A long, long way from Clare to here: An archaeology of the Irish in colonial South Australia

Author: Susan Arthure

Arthure, Susan, 2023 A long, long way from Clare to here: An archaeology of the Irish in colonial South Australia, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The colony of South Australia, established in 1836, was based on a scheme where already wealthy men could increase their wealth still further merely by buying land. It was a utopia for land speculators and capitalists, and into this heady mix of largely English money and speculation came small numbers of poor Irish Catholics. In the 1850s, some of these Irish arrived at Kapunda, 75 km north of the colony’s capital, Adelaide, seeking work in the booming copper mine. Fortuitously, they were able to settle rent-free on a large parcel of land lying idle and unused by the legal owners. This land was known as Baker’s Flat, and the Irish took it under their full control. By the time the landowners wanted it back, the Irish had no intention of giving it up.

From the perspective of the landowners and the broader Kapunda community, Baker’s Flat was a place of filthy hovels, roaming cattle, alcohol-fuelled disorder and disreputable Irish papists. This became the dominant narrative, fuelled by disputes and court cases over this contested land. There are hints in some of the court records, however, of a complexity to this settlement that has been overlooked until now, suggestions that the Baker’s Flat Irish may have adopted a traditional Irish way of managing land and community—the clachan and rundale system—characterised by clusters of houses and co-operative farming, a practice that was illegible to outsiders. From the 1940s, after the last of the Baker’s Flat Irish had left or died, the memories and history of this settlement all but disappeared.

From a backdrop of scant archaeological research about Irish Australia, this thesis set out to investigate Irishness on Baker’s Flat. Placing Irish social identity at the core, the research explores how this diasporic community constructed itself and evolved in colonial South Australia, examining the clachan system in the broader context of capitalism and improvement, and the interplay between social identity, capitalism and traditional Irish practices.

A geophysical survey identified several linear features and clusters of rectilinear shapes. These results informed the excavation program, in which a potential field enclosure and two vernacular structures—one interpreted as a domestic dwelling and the other as a traditional sweathouse—were excavated over two field seasons. Nearly 20,000 artefacts were analysed from eight trenches. Ceramic, glass and metal were analysed to identify patterns in how the structures were used, and activities related to the everyday items found there. Kinship networks were reconstructed via extensive genealogical and archival research. Community practices were interpreted using data from the Irish National Folklore Collection and historical newspapers.

The major finding is that Baker’s Flat was, indeed, a clachan, the first to be recognised in Australia. It transpires that for close to a century, as the clachan died out in rural Ireland, one thrived in country South Australia. The Baker’s Flat Irish lived in a traditional, co-operative community that perched on the edge of a capitalist economy driven by mining and pastoralism. Here, they continued to build structures in the Irish vernacular style, manage the land and stock co-operatively, and maintain strong kin networks through shared origins, astute marriages, long-standing friendships and shared folk practices. Detailed findings include the emergence of one family as community leaders, women’s central role as activists during land disputes, treatment of health issues via patent and proprietary medicines and the sweathouse, dealing with the illness of a resident as the community wound down, the importance of tea drinking in maintaining community networks, and possible trade links with another migrant group, the Germans, living nearby in the Barossa Valley.

Keywords: historical archaeology, clachans, rundale, vernacular architecture, sweathouses, colonial South Australia, Baker's Flat, diaspora, Irishness, improvement, folk practices, land management practices

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Heather Burke