The visit by staff to Australia and New Zealand was the first trip 'down under' for many years. Gillian Hunt and Fintan Mullan were invited to deliver an 'Irish research stream' as part of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists 50th anniversary conference held in Auckland on 3 June 2017. In addition, the speakers deliver nine other programmes across Australia and New Zealand.

Tour report by Fintan Mullan

People commonly remark on the Scottish character of Dunedin, far south in the South Island of New Zealand. Named by Scottish settlers – the Gaelic name for Edinburgh – it is replete with Scottish-looking buildings and churches and a statue of Robert Burns at its centre (he had a large gull on his head when I visited him).

However, it was not Burns that interested me when we visiting Dunedin during our May/June lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand, rather the statue to Robert F. Scott – of the ill-fated British Antarctic Expedition to reach the South Pole. Scott is commemorated on a vantage point high above Port Chalmers – roughly mid-way down the inlet towards Dunedin. Port Chalmers was the last stop made by the Terra Nova before Scott met his destiny on the southern continent.

Asking for directions to the Scott monument as I left town on a bright Monday morning, I was nonplussed by the closing remark, ‘just watch out for the chickens’. As I stepped from the vehicle into brilliant sunshine after slaloming up the steep hillside I did a double take. I was met by about 30 fast moving hens and what appeared to roosters. While not actually aggressive, these semi-feral birds might be described as robustly inquisitive. Having read the plaque and taken a few photos, including snaps of the small craft buzzing about the gloriously tranquil waters of Otago Harbour, it was hard to imagine Scott’s fate from this stunning view point in such a temperate climate.

All the more surprising then given that we had arrived in Dunedin two days before in a snow storm, and at the top of the hill before our descent into town, the flaying gale and swirls of snow made driving a little challenging. Dunedin was the second stop on our lecture tour itinerary.

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Organised by the Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists ((NZSG) who were the reason for our visit down under) we thoroughly enjoyed our first engagement on the South Island.

The tour started in Wellington, one of the best small capital cities anywhere, and greeted by the smiling face of one of the organisers, Jenny, we had less than two days to acclimatise before getting started with a friendly and appreciative audience in the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul in the heart of the city. Then it was a skip across to Picton on the Cook Strait Ferry.

The relaxing calm of the cabin was slightly marred when one of the staff serving breakfast said to a passenger, ‘yes we are expecting a bit of a swell in the strait’, just as the ferry wheeled around from the lee of Wellington Harbour and announced a small inaugural roll – almost just as she set the plate down. While not a bad crossing, the crew probably hardly noticed, we spent more time on deck in a sharp little gale than originally planned (it was the equivalent to late November by our weather calendar after all), and were slightly less enthusiastic about breakfast than we’d have imagined.

Picton and Queen Charlotte Sound were by contrast calm, sunny and out of the wind quite warm given the season.

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We had time to have a quick rummage around the local graveyard, where Scottish names and Scots placenames on the stones predominated, though a few Irish families were noted, before setting off for Dunedin.

An interesting and alarming (for us) notice on the local supermarket entrance indicated what to do in the event of an earthquake. The South Island had experienced several in recent years, the worst of which had folded part of the main north-south route from Blenheim to Christchurch into an unusable mess, and until reconstruction was complete vehicles had to use the small country mountain roads via St Arnaud and Murchison. A long drive made longer by the detour.

By contrast the journey from Dunedin to our next destination, Wanaka, was fast and efficient.

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Time allowed for a quick stop to see the mining community of Lawrence. While gold had been found before in Otago, the discovery made at nearby Gabriel’s Gully started a major gold rush where many, including Irish and Scottish settlers, tried their luck.

Further along, we passed the town of Cromwell which stood at the meeting of two rivers. When a dam was constructed in the area, part of the town had to be rebuilt on higher grounds, and the old town centre relocated. A number of the old buildings which survived the flooding were retained along the shore front which included the Sherwood & Co. ‘Belfast Store’.

Our hosts in Wanaka, with its picturesque lakeside setting surrounded by mountains, were friends and UHF supporters, Louise and Matt Primrose, who attended the Foundation’s conference in June 2016. We were delighted to meet them again on their home turf. A short morning of consultations was followed by an afternoon programme where the topics included newspapers, printed sources and Irish wills. We were pleased to see that Dr Rory Sweetman was in the audience and spoke briefly with Rory after the programme ended.

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Watching the sun set from Circular Quay, with Sydney Harbour Bridge to one side and the Opera House on the other, has to be one of the best cityscapes in the world. We had little time to draw breath though following our hop across the Tasman Sea (a journey made four times during the tour) before a full day programme with the Society of Australian Genealogists.

Speaking to a packed house, the enthusiastic crowd were abuzz with questions; with intelligent, well-informed and probing queries asked by the audience, many of whom had travelled in from well-beyond the city limits. We had just a little time to catch up with the Foundation’s friend and honorary Australian agent, Terry Eakin. Many of you will be aware of Terry’s sterling work in data transcription and database creation from which the Foundation and SAG have benefitted over many years.

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We were indebted to Genealogy Sunshine Coast (especially our contact Milli) for helping to kick-start this tour ‘down under’. Prior to the invitation from NZSG to come to Auckland, the group in Nambour had expressed an interest in inviting the Foundation if we were ever going to make a trip to Australia. As soon as the word was out about the 2017 tour Nambour was the first to reserve a date. How glad we were too.

The biggest crowd of the tour (aside from the main NZSG conference in Auckland itself) in glorious sunshine (not surprising on a coast so named) and with a fun and very interested group of family historians from Queensland and some beyond, for us it was a journey worth making. An expansive programme covered topics such as townlands and land divisions, church records, education and school records, nineteenth-century land records, the Registry of Deeds, wills, and Irish poor law and local government records.

A dog-legged journey from Maroochydore via Melbourne to Perth brought us to this wonderfully independent-minded Western Australian town. Noted for being the most isolated city in the world and as perhaps having one of the best climates in the world, it was an impressive and very agreeable place. Our hosts, the Western Australian Genealogical Society (WAGS) were another ‘early adopter’ supporting the Australia–New Zealand tour right from the get-go, and the programme was delivered in the State Library of WA to a sold-out crowd.

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The main organiser, Jenni and her partner faithfully collected us and returned us to the airport, as well as looking after our every need pre- and post- programme. When setting up the WAGS date early in January 2017, Jenni was a little surprised that we would be happy to bounce out to Perth from the Sunshine Coast, before returning east for events in Melbourne and Adelaide (though that one did not come to fruition in the end).

Our hosts were a delightful couple, Elissa and Jonathan Kester, who live on the eastern fringes of the city. Jonathan himself a ‘ten-pound pom’ explained a related term linked to the ‘ten pound tourists’ – that of the ‘£1,000 cure’ (which was new to us).

An individual, who availed of the assisted passage scheme, might take fright after only a short time in their new adopted home, and would then go back to Britain, where the reality would set in that they had given up a life of opportunity and sunshine for the drear climate and frugal living of post-war Britain (though in reality this occurred right up until the scheme ended in the 1970s), only to decide to then return to Australia. But having welched on the terms of the assisted passage scheme, the said individual was now liable for all the costs of the initial journey to Australia and the return to Britain, plus having to fund their second journey back to Australia. A very costly mistake brought on by the jitters of establishing themselves in a new country.

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Though it is worth remembering, as Elissa pointed out to us, in those days not so many women worked thus it was often the wife who wanted to return ‘home’ because she felt marooned in an unfamiliar environment without family or friends. It was easier for husbands who went out to work every day to meet people and make new friends.

Given the remoteness of Australia and New Zealand the ‘£1,000 cure’ was a luxury not afforded nineteenth-century settlers. Though the records do show returnees (to Ireland) or in some cases those who moved to and fro between Europe and Australasia, and within Australia and New Zealand.

Leaving the sunshine of Perth and Nambour behind, we arrived into a chilly, rainy Melbourne winter – it could have been home – for three events: two back-to-back genealogy seminars and an evening presentation. We are indebted to our longstanding Guild member, supporter and conference attendee (October 2015) Lyn Thorne and her husband, Robert, for helping to set up the first programme with the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies Inc. (like Nambour and Perth, AIGS responded quickly to our tour announcement).

A full day, to a full house in Nunawading, covered broad themes: landed estate records, printed sources, census substitutes, the Deeds, and church and local government records.

Hospitality was provided by a squadron of very cheery and welcoming women who worked hard to see that no one, speakers or audience, wanted for refreshments during the day.

