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2005-03-29 Tasmania insight to Fields of Athenry

I hope that every time I perform "The Fields of Athenry" from hereon in, I will sing the words with added insight and empathy. It is quite astounding how this Pete St. John song has become such an universal football anthem, and not just for Glasgow Celtic it seems.

 

The touching tale of `Michael' who steals some corn in order to feed his starving children, and is then deported thousands of miles away `down under' to Botany Bay to pay for his miniscule crime, is a story which symbolises our nation's centuries-old struggle.

 

During a recent trip to Australia and Tasmania, we hired a car for a day and drove the 1 hour journey from Hobart to Port Arthur. In 1830, the British chose this remotest of outposts as a prison settlement, a dumping ground for `convicts', flushing the system of these `unwanted citizens'.

 

Extreme discipline, punishment, retraining workshops, religious and moral instruction would supposedly transform convicts into `good people'. 70,000 convicts passed through Port Arthur - `the Jail of the the Empire' - a self-supporting and self-sufficient penal colony. But Governor George Arthur's regime was not a subtle regime. The Governor wanted Port Arthur to be `the very last degree of misery consistent with humanity'. Tiny cells, fitted with a bible and a hammock, leg-irons for all the prisoners, and daily floggings given by the prisoners to their fellow inmates meant extreme misery for all. Some of these `convicts' may have done as little as steal a chicken.

 

Port Arthur's Point Puer Island served as the Juvenile Detention Centre. Conditions were terrible for the youngsters, many of whom had been shipped from the London slums, some as young as 9 years old. After an informative harbour cruise and guided walk, our guide singled out William Smith O'Brien as the most interesting prison resident. This Irish Protestant Parliamentarian led a revolutionary group in a failed uprising in Ireland, and he was transported for life in 1849.

 

But O'Brien was treated as a special case in Port Arthur, and was quite comfortably housed in a converted stable. In 1856, he was able to return home. Otherwise, the contrast between the lives of the convicts and the prison staff could hardly have been more stark. The officers enjoyed cricket, drama evenings and walks in their ornamental gardens. For the convicts, physical beatings were soon replaced with psychological torture. A total isolation unit was constructed, where the prisoners were numbered and wore hoods.

O'Brien wrote about `the pretty village of Port Arthur', and even today, as one wanders through the beautiful Georgian buildings in this strangely serene setting, it is hard to imagine the tragedy that once existed behind these walls. More recently, a tragedy the staff at Port Arthur find it hard to discuss, is the 1996 massacre of 35 tourists and staff by a lone gunman, which understandably shocked the world. Sadly Port Arthur, a monument to a deeply flawed experiment in slavery has given Tasmania (itself seen for years as a prison island) rather bad press.

The initial mass genocide of all of the native Aboriginal people by the invading settlers means that there are no true Aboriginal people on Tasmania - only mixed-blooded. This verdant and fertile land of well-kept secrets is almost the size of Ireland, the centre of Tasmania resembles England's West Country, and everywhere English and Scottish place-names pop up. On our sunny scenic drive from the capital, we were surrounded by lush vegetation, wooded hillsides of scorched eucalyptus, and healthy flocks of sheep, as we crossed picturesque causeways and passed empty golden beaches stretching miles towards the horizon.

We visited the `Tasmanian Devil Park', witnessing Australasia's unique wildlife, walking through open kangaroo and wallaby enclosures, and watched the vicious mange-ridden `Tassie Devils' ripping meat apart. Tasmania's south-west boasts unrivalled wilderness-walking and white-water rafting. Mounts Wellington and Nelson offer commanding views. Hobart's mountain backdrop, Georgian buildings, parks, red and green timber houses on Wellington's slopes, Tasman bridge, and trendy Salamanca Place and market make it a truly charming town. In the same way that `the Northern Ireland problem' has given our island bad press abroad, so too when one mentions Tasmania, people tend to think of the abominably bad treatment of it's native Aboriginal people, and it's role as a penal colony. A shame, as Tasmania is a real gem of an island, and a dream holiday location.