‘Dear son, it may be that never will we meet on earth but I hope we will meet in heaven above the starry frame’ wrote Joseph Irwin, an Irish farmer from County Tyrone to his son, William Irwin aged only 18 years who had embarked on a journey that took him halfway round the globe landing him in Sydney in 1850. 

William had been absent from his native Ireland for four years when his father wrote these poignant words. After the discovery of gold in 1851 William left his occupation as schoolteacher in Sydney and came to Ballarat. He did well, even sending a couple of nuggets home to Ireland. His father wrote back. ‘Dear son the two little pieces of gold came safe and at the opening of the letter one of them dropped to the ground and when the letter was read two pieces was read out of the letter the floor was rough and the search was made and found the other piece.’ William and his brother Robert Irwin were two of eight children, five of whom emigrated either to America or Australia. The two brothers came to Ballarat, William in the early 1850s, and Robert in 1857. 

The discovery of gold had transformed the newly formed township. William saw opportunities and he and Henry Abbot established an eating-house by December 1853. William’s father Joseph Irwin wrote about his concern with the venture. William at the age of 23 then built the Star Hotel in Main Road, between Eureka and Esmond (now York) Streets in conjunction with William McRae and Eva. The Star was described as a ‘better hotel’ and was well known for its ‘opulence and service’. The Ballarat Reform League committee met at The Star and after Eureka one of the injured insurgents, Captain Henry Ross, was taken there and died. Ballarat historian William Withers wrote that ‘Before [Eureka] Stockade time, Mr Irwin was in the Star Hotel. It was one of the favourite rendezvous of the leading moral force fold … and some of the other “lick in the lug” also used to mix there with the moral force people’. 

William McCrae and William Irwin have been described as ‘democratic capitalists’ and certainly they led extremely exciting and economically rewarding lives. The Star Hotel was burnt down in 1861. William then purchased land near the railway station in 1862 and built another hotel. Like the Star it was a depot for Cobb and Co but it attracted commercial travellers and families because of its proximity to the railway. When the railway was extended, Irwin’s Hotel was moved adjacent to the Sovereign Hotel and the two were combined. The new and expanded ‘Provincial Hotel’ was opened on 28 December 1872.

William was active in mining ventures floating many companies. He also opened up fruit and book stalls on many railway stations, and refreshment rooms on railway stations in Williamstown, Ararat, Ballarat and Hamilton. He was a member of the Old Colonists Club, a leading member of the Licensed Victuallers Association, and active in many civic ventures. His outstanding personal qualities, his generosity and intelligence and ‘thoughtful and kind’ disposition were emphasised in his obituary. He died in January 1893 aged 62 years but his legacy and vision live on.

A series of letters from Ireland to William Irwin spanning some forty years – from 1852 to 1892 – has survived. The letters contain the very human story of the Irish Australian emigration experience. Writer Helen Townsend, a descendant of William, researched this complex facet of Irish Australian history, writing a graphic account of the times and life of Irwin. ‘It was sad and extraordinary’ says Sophie, Helen’s daughter, who helped with the radio production, ‘because this was happening all over Ireland, a sense of loss, of dislocation. Being an immigrant country we tend to see the successes and benefits. This is a reminder of the other side of the emigration story’. The program was aired on ABC National Radio’s Hindsight program on Sunday March 6 at 2pm and repeated Thursday March 10 at 1pm.

William Irwin