A history of Ireland in 100 objects
William Smith O'Brien Gold Cup, 1854
This spectacular 125-ounce 22-carat gold cup is perhaps the first really eloquent object of the Irish diaspora. It was made by an Irish-born goldsmith, William Hackett, and presented to an Irish nationalist hero, William Smith O’Brien. But Hackett made it in Melbourne, Australia, from nuggets donated by Irish miners who had joined the great rush to the gold fields.
It brings together the two sides of Irish emigration: political deportation in the case of O’Brien, who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land in July 1849, having been found guilty of high treason; and the ordinary economic migration of those who sought opportunity beyond post-Famine Ireland.
Gold was discovered in Australia in 1851, and more than 100,000 Irish immigrants made their way to Australasia over the next decade. By 1861 16 per cent of the population of eastern Australia was Irish. As was the case elsewhere, the immigrants had mixed fortunes. In the countryside, some Irish settlers became highly successful farmers, but sympathy for the bush-ranging gang led by Ned Kelly epitomised continuing resentment of the power of large, mostly British, landholders. In Melbourne, Irish-born lawyers, doctors and other professionals, mostly graduates of Trinity College Dublin, gained positions of status and privilege, while many unskilled Irish migrants struggled to gain a secure foothold.
The Irish emigre community as a whole, though, was enthused by O’Brien’s release from Van Diemen’s Land in 1854. John O’Shanassy from Co Tipperary (later to become Sir John and premier of Victoria) organised ceremonies to welcome him and two other prisoners to Melbourne. At a large public banquet, O’Brien was presented with an illuminated address and a sheet showing the design of the gold cup that was intended to be created in his honour.
Subsequently, Irish diggers in the gold field of Ballarat presented O’Brien with a gold nugget and later collected the gold with which to make Hackett’s design a reality. The cup was made and sent on to O’Brien when he returned to Ireland.
Patriotic fervour and resentment of English power were obvious motives for this generosity. But there was also a broader desire for the comfort of a connection with home. In the year after the cup was made, one gold digger, Michael Normile from Co Clare, wrote in response to a letter from his father at home: “I received your welcome letter . . . which gave me and my sister an ocean of consolation”.
In the permanence and solidity of solid gold there was a similar consolation, a reassurance that they, too, were a part of the Irish story.
The iconography of the cup, though, suggests the way that mass emigration was already complicating that story. The top has Hibernia carrying a cap of liberty and crowning O’Brien with a laurel wreath.
But the bottom of the main cup is decorated with two interesting kinds of symbols. There are images of ancient gold torcs, lunulae and brooches – along with the now standard Irish imagery of shamrocks and wolfhounds – showing how notions of antiquity were becoming important to Irish identity. But on the sides, in wild incongruity, are a kangaroo and an emu.
Already there is the sense of an Irishness that looks back to a distant time, even while it has to acknowledge its present situation in an even more distant place.
Thanks to Michael Kenny
Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie