site

Fragments of an Irish past: Susan Arthure with artefacts from the Baker’s Flat site

The history of the Irish diaspora isn't always a straightforward narrative of moving to a new country, adapting to local conditions and co-existing with people not from Ireland. It could also involve reconstituting an Irish community and way of life that is complete and self-contained.

A remarkable instance of Irish relocation is Baker's Flat, a fully formed "clachan" - or small village-like settlement - established in South Australia by several hundred Irish people in the mid-19th century. Located near the small mining town of Kapunda around 70km north-east of Adelaide, Baker's Flat could easily appear as a placename in the Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape but for the fact this closely arranged Irish community was situated on the other side of the world.

It took an Irish-born archaeologist moving to South Australia more than a century later to identify the Baker's Flat settlement as a clachan.

Originally from Trim in Co Meath, Susan Arthure emigrated to Australia in the 1980s. Soon after arriving, she became interested in the history of the Irish in South Australia - the state regarded as the least Irish part of country.

A few years ago, Arthure decided to study archaeology and is currently completing her PhD. Arthure sees her interest in archaeology as originating in childhood. "Growing up in Trim, surrounded by the ruins of castles and cathedrals, it was impossible to ignore the past", she tells Review.

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"Before I knew what the word palimpsest meant, I was aware that I was living on land that had been re-used and altered over thousands of years, but that visible traces of this use remained. And I loved this. I particularly loved the small things - the old ink bottles that we'd find in ditches as children, the bits of broken pots that would come up in the garden."

In Adelaide, Arthure came across the story of a group of Irish labourers who had worked in the Kapunda copper mine in the 19th century. The mine was on land owned by Charles Bagot, an Anglo-Irish pastoralist and parliamentarian who had emigrated from Co Clare. Many of the Irish who worked the mine also came from Clare.

To the non-Irish inhabitants of the Kapunda district, the Irish enclave may have appeared strange and unruly. Much of the discussion of Baker's Flat in the local press of the time echoes negative stereotypes of the Irish widespread in the Australian colonies.

"I think that being Irish helped me to recognise that there was more to this site than just a group of Irish people living near each other, that it could be a clachan", Arthure says.

"There are obvious things like the houses being built in the Irish vernacular tradition. But there are also hints in court affidavits about how the land was worked jointly, and certain family names recur a lot - names like Driscoll, Liddy, O'Callahan, Conolan, Jordan. I didn't know much about clachans at the beginning, but there were enough hints in the records to indicate that further research was warranted."

Much of that research took place in Ireland at the National Folklore Collection at UCD, and involved "looking at the traditions around building houses and living everyday lives. I've also been able to talk to Irish experts about clachans and building traditions, which has really helped inform my research."

The excavations carried out by Arthure and her colleagues at Flinders University in Adelaide have yielded a large quantity of artefacts such as fragments of crockery decorated with shamrocks and green beads which may have been from a rosary, and distinctive spaces such as the sunken earth foundations and a levelled area that functioned as a dance floor.

While the Baker's Flat archaeological site may look the same as a dig in Ireland, Arthure says the physical conditions are rather different. "An excavation in Ireland would be managing drenching rain and waterlogged trenches. In South Australia, our surveys and excavations were managing the heat, where at times it reached 35°C, and even a nest of poisonous snakes that we dug into unwittingly. No snakes were harmed - using an archaeology trowel and bucket we rehoused them in rocks some distance away."

One remarkable aspect of the Baker's Flat clachan is its longevity. The settlement maintained an Irish rural tradition that began to wane in Ireland itself after the Famine and had virtually disappeared by the end of the 19th century.

"Baker's Flat continued to operate as a distinct settlement until at least the 1920s, when only a handful of people remained on the site", notes Arthure. "The presumed last resident, Miss Annie O'Callahan, died in 1948." Soon afterwards, the buildings were razed and the field in which they stood returned to pasture.

Much of the surviving documentary record concerning the Baker's Flat Irish concerns disputes over land ownership. The Baker's Flat clachan had no legal title to the land, and the residents were under constant threat of eviction.

Notwithstanding the lack of title, Arthure says they were as sure as the legal landowners of their rights to the land. "The landowners offered some of the occupiers the chance to buy some of the land though a series of affidavits highlights the overriding sense of mutual obligation within the community."

A court document from one legal proceeding notes that "Thomas Jordan, who occupied a hut and 1½ acres, stated that 'the occupiers had already held two meetings to consider their position' and that 'until they were forced to leave, they had all determined to remain'."

That determination extended to both men and women, Arthure explains. "On at least one occasion, the women of Baker's Flat saw off would-be interlopers using whatever weapons were to hand. When the legal landowners attempted to enforce their rights by erecting some fences, they were met by a group of more than 50 women and children armed with brooms, shovels and sticks. The would-be fencers managed to dig a posthole, whereupon one of the women immediately jumped in, declaring loudly that any further excavation would have to be through her body."

Such was the strength of will that held together the far-flung clachan at Baker's Flat.

Indo Review