THE weather-beaten ironbark fence at Kevin Ahearn’s front door is a constant reminder of the priceless debt he owes his Irish ancestors.
It’s a link to the title of Kevin’s recently published book, Slab Hut and Split Rail Fence – A local history of Rosevale, Mt Walker, Lower Mt Walker and the first Irish families.
Kevin salvaged the fence from his grandparents’ farm when it was sold a few years ago, and re-erected part of it along his driveway at Pine Mountain, near Ipswich.
The farm at Mt Walker, in the Scenic Rim region south-west of Ipswich, had been in his family since 1867 when his ancestors bought the land.
They were from the many clans of Irish, mainly Catholics, putting down roots in the area after leaving their homeland for a better life.
Kevin chose the name Slab Hut and Split Rail Fence because the Irish families who settled in the area from the mid-1800s “started off living in a tent on the land, and then gradually progressed to building themselves a bark slab and bark hut, and then finished up with a slab hut, and the fencing was all split-rail fences, before wire”.
Both sides of Kevin’s family are descended from those beginnings.
His book tells the story of the Irish who left behind a life of persecution, poverty, starvation and hopelessness at the hands of the British.
“They didn’t have a choice,” Kevin said.
“Basically you could shoot an Irishman and never be charged.
“One of the girls who came out always told the story she remembers of a lady hanging out her washing and the Redcoats (British soldiers) coming along the road in file, and then one of them just shot her – just target practice.
“That’s how it went.
“They could take your children and sell them into slavery.”
Kevin counts his blessings that his forebears – the Ahearns on his father Bill’s side and the Coynes of his mother Evelyn’s line – had the courage to leave their homeland and forge a new life in Rosevale and Mt Walker.
His gratitude was part of his reason for writing the book, when he realised St Patrick’s Church at Rosevale was about to be sold.
“Because I used to go for school holidays at Rosevale and my grandparents all come from there, I always had this interest (about the area),” he said.
“And when I heard that St Patrick’s Church was going to be sold and a lot of these (Irish settlers) are buried in the cemetery there, I became more interested.
“So I thought, ‘All these people who are buried here, they’ve all got a story’.
“And I started looking into it, and it spread out a little bit more, and finished up with (a book of) 250 pages.”
Another reason Kevin wanted to tell the stories of the Irish migrants buried at the church, and their children, was because he “was tired of reading articles about police, magistrates and – forgive me for saying this – lots of church ministers – but leaving out the people on the land, the individuals who came out on the boats and did all the hard work”.
Their stories are the ones in his book.
There’s also the stories of convicts and of settlers who came from Germany.
Kevin also wanted give an account of what happened to Aboriginal people as white settlers arrived.
Having spent three years researching for the book, Kevin said he felt closer to the people he had written about.
“(I feel closer to) all of them – not just my lot, the whole lot of them,” he said.
“After you read into their history and then visit the graves you do feel like you’ve known them all. There’s a connection with all of them.
“Then the other side of the story is they arrived in this country and then displaced another lot of people.
“There was lots of conflict, and I’ve written in here in regard to the conflict with the Aboriginal people (mainly in the time before his ancestors arrived) …
“I don’t know why we shy away from it, because it’s part of Australia’s history but we all seem to turn our switch off when it comes to the truth about what happened.”
Thinking of his own people, going back to James and Margaret (nee Ryan) Ahearn, who came from Cappawhite, Tipperary, and arrived by boat in 1863, and Patrick and Johannah (nee Fitzpatrick), who came from Kilkenny, Tullaroan, and arrived in 1858, Kevin said he liked to think they weren’t involved in any conflict with Aboriginal people.
“I’m pretty sure they weren’t; I haven’t found anything,” he said.
“I do hope they were kind people, and remembered how they were treated back in Ireland.
“I know my grandfather, Michael Coyne, was. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.
“I remember him selling his best cow to give money to the Church.
“And a lot of them did that – they built their churches, and it’s just a shame today to see them all go because they spent a lot of their sweat and blood and tears paying for those buildings ….”
His book shows what a hard slog it was for the Irish settling into a new home.
“When they first arrived they had nothing,” he said.
“You’d take a hoe and start hoeing. That was how you tilled your soil until you had enough money to get a bullock or a horse.
“They couldn’t read or write, and most of them could only speak Gaelic so language was a problem, which would’ve been interesting in those days because you had Germans and the Irish settling in the one area, … trying to understand each other. But they got on.”
Kevin said “they settled in really well and they did well”.
“They had new law here, – freedom of speech and freedom of religion, which was something they’d never had before,” he said.
“And education – they could be educated. And away they went.
“From all that, coming onto a boat covered in lice and starving to death and then to think that the families have all finished up doing really well.”
By Peter Bugden