Irish graves of South Australia's mid-north, 1850-1899: an examination of cultural significance

Author: Janine McEgan

McEgan, Janine, 2017 Irish graves of South Australia's mid-north, 1850-1899: an examination of cultural significance, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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The Irish in colonial South Australia were poor, famine-affected and 90% Catholic, with many arriving on assisted passage to be labourers and domestic servants to the colony’s land owners. Historical studies suggest that they readily assimilated to their new environment and willingly settled among peoples other than native Irish, thus diffusing their cultural background. Archaeological studies, however, suggest that high degrees of autonomy and difference were maintained in at least some aspects of some Irish communities. The extent to which expressions of ‘Irishness’ were materialised in the new colony through tangible material culture therefore provides an avenue for archaeology to explore.

Given the highly symbolic and communicative functions of cemetery material culture, one avenue in which it might be expected to find expressions of ‘Irishness’ is the memorialisation of death and remembrance. This project explores the degree to which cultural traditions were incorporated in the material culture of Irish graves and gravestones, and what this implies for expressions of Irishness in South Australia. The study area is the Clare Valley in the mid-north of South Australia which had considerable Irish settlement in the nineteenth century. Irish Catholic data was compared to both non-Irish Catholic and Protestant Irish gravestone data in order to isolate religious and cultural aspects of memorialisation.

Analysis of 200 headstones from graves erected between 1850 and 1899 shows that the use of overt symbols associated with Irish origins was not common. Use of Celtic crosses and shamrocks proved to be statistically significant for the Catholic Irish, but only as motifs on grave surrounds, indicating the use of shamrocks and Celtic crosses, however, shows a distinct religious leaning with the Catholic preference to these symbols.

The inclusion of place of residence of the deceased, a practice still used in Ireland, was used by both Catholic and Protestant Irish groups, indicating a cultural selection rather than any religious distinction.

The Irish of South Australia’s mid-north maintained some expression of their Irish culture in their graves, though with subtle rather than overt symbolism and text. The expression of Irishness was maintained throughout the nineteenth century, with little decline over the time period of the study thus ratifying past archaeological studies rather than the suggestions of historical investigation that the Irish merely blended into society leaving little trace of their origins.

Keywords: Irish, graves, South Australia, cultural significance, identity

Subject: Archaeology thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Associate Professor Heather Burke