Book Review by Dymphna Lonergan
IRISH SETTLERS IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA. The Hayes and O’Toole Families. By Bernadette Thakur. Self published 2020. 231 pp
RRP: $60 (includes postage) from Bernadette.firstname.lastname@example.org
It would be fair to say that many published family histories are of interest only to readers interested in that particular family. This is not the case with Irish Settlers in South Australia. With that title alone, anyone interested in Irish Australian history would expect more than just lists of names and key dates. And this is the case with Bernadette Thacker’s account of her Irish ancestry. Had this book been published ten years’ ago, it would have saved me years of research in my own history of the Irish in South Australia. Irish Settlers in South Australia offers a concise history of those key elements of settlement history such as the Goyder Line, the Kaurna people, Wakefield’s Theory of Systematic Colonization, and the principal ships that carried Irish passengers into South Australia in the early settlement years: Birman, Brightman, Confiance, Constance, Diadem, Emerald Isle, Mary Dugdale, and Prince Regent among others.
This is also a handsome book. Great thought has gone into its design and format. The featured frontpage photo is one taken by the author in 2016 and is ‘typical of the many old stone houses…in the Mid North’. Rosemary McKenzie’s design enhances it beautifully with a green gradation, from Kelly Green through to Forest. This keen eye for enhancement continues through the book with clear, well-spaced typeset, the silky feel of the paper, and with maps colour-enhanced for easier access to key items. Endnotes, a bibliography, and index further elevate the value of this family history.
To the history: this is the story of Bernadette Thakur’s Hayes and O’Toole ancestors who migrated to South Australia in 1840 from Galway and County Wicklow. Weaving its way through the book is the author’s road trip through Ireland that had her standing on ‘the very spot’: ‘This was the land where my great-grandfather Patrick Hayes spent his first nine years’. In Dublin she visited Smock Alley where John O’Toole married Mary Murphy. (Smock Alley Theatre was founded in 1662, fell into disrepair, then reopened as a Catholic Church that closed in 1989 and reopened again in 2012 as Smock Alley). Back in South Australia, she states of her great-grandparents: ‘They were a young couple with hope in their hearts. I wondered about their conversation on the way to Kapunda…’ When there is a plain fact, the author makes a plain claim. When there is speculation, she avoids the usually ‘they probably talked about…they might have talked about…’, but, rather, offers her simple ‘wonder’. This might seem a minor point, but too much speculation can become annoying in family histories. This author’s style is varied and warm but grounded in truth-finding and truth-telling. The reader cannot help but appreciate the translation of dedicated scholarship into an easy read for those who might not have a personal connection with the people involved.
Thakur says that ‘writing about my ancestors was very challenging as they left so little mark in the records. They were poor immigrants who arrived with nothing. They did their best to take care of their families and build new lives for themselves as farmers. Their story of honest hard work over many years is totally at odds with the generally negative stereotype of the Irish’. She has succeeded in lifting their lives out of the world of documents and photos. The book could be used as a template for writers’ groups in how to write a family history.
For those who are interested in the particular history of Irish settlement in South Australia, the author’s ancestors lived in such places as Bagot’s Well, Caltowie, Dry Creek, Kapunda, Toothill Creek, and Walkerville, buying land and farming. Their story in this book serves to augment those other stories of intrepid Irish who chose South Australia as their Australian home.
Irish Settlers in South Australia has sold out its first print.
The book includes over 70 maps, charts and photographs.
Dymphna Lonergan is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Team