“Second star on the right?”
I can remember it like it was just yesterday. It was the mid-eighties and I was just an awe-stricken young eight-year-old as I accompanied my aunt to Shannon Airport. She was the second of my relations that was travelling to spend a summer in Australia and I can still remember the look in her eyes as we saw her off. To me, she exuded an air of nervous anticipation, tinged with the excitement of what was no doubt going to be one of the most memorable summers of her young life.
As we entered through the cavernous doors of Shannon International Airport, you can imagine what the place must have looked like through the captivated eyes of a child. I could not stop looking around and twice my grandfather had to reprimand me for wandering off. Whether I was enthralled in the wake of a visiting Spanish football team, with their strange skin and even stranger language, or mesmerised in the pursuit of a Jamaican couple, who sported an outlandish hairstyle which perfectly accentuated their strange multicoloured clothes, all it took was a mere word from my grandfather’s weather worn lips and his faithful companion would return to his side! I instantly loved it, a bizarre place where a weird or wonderful sight lay just around the next corner and there were more than enough sights to keep a curious young boy racing ahead to peer furtively around that corner?
We watched my aunt walk to the plane from the viewing lounge situated above the runway and though I could hardly keep my eyes on one spot for more than a few seconds in this fascinating mix of cultures, my youthful mind noted the solemn sadness of the occasion. My grandparents looked on with a smile on their face, yet their eyes looked tired. She paused for a moment to turn back and give a brief wave as she boarded the Aer Lingus 747, as if to soothe the spirits of her poignant parents. She still had that air of unbridled excitement about her, though, and her face betrayed her thoughts as she sprang up the walkway. Our eyes followed the plane as it turned to slowly taxi down the runway and I can vividly remember my breath fogging the tough glass as it slowly took off into the skies, only to be quickly swallowed by the pervasive bad Irish weather. I can only imagine her excitement, off to a new land, to meet new people, see new places and experience new things. It must have been akin to my curiosity as I questioned my grandfather the next day?
It was Tuesday and my family had just received a hurried telephone call from my aunt to assure us that she had arrived and was fine, albeit a little exhausted from the fourteen-hour flight. As we returned to the table from the inevitable gathering of bodies around the newly installed telephone, my mind again began to wander to the far off ‘Land of Oz.’
‘Grandad’, I asked, ‘you know Australia?’
‘Yes?’, he replied, his brow furrowed at the thought of facing what he knew to be an inevitable onslaught of questions.
‘Well, will you tell me about it? Again? Please?’
‘Well, if I have to.’
His smile, however, deceived his feigned petulance as he settled back in his chair and drew out his pipe. I smiled, settling back in my own chair and clutching my mug of tea close to me as he told me of a far off place?
That afternoon and many afternoons after it, my grandfather told me stories of Australia. A keen reader, he had acquired the habit decades ago when a fall off an ill-tempered horse had almost broken his neck and he had been confined to bed for a month. His passion for history was matched only by his love for his family and farm and he literally had a mine of information to sate an eager young curiosity. He told me stories of adventure and exploration, tales of passion and determination and accounts of danger and drama. This, as you can imagine, did little to satisfy my curiosity and eagerness for the unknown land.
On my request, he told me that the city my aunt was staying in was called ‘Melbourne’ and when I pressed him for further information, he spoke of how beautiful the city was. This I knew – I had already spent the previous night on my aunt’s bed poring over the travel brochures I had found on her dresser. I remember gazing at the quaint, old style streets and houses, and the huge parks, and imagining what it would be like when I finally got to see them with my own eyes. I already knew what the picturesque city, located at the head of Port Philip Bay on the south east coast of Australia, looked like, with it’s famous Royal Botanic Gardens and Victorian Arts centre, and a population almost exceeding that of the entire country of Ireland, so I asked my grandfather to tell me the stories that were not in any tourist brochure – the stories that only he would know. How I longed to see places such as this distant fantasyland with my own eyes, to stand at the mouth of the Yarras River and take in for myself the hustle and bustle of the famous city. I can only imagine gazing at the picturesque landscape, punctuated with its famous trams and parks, or immersing myself in the rich mix of cultures that is part of the world-famous Melbourne Festival.
‘That long ago?’ I marvelled.
‘Ah, but you have to remember’, he reminded me, ‘cities like Dublin have been around for thousands of years. Compared to them, Melbourne’s only young!’
