September 19 … history repeats itself

The Miners Memorial Day Service is held on 19 September every year – a date marking the anniversary of Queensland’s worst mining disaster in 1921 when 75 miners lost their lives in a coal dust explosion at Mount Mulligan in Far North Qld – a day to honour the memory of the many hundreds of mine workers who’ve lost their lives in Queensland mines, and in many other mines across Australia.


The Moranbah Miner’s Memorial opens – Australasian Mine Safety Journal

Mining accidents and disasters are preventable. But lessons from previous accidents and disasters are forgotten or ignored. And history repeats itself.

Multinational companies and shareholders want profits – but profits often means cutting back on health and safety for the mine workers. Accidents increase. Union strikes threaten. People die. And history repeats itself.

A memorial service held at the Box Flat Mine, Qld, on 31 July 1972. Image: Courier-Mail.

Side note: There’ve been unionists in my railway family since Queensland’s General Strike of 1912 when after a mass protest meeting of 10,000 people held in Market Square, the Tram Workers’ strike spread throughout Queensland with wide support. When Railway workers joined the strike, the government acted to break it up. With force.

Female supporters led by Emma Miller, well known suffragette, marched in solidarity with the strikers. And the protest turned violent. Folk lore tells of tiny, frail Emma sticking her hat pin in the Police Commissioner’s horse’s rump, causing him to be thrown from his mount.

Women unionists marching towards the north entrance to the Victoria Bridge during the General Strike of 1912.

‘The riding down and batoning of peaceful people, many of them being elderly and women and children on the footpath, was widely condemned, not only in union papers such as the Worker, but also in the more conservative papers such as Truth. It was initially called Baton Friday, but later came to be popularly known as Black Friday.’

The savagery against the strikers on Black Friday created a bitterness and hatred of the police, lasting for several decades. The strike also reinforced solidarity and collective identity of the Australian labour movement in Queensland.

And history repeats itself.

A few days ago, a miner lost his life in an underground mine outside Emerald in Qld, when the roof collapsed in on two workers installing an underground support structure at the Sojitz Gregory Crinum Mine. Mine safety experts are investigating.

The Monogah Mining Disaster, West Virginia. December 6, 1907 – over 360 deaths. “Worst mining disaster in American History”. 1,000 children lost their fathers.
Thought to have been caused by a coal-dust explosion – like in Mt Mulligan’s mine disaster.

The mountain … the history and the people

The circus comes to Mt Mulligan circa 1930-1940

The mountain has seen many changes over its 400,000 million year old history.

A sacred monolith, known for centuries by the custodians, the local Djungan people, as Ngarrabullgan, it’s one of two Dreamtime rock formations in far north Queensland – pushed up as the gigantic Rainbow Serpent passed by.

Implacable to human intrusion, this immense, sandstone monolith rising from the Hodgkinson plateau in the outback west of Cairns.

It stretches 18 klms long by 6.5 klms wide – making it almost 10 times the size of Uluru. Ngarrabullgan is formidable, beautiful and memorable.

Never-before-seen slide images from the top of Ngarrabullgan and below – taken in the early 1950s by a miner and keen photographer, Mr Collins; and given to my uncle, Patrick O’Neill, Mt Mulligan’s station-master.

The monolith’s origins were the coral seabeds 400 million years ago, and its multi-million year old history evident in the layers of its strata. Cave paintings on the mountain’s top prove the continual 37,000 year existence of the first indigenous inhabitants.

When the Irish explorer (and prospector), Venture Mulligan first sighted the mountain in the late 1800s, he said it was ‘a mountain once seen, never to be forgotten‘. Then he found traces of gold, and that was it for the millions of years of peaceful existence between the mountain and humans. And Ngarrabullgan watched on those who sought to exploit its scant reserves of gold failed – then they found a lode of coal.

The coal miners and their families came to Mt Mulligan, living in its shadow and tunneling two miles beneath it. Until one Monday morning in September 1921, exactly one hundred years ago, the mountain upended human lives with catastrophic shrug.

A quarter of the tiny mining town’s citizens died in an instant when the coal dust ignited and exploded – 75 miners; two of them only boys – affecting almost every family in town.

Only the graveyard remains today of Mt Mulligan’s town – except for a few house stumps, and the old hospital, now a homestead. The mine’s chimney is still in situ, as well as the Mining Union’s memorial that lists the names of all those killed in the explosion.

