September 2009 Tasmania

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William O’Brien cottage at Port Arthur

DON’T drive at night, warned the man at the car hire desk, like he was warning of vampires and devils.

He was, after a fashion.

Tasmanians talk about the hazards of night driving a lot. Devils and other creatures of the night fill their heads with fear.

Most of their animals are nocturnal. Conversation is generally is about who has pranged their car on what. Wombats, possums, and even the pint sized Bennett’s wallaby can do a lot of damage.

When you see one, use the horn, says one.“ They sense danger in the vibrations under their feet but the horn gives them direction,”

“Possums change direction,” says another, “wallabies head the same direction.”

“When you hit something” says a third, “check for a joey because the joey is likely to survive an impact.” I noted he didn’t way when, he said if. “Everyone stoves their car here” he said.

Another showed his compassionate side, “pick up roadkill and move it to the side so the Tassie devil doesn’t stop to eat it and become roadkill as well.”

Tasmanians talk of the they have hit, the dents in their cars, and the baby wombats and joeys their friends have reared. Their vets sell joey food. It says a lot about the wallaby orphan network.

It is the Tasmanian Devil that is in most trouble. From numbers of 120,000 a few years ago, he is down to 20,000 because of a tumour disease.

The same logic that was used to keep prisoners on he peninsula is now being used to save the Tasmanian devil.

John Hamilton’s Tasmanian Devil conservation park is located on the same peninsula where prisoners where once housed, secured there because only a narrow isthmus connected the peninsula to the rest of the island. They know that devils cross the bridge at night, so they are erecting a barrier to keep devils, and the disease at bay. At his park, he has a collection of noisy devils which he rears and occasionally releases back to the wild. There is also a flight display by injured birds who have come to live.

Devils love food fights, and snarl and whine as they do so. You can image how the noise unsettled the early settlers.

I identify with them, great scavengers who clean up the landscape and swoop on the dead, a bit like hyenas or for that matter, journalists.

Maybe that’s why I like them.

Tasmania has Australia’s oldest brewery – a relic to the fact it was the first place are where hopes could be grown. The Cascade used to feature in an iconic ad in Sydney airport bearing the slogan “we must be doing something right or they would have turned us into a hotel by now.”

The harbour area was well watered. According to Elizabeth Fleetwood who gives a great pub tour of the city (www.hobarthistorictours.com.au), there was once had a pub for every twenty residents of Hobart.

The pub owned by Hobart’s most notorious madam, Ma Dwyer (third generation Tipperary) is now incongruously called Irish O’Neill’s.

To complete the juxtaposition the pub where the Irish did drink, and where 14 pages of signatures were out on a petition demanding the release of William Smith O’Brien, is called the Victorian Tavern where a tricolour on the ceiling looks oddly out of place, The pub is festooned with portraits of the Famine Queen, although an Anglophile hagiography in the gents toilet has been suitably graffiti-ed with irreverent Aussie comments.

The history of our childhood doesn’t add up, as is often the case on our travels. After the Tasmania seven, leaders of the 1848 rebellion were transported to Van Diemen’s land they were split up. Terence Bellew McManus to Launceston, Thomas Francis Meagher to Campbelltown,  John Mitchel and John Martin were allowed to live together at Bothwell, Patrick O’Donoghue to New Norfolk, and Kevin O’Doherty (a doctor) was employed in Hobart St. Mary’s Hospital. William Smith O’Brien was sent to Maria Island.

That left William Smith O’Brien. His stay in Maria Island (pronounced as in Black Maria) was supposed to be unnecessarily harsh. Maria Island is known to every Tasmanian schoolchild as a summer camp heaven, and the cottage where he was held with its own garden, is neat and picturesque, and must have been even more so then.

 

You can feel the capricious cruelty of Port Arthur in the air when you approach the few remaining buildings of the old prison site.

Tim Swift gives the spookiest ghost tour through the jail that you will find on any of the seven continents. On of his stories is of a rapist who stares at female tourists during the lantern light tour. In the flickering light it is easy to believe him. The reality is even scarier, however.

