Echoes of Eureka


‘Good luck’, said the aunt, ‘Cousin Richard might be difficult. Visitors turn up at the Lalor house all the time. He’s sick of it by now’.

I was throwing things in a bag, for the trip to Ireland, under the huge replica of the Eureka flag tacked on my living room wall, to go to Dublin and Tenakill in County Laois where my great-great grandfather, Peter Lalor, was born.

My mother was a Lalor and I was the first of the Australian branch to go back. What if Cousin Richard shouted at me and ordered me off the place? It wasn’t just Peter who attracted the tourists. He was just one of three family patriots—the others were Honest Pat, Peter’s father, an MP, and his brother, James Fintan, known in Ireland as a radical and a revolutionary. The day trippers annoying Cousin Richard at Tenakill are usually descendants of the two million emigrants, the great diaspora to Canada, the US and Australia, fleeing their homes after the 1848 potato famine.

I had written to Cousin Richard (third cousin once removed, the aunt said). He didn’t reply. Why go? What was it to be a Lalor?

There has been little talk about the Eureka forebear until this year. Maybe my rebellious outbursts at school were more leniently dealt with by the Irish nuns, who had experience of resistance in their youth. (She’s a Lalor, you know.) There was little discussion of it in my family. Although, my grandmother told me sternly ‘remember you’re a Lalor’, when I fell over on the path and started blubbering one day. I wiped my nose on my sleeve and looked up at the oil painting of Him, hanging on the wall of her modest weatherboard in east St Kilda, impressive in his wig, gown and buckled shoes, sitting at a desk, the speaker of the Victorian Legislative Council. He had come a long way from being the outlaw, with wanted posters tacked on the Ballarat trees in 1854. ‘You know he was offered a knighthood’, my grandmother said.

‘Did he take it?’

She snorted.

‘Of course not. He was Irish.’ End of story.

So, why go back? For the last couple of years I had been researching the Lalors for a play I was writing. I found history books, and fumed and wept over the fate of the Irish and my mother’s family, cast off their land. Thousands of acres of the O’Lailor clan were confiscated by the English when they marched into England in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Irish, believe it or not, were troublesome at the time. Queen Elizabeth I sent a huge army in to quell them once and for all. I read on, about the Battle of the Plumes, when Rory O’More and the septs of Laois—the Lalors being one of the seven—routed the army. It was a great Irish victory and it was said that the helmets of the invaders lay among the bodies, the plumes in the green grass bright red with the blood that had been shed. The Queen retaliated, sending 54,000 troops that crushed the rebels. In the massive reprisal, all but nine of the Lalor males were slaughtered. According to family stories, the women and children were transported to the Caribbean as indentured labour.

Peter Lalor’s father, Pat, was a fighting man. But he worked within the system. He stood for Parliament when Ireland became a colony of England in 1800. After dirty tricks and skulduggery on both sides, he defeated the local Protestant landlord and sat in the House of Commons, representing the original owners of the land. By then, in 1832, the Lalors were farming 2,000 acres, paying rent to an absentee owner. Cousin Richard told me later that Pat relinquished much of the land to pay for his trips to London.

It was time. I threw down my books, climbed up, wobbled on the back of the couch and took the Eureka flag down off the wall, folded it, packed it and went ‘back’.

At the National Library in Dublin, I applied for my reading card. Ah, yes, said the young man, Tenakill. His wife and he had visited only last year. Such a shame the family would not turn the house over to the National Trust for restoration. But then, who in their right mind would want busloads of tourists with cameras peering in the windows?

There were 43 references to the Lalors in the National Manuscript Library, mainly to James Fintan, Peter’s brother. I leafed through the tired manila folders and read his impassioned speech to rebels in Tipperary, urging land reform: ‘We must have a house to live in that no man can tumble down. For God, when he made the world, gave the whole of the earth to the whole of mankind ... but we live under the law of conquest ... Lift yourself and lift your country or sink back with that country forever’.

This was just before the uprising of Young Ireland in 1848 and James Fintan’s arrest and death.

There were letters from the Ballarat goldfields from Peter to his brother Richard, who had gone home to Tenakill.