Another change has come to Ngarrabullgan these days – a luxury Eco-lodge built down by the weir, the most pretty part of the area. Sadly, out of my price range, it is tastefully done. They knocked out the stumps of the school house and many other dwellings to build the lodges.

But at least the management insists the mountain, Ngarrabullgan is still shown respect – nobody is allowed to climb to the top. So, there is hope humans will no longer negatively impact upon Ngarrabullgan.

This Sunday, 19th September, 2021 at 9.30 am, people will gather for the 100 year Memorial Service at Mt Mulligan. I can’t be at the site sadly, but I will see it via Facebook Live Stream.

All images on this page are protected under copyright.


The girl … another time, another passion

Every time I write a novel, I don’t plan to add something I’m passionate about – like art, music, history, theatre, politics, or even digging up fossils. It enters a story because it’s what my protagonist demands.

This thing, this passion, then becomes the story’s narrative device, or icon.

With Secrets of Eromanga, it was a longtime interest in fossils, Australian dinosaurs and geology. With Sweet Adversity, it was a love of Shakespeare’s plays and stage drama in general (perhaps inherited from my grandmother, Grace Margaret O’Neill, who produced theatre and variety musical shows in the far northern town of Innisfail, back in the 1950s. She deserves a post all on her own!!)

My work-in-progress novel, The Four Seasons of Caterina, is set in 18th Century Venice – with the Baroque era’s tremendous surge of innovative music. Of course, the city’s most famous son, composer and virtuoso violinist, Antonio Vivaldi is there with his all-female choir of orphans, and street-urchin, Caterina.

With Tinker’s Girl, the icon is the camera. I didn’t plan it. My protagonist, Lela May Heron needed it – for her spirit’s survival.

A powerful visual aid for this young elective mute to see the world? Absolutely.

It’s the right era to use photography as a narrative tool. The early 20th century saw the development of small, affordable cameras that ordinary people could use.

And they sure did!

Photography has been in my life since I was 7 years old. My father gave me his old Box Brownie camera (like the one in the image above). I remember looking down at the view finder and seeing my family upside-down. But magically, the photos printed the right way up.

Finally, at 25, I learned to develop black and white images in a bathroom ‘dark-room’ – hot and dark with windows covered in black-out curtains, trying to avoid breathing in the fumes drifting off trays of chemicals. And then, printing the photographs.

I’ve owned many cameras since those days – learning through books and experience what makes a good image. I also discovered the magic of photography.

Very much like Lela May Heron does in The Tinker’s Girl.

Image: Princess Ileana of Romania with her mother’s camera, circa 1919

The girl … another history, another culture

One of my earliest memories is our grandmother trying to keep us kids within the confines of our north Queensland backyard by saying the gypsies might take you for their own. I didn’t mind the threat at all … roaming the roads in a horse-pulled caravan sounded perfect.

The Green Caravan, Hampshire, by Alfred James Munnings

Nana O’Neill’s threat was an example of how prejudice against the Romani came with my clan, the British and Irish migrants. It also showed a child’s romanticised ideal of who the gypsies were.

Writing a novel set in the past about a young Romani girl needed both research and sensitivity to what life was like for my young protagonist, Lela May Heron.

I knew it would be difficult for a pale-skinned, Celtic-descendant Australian writer – even a culturally-sensitive writer who’d never use unfounded assumptions or stereotypes of cultural groups.

Some of my research material

I’ve tried to make this story ring true. Researching the Romanichal (the British Rom) history, culture and firsthand accounts of discrimination through history – from King Henry the Eight’s exiling and killings, Queen Victoria’s odd arrangements with Romani fortune-tellers, the constant persecution of the Roma peoples across Europe and beyond, to the Nazi regime’s deliberate ethnic-cleansing. Prejudice against the Rom continues into contemporary times.

But I needed to delve deeper – into the Romanichal clans living in Wales in the early 1920s. And also the Rom who immigrated to Australia.

A wonderful grass-roots ambassador and activist for the Rom is Yvonne Slee. Yvonne used to live in north Queensland. I first visited her amazing exhibition about the Australian Romani in the old Cairns Museum, I was inspired. I soon found my story’s hero – a young Welsh-Romani migrant in 1921. And Lela May Heron was born.

The Romani in Australia

The first three Roma men arrived in Australia on the First Fleet. One of them is still well known for his name – James Squire, the first brewer in the new colonial colony. His beer is rather more boutique these days.

