Mining a lode of cultural pride
ROSEBERY, Tasmania — Tough times are often the catalyst for cultural expression. SARAH MAGUIRE reports on the "tough-as-steel" West Coast miners — and their artistic side.
"We are the women and children,
Of the men that mined for gold,
Heavy are we with sorrow,
Heavy as heart can hold,
Galled are we with injustice,
Sick to the soul of loss,
Husbands and sons and brothers
Slain for the yellow dross!
Writing early this century, working-class poet Marie Pitt railed at the appalling hardships suffered by Tasmanian miners and their families. Pitt wrote The Keening after the Golden Gate Mine at Mathinna refused to pay compensation to her husband, a man in his 30s who contracted a lung disease from working in the mine.
The poem was the inspiration for a period drama, written and performed by West Coast residents before a crowd squeezed into a back room at Rosebery's Bottom Pub.
The play was part of the third annual Rosebery Miners, Axemen, Bush and Blarney Festival, held from February 26 to March 1. Also titled The Keening, the play is about the uprising of turn-of-the-century miners against their hellish working conditions. They are galvanised to form a union and strike by the angry women grieving the loss of yet another of their men in an underground accident.
In the sweaty atmosphere of the Bottom Pub there was an irony that was not lost on the actors, nor the audience. At the turn of another century, with the depressed mining industry haemorrhaging jobs and unions apparently powerless, working conditions are going downhill again with enormous social costs.
Sydney poet Colleen Burke — Marie Pitt's biographer, the author of seven published volumes of poetry and a special guest at the festival — says history has come full circle. "Mining conditions certainly are going backwards, everything's being eroded but still the people here have such a spirit", she said. "Everyone is very proud. Mining has enforced that sense of community."
But that sense of community is getting harder to maintain with the new roster systems in the West Coast mines, says festival organiser Ian Jamieson. Jamieson, a miner at nearby Renison Bell, says miners are toiling 12 hours a day for seven days straight, in a new seven-days-on, seven-days-off roster. "When you're working 80 hours a week, how can you look after your family and get involved with the community? It takes two or three days just to recover.
"A lot of things are at risk, like sporting clubs and other community institutions. Something's got to crack somewhere. Maybe it'll be the women again, because there's going to be so many social problems. Maybe life will imitate the play."
Julia Perkins — who plays the sister of a dead miner — added that the "social cost to the women is just horrendous ... It's a prime factor in the breakdown of families and support networks. Women are having to bring up kids on their own, and they are being locked into the role of homebody."
Concerns about safety prey on the families left at home, just as they did when Marie lived at Mt Read, which is visible from the pub where her poem became a play.
Perkins says the community is angry at the mining companies, but "there's definitely a feeling that the community will survive in one form or another. The sentiment's there, and there will be a struggle. Whether that will be an industrial dispute, I don't know."
Despite the social pain, there's still a strong vibe in Rosebery of belonging to something special. Musicians from around Tasmania performed at the festival, filling the pubs and streets with sounds from around the world, including South America, Turkey and the Balkans.
Most of all, it was a celebration of Celtic heritage — an Irish all-in music session, born from "a humble hankering for a bit of craic [fun]", said Jamieson.
Heard in a giant jam session were folk songs about hardship and about industries closing down in other places and times.
The undisputed pride of the weekend was The Keening. If tough times are a catalyst for cultural expression, there's sure to be more where that came from. "Part of the community surviving is celebrating its history and reclaiming it", Perkins said.
Jamieson and Perkins believe the play will lead to a revival of community theatre on the West Coast, coinciding with the restoration of the historic Gaiety Theatre in Zeehan — one of the oldest theatres in Australia. The West Coast Heritage Board has asked all those involved to perform The Keening at the official opening of the Gaiety Theatre on March 27.