Paradise lost & found It has played host to Irish immigrants, whalers, astronomers — and its very own cave full of gold! Shirley Way steps back in time to discover the magic of Lord Howe Island for a very special event.
estled in the Tasman Sea off Australia’s east coast, an island dominated by twin volcanic peaks and fringed by coral reefs was a home in paradise to Margaret Curry and Thomas Andrews. The Irish couple met on the voyage to Australia in 1832 and married in Sydney. In 1842 they settled on Lord Howe Island, first working as servants, then farmers. Descendant Dani Rourke says: “Eventually they acquired land around [an area called] Pinetrees — they bought it for 2 tonnes of potatoes.” Dani is a sixth-generation Lord Howe islander and an owner of Pinetrees Lodge, one of the oldest family-run businesses in Australia. “There are a few older than we are, but not that many.” In her role as Lord Howe Island Tourism Association chair, Dani’s mother actively promoted Lord Howe Island as a tourist destination. QantasLink named a Dash-8 aircraft Pixie Rourke in her honour for services to tourism. Dani shares her mother’s passion for her island ancestry. The Andrews’ only daughter, Mary, married a whaling captain named Nichols and had 10 children. “She was a tough old lady: she ran the farm; she built the house. She eventually started taking in visitors and established the guesthouse.” And Mary was known to shoot a shotgun over the heads of her farm workers if they slacked off. “So I’m not quite sure what sort of hospitality she provided,” Dani laughed. In addition, she became involved in the export of kentia palms, the island’s fledgling industry, to Europe.
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Mary gave her children land as they married and left home, but Edith, her favourite daughter, received Pinetrees which she continued to run as a guesthouse. Gerald Kirby, Edith’s son and Dani’s grandfather, lost his mainland job during the Depression of the 1930s and returned to the island. In an odd twist of fate, Lord Howe Islanders were considered squatters until the Lord Howe Island Act 1953 granted residents special or perpetual leases, but not freehold title. At the time, a constitutional lawyer advised Gerald and fellow islanders that under English common law “any person who resides on a piece of land for 60 years or longer automatically becomes its owner, entitled to freehold title or its equivalent.” But the islanders lacked the funds to challenge the NSW government in the High Court. “Gerald died reasonably young, leaving my grandmother four children to raise and a guesthouse to run,” Dani said. One family heirloom is Gerald Kirby’s nine-metre boat, Albatross, built on the island in 1936. A photo of his wife, Beth, swinging a bottle of champagne across the bows at launch is full of fun and vitality. The Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) lists the Albatross on its Australian Register of Historic Vessels. Wrecks and replicas cannot be added to the Register. A fact worth noting, as I’d come to Lord Howe Island in company with ANMM staff on a special mission: to witness the transit of Venus.