An evening detour to the Melbourne Irish Seminar series, held at Newman College, gave us the opportunity to discuss the work of the Foundation since it was established in 1956. Prof. Frances Devlin-Gass was a charming and delightful host who gave us a quick tour of the beautiful college cloister and refectory prior to the evening lecture.

Teeth were chattering in a piercing breeze as we arrived at Victoria Harbour Promenade for our last event in Melbourne with the Irish Ancestry Group of the Genealogical Society of Victoria. Another large audience gathered for a day of presentations, facilitated by Dr Val Noone.

Val captured the essence of the importance of this collective genealogical enterprise we are all engaged in, in his concluding remarks, when he said it was about rescuing our ancestors ‘from the condescension of posterity’, a phrase borrowed from E.P. Thompson in the preface to his The Making of the English Working Class. I am grateful to Dr Noone for providing me the quotation upon which his comments were based. We doubt there was a more fitting way to draw our Melbourne events to a close.

A highlight of the Melbourne visit was staying with our friend and previous conference delegate, Mary-Ann Cohn. Mary-Ann and Melanie McLennan (from Ontario, Canada) discovered they were related at our June 2016 conference. Mary-Ann and her husband Michael were superb hosts, allowing us to relax after the rigours of the programmes, helped along with a glass from their own vintage – Copping Grove sparkling wine.

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Although the vines were wearing their winter clothes, how nice it was to look out of their living room window onto a perfect private vineyard of an acre or more.

Back across the Tasman Sea for the penultimate time excitement was building for the New Zealand Society of Genealogists’ 50th anniversary conference. People descended from all across Australasia and beyond. Beside the speakers from UHF, others from the northern hemisphere included Ian Waller and Dick Eastman. As the crowds gathered on Friday evening and Saturday morning at Alexandra Park Function Centre, Epsom, Auckland, little reunions were breaking out all over the place.

This included the Foundation, where amongst others we met up with Mary-Ann who had just arrived from Melbourne, Jenny and Graeme – the organisers from Wellington, Louise and Matt (from Wanaka), Davina (who attended our June 2016 conference) and Rixanne and Sally (who would attend the September 2017 conference). As well as finally getting to meet our key contact, Geraldene O’Reilly, we also met an old acquaintance, Seán Brosnan, of the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin.

The Foundation’s staff delivered a separate Irish stream on the Saturday, which ran concurrently with other conference presenters speaking on non-Irish subjects. It was not all work though, with delegates enjoying an evening of trotting races on Friday and a conference dinner on Saturday.

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The whole event was professionally organised and seamlessly delivered by the NZSG staff and volunteers, and we must thank Robyn Williams, Chair, NZSG Board, the NZSG Conference 2017 Committee headed by Vivienne Parker and Keith Vautier, and of course Geraldene O’Reilly (and our own helpers who were tireless in encouraging large attendances at our Irish genealogy lectures).

The final gig in some ways was potentially the most important, or at least the most deserving, as we owed them a debt of gratitude. On Sunday evening on the outskirts of Auckland we presented to the Loyal Orange Institute of New Zealand. It was through the generosity of the Loyal Orange in New Zealand that the Foundation’s staff were able to accept the invitation from NZSG to participate in the 50th anniversary conference. The event was open to Orange Order members and the general public.

A number of people who had attended the big conference joined us that evening (possibly gluttons for punishment) as well as quite a number of newcomers. Focusing on genealogy, the presentation explored briefly the value of records relating to the Orange Order for family history, and drew attention to material held in PRONI and archives such as the Museum of Orange Heritage, Belfast.

The Foundation is grateful to all the host groups, friends and supporters who helped to bring us to Australia and New Zealand, and who worked in the background to ensure the events were a success.

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It is perhaps invidious to single anyone out in a legion of supporters but special mention should go to Geraldene O’Reilly, a staunch ally of the Foundation who left no stone unturned to find a means of bringing us to take part in the NZSG conference. And, of course, the Loyal Orange Institution of New Zealand for their generosity.

While we are unlikely to go to Australasia as often or as easily as we travel to North America (given the logistics) we would be happy to return any time. The warmth of welcome, the level of interest, the level of knowledge and the pride in their Irish and Ulster heritage shown by the hosts who arranged, and the people who attended, the seminars, was a joy. It was a thoroughly life-enriching and enhancing experience.