He continued with his story of the founding of the city. I found out that John Batman, a famous pioneer and entrepreneur, had negotiated with the Aboriginal elders for the purchase of 500,000 acres at the head of Port Phillip Bay. I can only imagine the incredulous look on my face as he informed me of the price that was paid for the land – 40 blankets, 30 axes, 100 knives, 50 scissors, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour, and six shirts. All that for a city! He told me of how the city was given it’s present name, in honour of the then British Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, after being dubbed ?Bearbrass? for many decades.
I learned of all the Irish men who had made a difference in Australia. As we continued, he told me of how the British Empire had deported its captive Irish resistance fighters during the 19th century. Along with the other ‘criminals’ and prisoners of war, entire families were literally dumped on this ‘New World’ to fend for themselves. I remember imagining their first impressions of the Australian countryside. It would have been some contrast to the lush Irish fields and valleys. Even as my grandmother muttered disapprovingly at him for telling me stories about such uncouth rogues, I used to think about how exciting it would be. To be given the opportunity to explore a new land, walk where no Irish man had ever been before and to drift asleep at night gazing at unknown constellations? To a person such as myself, that would be as close to perfection as could be obtained on Earth! He chronicled how Robert O’ Hara Burke led a team of explorers north from the south coast and was one of the first white men ever to cross the entire continent from south to north on foot. He trekked over two thousand miles in unendurable conditions and made it. I slowly realised that it was on such courage and determination that these people forged a new life for themselves in the wilderness.
Grandad related the tale of Patrick ‘Paddy’ Hannon, another Irish emigrant, who arrived on the south coast of Australia at the tender age of nineteen. Full of hopes, dreams and ambitions, his spirit was never beaten despite years of setbacks. An explorer through and through, Paddy Hannon eventually discovered the famous gold fields of Kalgoorlie, prompting the world’s most famous gold rush since California. It came as no surprise to me that the famous ‘Golden Mile’ had been discovered by one of my countrymen. This caused a number of cities, including, ironically enough, Melbourne, to grow in size literally overnight and increased the country’s status to a place to be respected. It was perhaps the first time that a lot of people took this undiscovered country seriously.
Then, with a twinkle in his eye, my grandfather thought me the story of another descendant of Irish settlers that made a different impact on Australian society. Despite disapproving glances from my grandmother, who was at the table preparing dinner, I learned how Ned Kelly, arguably Australia’s most notorious highwayman and gangster, was descended from Irish settlers. My grandmother’s moral objections notwithstanding, I felt the tale only served to show me to what extents the people would go to survive in harsh conditions. Ned Kelly only did what he did to survive. Granted, the ends don’t justify the means, but at least he did survive, by doing what he felt was right. I’d safely say that he’ll be remembered.
After a brief adjournment for dinner – bacon, potatoes and cabbage, of course – my grandfather asked me if I remembered the stories I had been thought about St. Patrick. I promptly recalled the tales every Irish child was taught in school.
‘D’ you remember how he banished snakes from Ireland?’ he enquired, through a mouthful of tea.
I nodded, wondering what this had to do with our story.
‘Well, when they were building a big house in Sydney a few years ago, they were so afraid of snakes invading it, do you know what they did? They shipped a ton of soil from County Wexford out to Sydney and to this day, the snakes never touched the place!’
Laughingly, I didn’t believe him until he reached towards the bookcase and pulled out a slim volume entitled simply ‘Australia’. He picked out a page and sure enough, there was the house! While he made a brief visit to the bathroom, I flicked through the pages and asked him questions on any pictures I found.
He read to me about the first Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, who was an Irish man, and he told me of the pair of famous Irish brothers, The Toohey Brothers from Limerick, who founded what is now one of the country’s best known breweries. As he amusedly told me of their motto: “Here’s To’ee!”, he glanced at the clock. With a look of surprise on his face, he turned back to me.
‘Okay, okay. Just one more question.’
‘You know the people in Australia?’
‘How do they stay stuck to the ground?’
‘Bed!’ he uttered, with a bemused look on his face.
It was so, as I drifted to sleep while gazing at the far away stars, I remembered a story I had once been told as a young child, that of Peter Pan. “Second star on the right”, I murmured, as I watched an aeroplane glide south through the night sky, “and straight on ’till morning.” As I drifted into slumber, my thoughts again turned to Australia and Never-Never-Land.
Now, more than a decade later, my thoughts once more turn to Australia. Only this time, Never Never Land is no longer so distant. As a result of Fate’s twisting path, the chance of reaching my own ‘Never Never Land’ is within my grasp, and I know that the land down under has my heart. Besides, I’m only seventeen years old, and I understand that if not this year or the next, then someday I will go there.
I still fall asleep looking at the stars. Some things never change.
And straight on ’till morning?.