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On the trail of Garrett Cotter

Canberra author Richard Begbie. Photo: Karleen MinneyCOTTER: A Novel. By Richard Begbie. Longhand Press. 365pp. $28.00

When Garrett Cotter was born in 1802 in County Cork, Ireland, the only settled part of the Australian continent was the small town huddled around Sydney Cove. This illiterate ploughman was transported to Australia in 1822. When he died in 1886 the Commonwealth of Australia was only 15 years away and eventually a National Capital would grow up near where he had lived, with a river named after him.

I asked my grandchildren what the word “Cotter” meant to them. They mentioned camping, and a picnic spot and bushwalking. This is the story of the man who gave his name to that river and the great dam that now controls it.

Years ago author and local farmer Richard Begbie was inspired to research the life of Garrett Cotter. He recorded the known facts in an article which appeared in the Canberra Times (October 12, 2013) Cotter was typical of the Irish peasant farmers of the 19 th century, oppressed by English penal laws, and consigned to poverty. In desperation such men turned to rebel gangs known as “Whiteboys”. The dramatic story of Cotter and two mates who tried to force the issue by confronting their oppressor, is vividly told in the first chapters. They were arrested and condemned under the blanket charge of “whiteboyism”, part of a group of men sentenced to the gallows.

The Irish newspapers record a full and dramatic account of the court case. But the sentence for Cotter and others was commutated to transportation for life to NSW.

The author has followed the trail of Garrett Cotter from Ireland to the Monaro but has to resort to a fictional approach when factual details have faded out. I found his imagined description of what the convict experience was like to be very convincing. Cotter was a hard worker and was given an excellent reference for his work with John Warby at Campbelltown and then Francis Kenny who settled on the shore of Lake George.

The other remarkable aspect of Cotter’s life was his friendship with an aboriginal leader named Onyong, spelt in various ways. This is an absorbing tale of mateship and mutual respect across the racial barrier. In a prolonged drought Onyong led Cotter to fresh pasture across the Murrumbidgee. Later, after an altercation with one Donald McKay, Cotter was banished “beyond the limits of location” for 4 years. But, as sometimes happened in the stories of the convicts, what seemed like a drastic punishment turned out to be a new opportunity. His later years were spent at Michelago where he lived with his wife and children. He died in 1886.

The author has painstakingly pieced together a factual outline of the events of Cotter’s life and then has woven an intriguing story around that outline. It has all the informality of a campfire yarn, written by someone who knows the “Cotter country” well. As I read the story I reflected that when Cotter died the absorbing details of his life died with him. There was no Oral History unit then but this fine novel helps us to relive a priceless part of our heritage.

Today Cotter’s name on the map and his one known photograph, together with the metal breastplate given to Onyong, (spelt Hong Gong), are evocative survivals of a story which also lives on in the memories of their families. At the book launch of Cotter at the National Library descendants of both Garrett Cotter and Onyong were present, so that the acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land was no mere formality.

Robert Willson is a Canberra reviewer.

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