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Finding Ireland On The Banks Of The Waikato



16328.jpgWaikato Museum's Crystal Ardern traces the movements of a well-travelled wicker basket from the 19th century

Alice Fulton was 18 years old when she said goodbye to family and friends, boarded a ship, and set sail for a new land and a new life. It was 1858, and millions were streaming away from Ireland with hopes of a brighter future.

Indeed, in the 70 years after 1850, Ireland's population halved due to the extraordinary levels of immigration to England, Scotland, the US and Australasia. Alice was in the minority and set sail for New Zealand, the most expensive to reach and a journey of 120 days. She settled in Oamaru.

A small wicker sewing basket which once belonged to Alice now sits in the collection of the Waikato Museum. She brought it with her from Ireland on her long voyage, and her family notes she used it right up until the day she died, in 1914. The teal satin inlay of the basket shows signs of age, but it was obviously cared for by its owner. Immigrants couldn't bring much with them, so no doubt the basket was a prized possession of Alice. It was donated to the Museum in 1971 by her granddaughter, Mrs H W Machon.

Of course, the Irish have a long history in Hamilton. The first European woman to set foot in Hamilton was Theresa Vowless, who historian HCM Norris described as a "vivacious Irish girl". Fifty per cent of the advance company of the 4th Waikato Militia which stepped ashore the banks of the Waikato River on August 24, 1864, were Irishmen. These men clustered together and provided the foundations of what was to become "Irishtown" in Hamilton East, a unique multigenerational enclave. Settlers began arriving and strengthened this cultural base, and soon Hamilton East was full of Roaches and Ryans, Kellys and Murphys. Even generations on, people who were a part of the old Irishtown have memories of girls in green sashes and chasing the greasy pig on St Paddy's day.

It seems fitting then that with our city's long affiliation with the Irish, Alice's prized sewing basket would be in the collection of the Waikato Museum. It provides a tangible link with a heritage and history so many in Hamilton have an affinity with.

  • Crystal Ardern is the museum's concept leader, social history
  • Those interested in joining the Waikato Irish club can contact Val Wood, phone 856 3273
  • Shamrocks and Leprechauns plays on Community Radio, AM1206 from 4pm, Saturdays