Brunswick Heads slipped by, the memories of years of camping by the river following behind in our exhaust fumes. No time to stop today – not even for a quick detour to check out the graceful old pub and shaky footbridge to the ocean. Byron flicked by and then a quick pit-stop to pick up a family of pies from the Bangalow Bakery.
Here the place names began to sing their melodies to me – lyrical voices from my childhood - Bangalow, Mullumbimby, Chincogan, the distant Lismore, Alstonville and Ballina. Unknowingly we’d entered the enclave of the Irish. The place names transposed from a distant Celtic home to the adopted homeland of the poor escaping the potato famine of the 1860s. Here the auburn hair and freckles of my father and his sister made sense. As did the squat form and broad features of his brother. The prominent noses of sister and brother gave away their mongrel heritage – roman noses imported from the northern plains of Italy. Two peasant families thrown together by a common need to escape to a new land of possibilities.
Ten thousand descendants of the 100 or so Italian expeditioners who arrived in the area in 1881 claim this shared story. A disastrous voyage from Europe. A dream sold to desperate and gullible families by a shonky French con man. A wealthy Marquis with no time for ethics.
Though the Italians were here in numbers they spoke no English and lived as an isolated community leaving no place names but a district full of Bazzos, Spinazes and Tomes. Generation by generation, family by family every Italian boy married an Irish girl, and every “colleen” married a descendant of the expedition. The result is a district full of Paddy Spinazes and Stephano Kilcoynes until, after one hundred years, the blending is complete.
The only permanent reminder is the New Italy Museum – a broken down collection of memorabilia and stories struggling to survive beside the Pacific Highway on land as poor as that from which the migrants of Veneto and Connaught had fled.