I got down from the Dublin–Abbeyleix bus and a tall man walked slowly towards me. His mouth turned down at the corners and his eyes were difficult to read under bristly white brows. It was Cousin Richard, his nose a Lalor beak that could peck a hole in some foolishness from a strange Antipodean relative. ‘A fierce lot of rain we’re having’, he said.

At Tenakill, I walked around the old house and peered in the windows at the tree growing where the roof ought to be. I knew Richard would be watching me from the ‘new’ 1950s brick veneer house just across the driveway. The collapsed beams of the old place had gone mossy green and I saw the dark rectangle of the fireplace where they had all sat around during the winter, before most of the eleven sons and daughters went to the new countries. The front door was locked and the black iron knocker, in the shape of an eagle, appeared to be freshly painted. A brass plaque was screwed into the wall next to the door:

‘Here lived honest Pat Lalor MP, anti-tithe leader, James Fintan Lalor, Young Ireland leader; Peter Lalor of the Eureka Stockade fame, who distinguished themselves in the struggle for civil rights, land reform and justice. A tribute from the people of Laois, unveiled by Mr F. Milne, Australian Ambassador on April 5, 1987’.

I stood by the house and picked up a piece of crumbled pink brick. ‘It cost too much to fix’, said Richard, coming up behind me on the gravel drive. ‘Sixteen rooms. A fortune to maintain. So I built the other place.’ On the 170 acres that are left of Tenakill, Richard, his wife Millie and son, Kevin, run cattle.

Richard stared at the front door—an old man, handsome and six-feet tall—as if he could see the family stepping out to say goodbye to Peter and his brother, Richard, in 1852. If it wasn’t for the famine, I thought, I might be living here. Not really. It doesn’t work like that.

We stood for a while. Richard is a farmer, comfortable with silence. ‘How much would it cost to put the roof on?’ I asked.

‘Thirty thousand pounds at the very least.’

The only glass still intact was in the circular window divided like a pie over the front door.

‘We’ll get a lottery ticket.’

‘Huh, you’re optimistic.’ His mouth was a straight line as he looked at the building that had been tumbling down all his life.

‘I’ll stay for a while when we win and we’ll get the roof on. That’ll stop the walls from falling down.’ He raised his eyebrows so I kept going. ‘Then we’ll have a barbeque, a celebration. And we’ll have the Rory O’More Pipe Band.’ After all, the Lalors had fought beside King Rory and routed the English at the Battle of the Plumes.

‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘The Ballyroan Brass Band will be much more suitable.’ Ballyroan was a town close by.

‘I want the pipers,’ I said, watching the jackdaws fly out of the jagged remains of the chimney that had stood there for 300 years. We glared at each other. ‘We’ll have both bands,’ I said. ‘We don’t want to start fighting.’

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘There’ll be no fighting.’ A tree branch stuck out of the third floor window where James Fintan had written his articles on land and revolution, before his enraged father had thrown him out. ‘We could get the James Fintan Lalor Pipe Band up from Dublin’, Richard said, ‘but that would cost a pretty penny’.

I spent two days at Tenakill. We didn’t win the lottery. Richard hugged me fiercely before I climbed on the bus to Dublin. I came home broke and Tenakill needs a new roof.

A letter arrived from Richard the other day, in Christian Brothers cramped writing on tiny lined note paper. I’d asked if we could fly him out for the Eureka 150th celebrations. ‘It should be great on that weekend in December’, he wrote. ‘I will not be there. I would never think of flying now, as I was never inside a plane.’ 

Christine Gillespie is a Melbourne writer and the great-great-granddaughter of Peter Lalor.



submit a comment

Existing comments

There is a very good Lalor Family reason to not have an OMore [O'Moore- alt spelling] family related organization. When I was at Tenakill in 1994, I was told that no O'Moores lived in the County. The O'Moore's had become English lackey's. There are family stories of their mischiefs.
-- a US Lalor Family Historian

Edward D. D Lalor | 05 September 2006

According to my records, Patrick II [Honest Pat] and his first wife had twelve children.
Do you know the reason that he was called Honest Pat?
Edward D. D Lalor | 05 September 2006

Christine Gillespie,
Please tell me the procedure that you used to obtain a reader's permit at the National Library Ireland. I would like to go there next Spring.

Edward D. D Lalor | 05 September 2006


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up