Shamrock in the Bush 2011: a grand event to be sure!

 

Arriving at St Clements for Shamrock in the Bush 2009

Shamrock in the Bush 2011 has once again come and gone. This was the 19th Shamrock but while I have only been to three, the entire weekend has been as exciting and stimulating as in other years.

One of the things I like most about Shamrock is the atmosphere of collegiality among all the participants and speakers. As a residential weekend we spend so much time together and learn about each other’s interests and very quickly strangers become friends.

The other highlight of the weekend is always the diversity of the topics. I’ve learned that even when the topic doesn’t have any direct relevance or interest to you, the enthusiasm and knowledge of the speakers quickly engages you and stimulates your interest.

I think this year’s Keynote Speaker, Claire Dunne, would almost certainly be on everyone’s list of favourite presentations. For about an hour she held the whole room in thrall, fully engaged with her story. And what a story it was! She has led an amazing life which is only superficially covered in a recitation of her curriculum vitae. Every listener will have taken away their own special points from it with perhaps the sheer emotion of the emigrant’s sense of loss of home and place being perhaps the common point we’d all list. Claire’s emotive and emotional telling of her return to Ireland and engagement with the land had a very indigenous overtone which was incredibly powerful. Not surprising then, that she had experienced such identification with Australia’s own Indigenous people. Coming from the Northern Territory I found that aspect of her talk very fascinating.

Ned Ryan's slice of Tipperary in Australia: Galong, NSW

Her own unplanned, evolutionary path through life, shows the power of the mysterious and requires responding to spirit…as well as a surfeit of courage. She talked of the need for spiritual sustenance for her life which she found in her return visits to Ireland where she drew from engagement with the land. These periods represented to me a form of spiritual “retreat” though she nevertheless connected with many people during these times. What they did was feed her spirit and give her strength. Without them she said she would be like a tree whose leaves and branches look in fine condition but whose roots are slowly dying. Very powerful stuff!

Her path was also sometimes revolutionary, as with establishing ethnic radio broadcasting. She told the emotional story of a Turkish man driving down Parramatta Road in Sydney in 1965 who suddenly stopped in the middle of the traffic, got out and started to dance. ‘That’s my language, that’s my music,’ he shouted.

The overall theme of the conference presentations linked to the Not Just Ned exhibition and provided a background depth to the objects and images on display. The skill and commitment shown by the conservators who worked behind the scenes to present the objects in optimal condition became very clear from the talk given by David Hallam who focused on the story behind getting the anchor from the Nashwauk, shipwrecked with Irish female immigrants on board, and the Kelly armour exhibition-ready. David’s talk was absolutely riveting including the complex science involved in confirming the armour was consistent with being made from plough-shares, and rough-made over a bush fire and not prepared by an expert blacksmith over a forge. The bullet mark in the centre of one of the suits was not, as might be thought, from the siege at Glenrowan but a 20th century addition! The restoration of the Nashwauk’s anchor after 160 years of depredation by salt water and salt air was equally impressive.

Bridget Kilfoyle's gravestone in the Galong cemetery. This Clare emigrant's husband was related closely to the Duracks.

Perry McIntyre’s talk on the early male students at St John’s College, University of Sydney left me brainstorming potential research strategies. Perry’s book  Free Passage: The Reunion of Irish Convicts and Their Families in Australia, 1788-1852 was also available for sale & I’m looking forward to an in-depth reading of it.

Dr Richard Reid’s book Farewell my Children: Irish Assisted Emigration to Australia 1848-1870 was also available. This book is heavily based on Richard’s thesis and will provide wonderful background for anyone with Irish ancestors. I have a particular interest in it because of my research with East Clare immigrants/emigrants but there’s also a wonderful chapter on the Donegal Relief Fund and those immigrants. If buying a copy for your personal library is not possible, then you can always request it on inter-library loan from the (NLA) National Library of Australia (assuming you’re in Oz).

Two other talks I especially enjoyed were those by the National Library’s Oral History staff. Rob Willis spoke about childhood taunts of Catholic vs Protestant pre-1970 which brought back a number of personal memories. The Unit’s Curator, Kevin Bradley, highlighted the value of the NLA’s oral history collection with a sample of Irish music recordings as well as interviews with a range of Irish Australians. Some of their collection is online now so it’s well worth a look. A few years ago I found bush poetry, bush ballads and political satire by Tom and Michael Widdup, descendants of my great- great-grandmother’s sister. The highlight of Kevin’s talk was listening to Mary Durack talking of her father’s emotional reaction to seeing emigrants leaving from Sligo and farewelled by family and friends. It was clear to Mary Durack that her father’s reaction came from the brief time-distance of 46 years which separated the Durack family’s departure from Ireland and these strangers’ emigration from Sligo. The Duracks came from the far north-east of Clare they are part of my East Clare database and of particular interest to me for this reason.

This view of St Clements shows a little of Ned Ryan's turreted castle.

A feature I particularly enjoy about Shamrock is that each talk is introduced by a poem, reading or song, often by Shamrock minstrel John Dengate. It adds a richness to this event that’s just not found with other conferences.  On top of the talks we also had a trip to Canberra to visit the Not Just Ned exhibition and the Irish Embassy….how much fun was all that!

Combine all this with a wonderful Shamrock Christmas-in-July dinner in Ned Ryan’s little slice of Tipperary (Galong House), throw in great camaraderie and enthusiastic conference attendees and it was a recipe for another superb weekend. Thanks to the organisers, speakers, and the volunteers who provide us all with such a great time.

But don’t let these sunny photos from an earlier Shamrock fool you….Sunday at Galong this year was FREEZING especially for a Top Ender.

All green for Galong: Shamrock in the Bush 2011

Attendance at Shamrock in the Bush at Galong is a highly competitive affair. Irish family historians descend on St Clement’s Retreat and Conference House, the old homestead of former-convict-made-good, Ned Ryan, for three days of talks, music, historical delights and good old Irish craic or fun. Shamrock 2011 has been eagerly awaited by former attendees as co-organiser of Shamrock, Richard Reid, is also curator of the Not Just Ned exhibition at the National Museum and has been regaling us with the delights ahead for the past conference or two.  Do read his excellent essay on the Irish in Australia on the Australian National Museum website. Irish family historians will know Richard from his index of Irish immigrants to Australia…he has a wealth of knowledge about his topic.

The Shamrock in the Bush conference has an amazing ambience – perhaps it’s the location with Ned Ryan’s historic hospitality in the air, or perhaps it’s being away from the city with freedom from modern communications (mobiles and hence internet don’t work) but the delegates all seem to have a great time, many coming year after year. There is such an air of camaraderie and enthusiasm among the crowd with varying levels of knowledge and expertise being shared among the crowd. I enjoyed it so much in 2009 that it has become part of my annual travel planning despite the 4000km trek from Darwin. The speakers are knowledgeable and passionate about their topics which is infectious. You might think “oh that topic doesn’t interest me” but then you listen to it and are fully engaged. Most talks are introduced with music and poetry from minstrel John Dengate which adds an extra delight. On top of which this year we have a trip to the Ned exhibition and to the Irish Embassy! How much fun will all that be?!

Richard’s most able co-organiser, Cheryl Mangan, does a fabulous job of getting everything in place and running efficiently both before and during the event. Without her and her dedicated workers, volunteers and helpers, the event would not be the great success it surely is. If you have Irish ancestry, do yourself a favour and check out the site. I believe there are still some vacancies left for this year’s conference. And if you can’t be there this year, put it on your agenda for 2012 –it’s usually the first weekend in August.