RECAPTURING THE IRISH SPIRIT AT EUREKA

By Peter Lalor Philp

At this time last year, some media outlets were saying that another Eureka Stockade anniversary had passed with little significance to today’s society, even in its homeland, Ballarat.

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This year the Ballarat Courier failed to mention the Eureka celebrations in its bumper weekend edition on the Eureka anniversary.

Regrettably, the media’s reading of this notable event is probably true. Similar to so many incidents, Eureka of 1854 has faded into the annals of history. This has materialized because of the ignorance surrounding the who what and why of the rebellion. There is little understanding of the aftermath following the brief conflict at Eureka.

The diggers were defending themselves, under the Southern Cross flag, against an  undemocratic and corrupt regime which allowed taxation of ordinary citizens without allowing them representation in government.

One of the great Melbourne broadcasting innovators, the late Kevin O’Gorman of 3KZ, constantly reminded his industry about the dangers of predictability. There is a message here for the many who believe that the aftermath of the Eureka Stockade brought this nation a major step closer to a democratic system with the adoption of key demands of the Ballarat Reform League aided by the sheer courage of the grossly outnumbered and poorly resourced diggers in bravely confronting the powers of tyranny at Eureka.

The message that still appears at this time of year is about an historic event which no longer resonates with the majority, particularly the young who rightly ask: ‘what about today’?

Nearly two hundred years later, the values fought for and won remain relevant, but the story appears predictable. There needs to be a revival of the Irish spirit that stirred the diggers.

In 2004, people came to Ballarat to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade, with its parades, storytelling but importantly while taking shade under a tree at the site of the 1854 uprising, a modern-day Peter Lalor, Christine Lalor Gillespie, encouraged members of her family to make a public stand against a contemporary injustice, the illegal imprisonment and torture of Australian, David Hicks. Two generations of Lalors and other supporters, many of them young people, walked alongside David’s father, Terry, in the Lantern March that weekend. Hicks senior had come to join in the celebration and underscore the plight of his son. Not all Lalors or organizers of the event identified with Christine’s protest but maybe they misunderstood the importance this occasion offered. Eureka 2004 was no less a place of protest than it was 150 years earlier. Those protesting saw the connection between the injustice faced by Peter Lalor’s diggers a century and a half earlier and the injustice that had driven Terry Hicks to action.

The attention given to Terry Hicks’ involvement and the endorsement of fellow marchers, gave Eureka invaluable awareness, not only through the daily media, but generated coverage by a number of national magazines including Tintean. However, the aim of the Lalors joining the march was not promotion but the injustice suffered by an Australian and torture practiced at Guantanamo Bay.

I have been questioned about the Lalor solidarity with Terry Hicks. Would Peter Lalor (pronounced Lawler) have encouraged such camaraderie? I remain confident that the Eureka leader would have been proud to march by the side of Terry Hicks, as his great great grand daughter, Christine did in 2004.

Like David Hicks, Peter Lalor too was regarded as a terrorist by the authorities. However, the issue is much larger than one individual Lalor. Peter Lalor was schooled in a family of Irish activists who faced the same government and same tyranny as Peter would in Australia. Therefore, history will confirm that Peter Lalor was no reluctant leader at Bakery Hill, Ballarat. His DNA was steeped in the ideals of social justice and the responsibility individuals had, to fight for those ideals. Lalor too was determined to make changes to the governance in Australia even before he arrived in Melbourne.

The people believing in the substance of Eureka must embrace contemporary issues to remain relevant. An example is a Voice to Parliament. There is an important link between the diggers and the Aborigines of that era. Let us hope that all future celebrations marking the 1854 uprising will always provide a forum for those who are denied their human rights today. Otherwise, the Eureka Stockade will continue to be a fading feast.

Peter Lalor Philp is the great great grandson of Peter Lalor, and also Melbourne journalist and a broadcasting historian.

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