Old Irish 'clachan' settlement found in South Australia by archaeologists

Old Irish 'clachan' settlement found in South Australia by archaeologists

THE OLDEST known Australian example of a communal Irish settlement has been discovered in a dusty paddock in rural South Australia.

Irish people have been emigrating to Australia since 1791. Emigration initiatives such as the Earl Grey scheme for orphan girls in the 1840s and events like the Great Famine saw different waves of people arrive on Australian shores in the 1800s.

After an extensive geophysical study of the Baker's Flat Irish settlement site near Kapunda, Flinders University archaeologists have found the first - and possibly largest - clachan in Australia.

A clachan is a small settlement or hamlet frequently found in Ireland or Scotland. Many date back to medieval times or earlier – and generally consist of a bunch of small single-storey cottages. Clachan's were often used by farmers and/or fishermen, invariably found on more impoverished land.

Flinders archaeologist Susan Arthure, whose PhD investigations of Irish History and archaeology in SA led her to the site, says "Clachans had actually died out in Ireland by the end of the nineteenth century but our research proves they continued in Australia, with this example the first to be fully described."

The researchers found a "large, vibrant clachan settlement, now hidden beneath the surface of an empty farm paddock, which contains a wealth of materials to tell us a lot about the past," Arthure confirmed.

It is believed that more than 500 Irish migrants created a community here. Many outsiders would have judged the settlement as chaotic and primitive but Arthure believes "in fact, these Irish settlers were able to maintain a sustainable way of life by managing their animals communally and making joint decisions about how best to use the land".

Having control of such a large area of land allowed Irish traditions and customs to be maintained and "highlights the way the new residents to this dry country worked together to make the best use of marginal land"

Ms Arthure, who co-edited Irish South Australia: new histories and insights (Wakefield Press) say's archaeology is not just about the recent past. “The recent past is really fascinating, and many people in South Australia would be descendants of those early settlers of Baker’s Flat and other Irish settlements in the Clare Valley and the Mid North.”

Flinders adjunct Associate Professor Lynley Wallis, a co-author of the latest Baker’s Flat paper published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, says: “What we found with GPR and magnetometry surveys shows us that sometimes all is not what it seems.”

“When we arrived at the paddock, we had no idea about the paths, houses, yards, paddocks and fences hidden beneath the ground,” Associate Professor Wallis added.

This fascinating discovery gives us a look into the life of early Irish settlers in Australia and how they managed despite the harsh conditions of the land.