A Feature on a Eureka Rebel
by Peter Lalor Philp
It is 130 years since Peter Lalor died at the home of his son Joseph, in Church Street, Richmond. Historians and writers have left no shortage of information about Peter’s life as a rebel leader and a politician. And as these eager scribes take pride in doing, they have produced a diverse collection of opinions about the man. It was former Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies who questioned the accuracy of all history, claiming that most of it carried a degree of bias.
Clive Turnbull wrote that ‘Lalor was little before Eureka and little after it but when the time came, rose to the occasion and was not found wanting.’
Others liked to base their stories on comparisons between Peter and his brother Fintan, ignoring the critical facts that the brothers operated in difference places under different circumstances. Most of Peter Lalor’s biographers and historians wrote well after Eureka and even after his death. Those few contemporaries and the little written by Lalor himself provide a different portrait of the man.
The image that he was a reluctant participant in the uprising is not consistent with Lalor’s conversation with Scottish immigrant William Craig during their voyage to Australia. According to Craig, Peter spoke about the injustices in Ireland and quoted Lalor as saying, ‘We shall see if a better state of things cannot be worked out in Australia. I intend to have a voice in its government before two years are over.’ Craig’s summation of Lalor was a man of high intelligence, ambitious and full of energy and courage, yet one who might be led into unwise courses by sheer impulsiveness.
There were those in Ireland who would claim that the whole Lalor family’s energy and courage could lead them into unwise courses. One of Lalor’s stockade captains, fellow Irishman John Lynch, was bold in his praise of his leader, confirming that even before the uprising, Lalor brought new fire to the Ballarat Reform League. Lynch reported that the league was facing critical times with
too much flattery and tall-talk. Stout hearted Lalor could not brook this beggarly refuse. Coming fresh from a country where humbug and constitutional agitation had nearly emasculated its manhood, he (Lalor) felt no desire to countenance it here. He knew from experience that nothing could come of it … and that to command attention their action must be reflected from the gleaming steel behind them.
Another Eureka eyewitness was Raffaello Carboni, a veteran of Garibaldi’s revolutionary forces, who referred to the Eureka leader as ‘Brave Lalor’ and was a strong supporter of his leadership: ‘It was my impression that he possessed the confidence of the diggers and should be their Commander-in-chief,’ Carboni said. In the Ballarat Reform League divide, Carboni recognized Lalor’s rebellious spirit as needed to bring about just reform in the young colony.
He was a no-two-ways, non-John-Bullised Irishman, Peter Lalor, in whose eyes the gaseous heroism of demagogues, or the knavery of peg-shifters is an abomination, because his height of impudence consisted in giving the diggers his hand
From the viewpoint of eyewitnesses, there is little doubt that Lalor brought to Australia that radical sense of justice that had been ingrained into him and his siblings at Tenakill over his younger life. There might have been a vastly different environment in James Fintan’s Ireland compared to Peter Fintan’s Victoria; nevertheless both men were fighting the same tyrannical regime and were prepared to risk everything to start the process of fundamental change.
Peter, like Fintan, was not a violent person; in fact he was quite the opposite. John Lynch said of him, ‘He brought moderation and common sense.’ Peter too carried within his DNA, the courage of his convictions. When structural repression threatened the safety of his fellow diggers, there was a need to lay down his pick and shovel and take up the steel within a stockade.
Critics are ever ready to point out the taming of the rebel when Peter Lalor entered Parliament. In every democracy, and that is what the Eureka diggers championed, there is always need for compromise. There are always actions taken that the population might not understand. Probably there are decisions made that are later regretted.
While the history scribes generally applaud his courage, leadership and steadfast struggle for a just democracy at Ballarat, there were some who questioned these qualities once he was elected to Parliament. Much of this criticism is coloured by Lalor’s unsuccessful and sometimes inconsistent business career in the mining industry, as well as drawing much attention to his stand on the renewal property qualifications for the franchise and advocating that members of the Legislative Council be nominated, not elected.
But it was Peter Lalor who was a strong champion of the rights of diggers and was successful in bringing about compensation for those who had fought at the Eureka Stockade. His seven years as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly were highly memorable; even his most bitter enemies had nothing but good to say about him. As on the battlefield at Eureka, Peter Lalor on the floor of Parliament was always his own man, refusing to be recruited by the ‘isms’ of the time including his beloved Catholicism. He raised the ire of his church when he voted against state aid to church schools rather than supporting a national education system that allowed religious education.
Clearly, Peter was a genuine Tenakill Lalor, an unapologetic rebel and determined reformer, willing to risk all against tyrannical systems and individuals. He regretted the bloodshed at Eureka but certainly not his actions. Just before his death, he reflected, ‘’Tis better as it is now. We not only got all that we fought for but a little more. It is sweet and pleasant to die for one’s country, but it is sweeter to live and see the principles for which you have risked your life, triumphant.’