Regarding the word, GYPSY – from my contemporary research, many people prefer to be called Romani, Rom or Roma, but some don’t mind the term gypsy.

In my story, Lela and her family call themselves Romani or Travellers – not Gypsy, or Tinker, or other derogatory terms used by non-Romani. The terms are occasionally used in my book by bigoted characters as they would’ve done back in 1921.

I’ve learned much from the Australian-Romani community through their written, spoken and videoed stories of their lives. I hope to chat with a Romani community member about my manuscript – a hands-on sensitivity reader – because I want to get it right.

I thank Mandy Sayers for her truly fascinating book, Australian Gypsiestheir Secret History. Mandy’s research went beyond reading – she met, interviewed and enjoyed many a meal with Australia’s Romani people in their homes. A trusted and compassionate listener and questioner.

The girl … how memory colours story writing

People often advise, Write what you know. It’s not as clear cut as that, of course, otherwise we’d never have stories set in the past or the future, or of other cultures, or historical figures, or foreign countries, or even other worlds.

Gypsy Encampment, Appleby, by John Aitkinson. 1919

I write a variety of genres, but my favourite is tackling stories set in the past with feisty, but vulnerable young protagonists fighting adversities on the journeys they must take, along with their friends and foes.

The stories require intense research beforehand and during the novel’s journey – plus a stack of imagination. But pushing it on is a bright core that gives the story its heart, and keeps the author writing through draft after draft.

It could be a brave and clever cockatiel with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare – a bird who would risk his own life to protect the human he loves. Sweet Adversity. Or a boy, risking his life in a Lascaux cave 27,000 years ago, lifts an ochre pigment filled brush to the limestone wall. Dance of the Lascaux Ponies

The author and her sister – 1957

Or a childhood memory.

And there it is, as bright a spark in my mind and heart as it was way back then. A memory of the mountain rising above Mt Mulligan township in far north Queensland where my uncle was the last station master.

I see it still. The monolith’s sandstone cliffs shine like red-gold in the morning sun.

It’ll be another hot one, everyone says, but we kids only care that Christmas is days away. Heat rises from the red dirt at my feet, and eucalyptus wafts from the straggly gums around the cemetery.

My spine shivers as stories swirl through my head … of Ngarrabullgan’s Indigenous legends; and the tragedy that unfolded one day in September, 1921. In Mt Mulligan’s graveyard, I read the headstones of many of those miners lost in an instant to the explosion deep in black tunnels below the mountain.

Sixteen year old, Rowland McCormack – died 19.09.1921

My 13-year-old protagonist, Lela May Heron has the same sense of awe in 1921 when she sees Ngarrabullgan for the first time. She’s a girl from the green Welsh valleys. Forced to leave her home; travelling to a foreign land to find sanctuary for herself and her family. But of course, prejudice skips oceans.

Lela is without words, an elective mute. A girl without a country to call her own. A didakoi – half-Romani, half-Welsh, discriminated by both. But she also has an indomitable spirit, and a yearning to become a photographer, not the norm for girls of her era. Tinker’s Girl is Lela’s story.

I don’t know what the future holds for this manuscript. But I’m glad I didn’t give up on what’s become a very different story than the torturous first draft of that May Gibbs Residency 13 years ago. It needed to go through that ‘fire of truth’ over the years.

It’s a far better story now as I send it out to publishers. So begins the next stage of a story that began as a memory of a mountain-like-no-other.

In the Wet. The many moods of Ngarrabullgan.

Image was taken in the 1950s by a coal miner keen on photography. He gave the slide box of 20 Agfa images to my uncle, who gave them to me before he passed away. While suffering some fungal damage (the purple tinged splotches) over the decades, the slides’ colours are as vibrant as the day they were taken over 65 years ago.

The miner, a Mr Collins, also climbed a treacherous rusty ladder to Ngarrabullgan’s top to photograph the rarely seen topography.

These slides helped inform what my protagonist, Lela sees and does when she faces her own terror of the Ladder of Death.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Writing the story of a girl from another time and in particular, of a different culture has its risks for a white-skinned, Celtic-descendant Australian. But I am a sensitive writer. And a lover of history. My next blog post will be on taking this precarious risk – and also about the history of the Romanichal (the British gypsies), and particularly their history in Australia.