Heather Lye, the tour guide at Port Arthur tells how a Corkman, Dennis Wilson, who sang through his floggings helped bring an end to the cat of nine tails as a prison punishment.

So they learned that flogging and beating hardens them, instead they introduced solitary confinement which drove them insane.

Here the men were locked up alone for 23 hours a day, and when they left the cell to exercise alone, had to wear a slit-eyed mask to prevent them seeing anyone else. Guards were not allowed to talk to them. Instead communication was by an eerie bell ring. Gloom hangs over the building, so it is a relief to escape to an icon of Irish transportation history, the house of William Smith O’Brien.

After an escape attempt O’Brien was moved here and given an odd place in the Port Arthur hierarchy. The prisoners were down in the valley, looking up at the guards houses and the church. But O’Brien was put in a house higher again, looking down on the garrison..

It probably wasn’t up to the standards of his childhood home in Dromoland Castle, but as imprisonment goes it was a pleasant place to be. The house was used by the Australian youth hostel association until 1970 as a hostel, a Dromoland of the genre.

Other reminders of Tasmania’s Irish heritage are scattered through the island. Near the door of St John’s in Richmond you will find the grave of Thomas Francis Meagher’s infant son.

Meagher, McManus, and Mitchel escaped to America. Meagher and Mitchel ended up on opposite sides in the American Civil war, McManus died in San Francisco and his funeral, attended by 150,000 people, became a great rallying point for the Fenian movement. After five years’ banishment, Smith O’Brien, Martin, O’Doherty, and O’Donoghue received a conditional pardon from the Crown,

Mitchel and Martin both returned to Ireland to win parliamentary seats for the Home Rule party, O’Doherty went to Brisbane to work as a doctor and was elected as a member both houses of the Australian legislature, returned to Ireland to win a parliamentary seat and then trekking back to Sydney where he died. Smith O’Brien toured America but died travelling in Wales two years after his release.

There is something to make you feel even more at home than the history: the Tasmanian relationship with potatoes. You get it as soon as you land in Hobart. In Perth you buy potatoes. In Tasmania you buy Kerr’s pinks (pinkies to the locals).

Tasmania trades on its water, space, security, the strength of its produce, “Josh Iles of Tasmanian tourism says “produce that is organic without being determinedly so.”

Maybe it is the potatoes, but Bruce Chambers in Dunalley serves up the finest fish and chips in the southern hemisphere. Stop by and ask for a fish basket.

 

Hobart and Port Arthur are not Tasmania, as I quickly learned. The island is 80pc the size of Ireland with a population of just 500,000, of which 200,000 are in Hobart, 100,000 in Launcestown (the AFL home venue for six Hawthorns matches a year) and the other 200,000 scattered through an amazing landscape.

Mainland Australia does rolling hills, some of which are higher that Tassie’s. But while they never go higher than 1617m, Tasmania’s are mountains.

The island’s icons are its big dolorite columns and the frost shattered skree. You see in on Mount Wellington (another Irishman) overlooking Hobart. I viewed it against marvelous balloons of cloud, spraying over the road at speed. The landscape here changes as often as home.

“They are called the monkeys,” Damien Connor says of some of the dolomite icons he points out on his eco-cruise around the bend between the Tasman Sea and the Southern Ocean, “but if you can pull a monkey out of that you have been having to much ginger.”

Ginger is a necessity on his cruise.

Our seatbelts are pulled tight for the Tasman Cruise, a cross between a sea cruise and white water rafting, we are spotting whales and fur seals at the corner of the continent, 1500km to New Zealand eastward, 2,500km to the Antarctic southward. The swell, they tell us, is small today but we are being tossed around like a cork under Australia’s highest sea cliffs. A couple of Japanese are sick at the back.

“We got back with more or less the same number we started out,” he says at the end.

William Smith O’Brien, Mitchel, Meagher and the rest would be sure to laugh  at the joke.

 

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