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09Feb

Ireland in South Africa

First appeared
Monday, 31 January 2011


Riverdance, that quintessentially Irish phenomenon, is onstage in South Africa for the first time. Sure, we’ve had plenty of Irish dancing over the years – multiple visits from spin-off shows like Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance and David King’s Spirit of the Dance – but Riverdance is the original and is still held to be the more ‘authentic’ production.

What started off as an interval piece at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994 (held in Dublin that year) rapidly grew into a full-length music and dancing extravaganza: an exhibition of traditional Irish dancing such as had never been seen before, and which became the Emerald Isle’s major cultural export of the 1990s. In Riverdance the improbable foot and leg movements of the distinctive Irish dancing style, multiplied by twenty dancers and performed perfectly synchronised, are accompanied by Bill Whelan’s composition – tunes that are both joyous and full of pathos, by turns invigorating and haunting.

As the show evolved, it began to incorporate other dance forms that complement (and perhaps even influence) the ‘modern’ Irish style, notably jazzy American tap and sultry Spanish flamenco. Indeed, while the first half of Riverdance celebrates the “primitive and powerful world” of ancestral Ireland, the second act hinges around the notion of diaspora. As the programme notes explain: “War, famine and slavery shattered the ancient bonds between people and place. Forced dislocations marked and altered our histories ... we learned to guard what we valued, to accommodate ourselves to others. Cast out and momentarily orphaned, we learned to belong to the world.” 

Millions of Irish left their homeland out of hunger (the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century was the most famous but certainly not the only period in which food shortages caused great suffering) or out of a desire for political and economic freedom (Ireland gained, lost and regained independence from Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, after being an occupied territory for about 700 years). 

South Africa may not have drawn as many Irish as America or Australia, but it was the destination chosen by thousands of immigrants in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. They came to mine gold, to farm, to trade; and, in their search for a new home, they spread far and wide across the country. There are two South African towns called Belfast – in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces – and numerous other places bear evidence of Irish influence. Cradock in the Eastern Cape? It was named after John Cradock, an Anglophile Irishman who was once governor of the Cape colony. Upington in the Northern Cape? See Thomas Upington, former attorney-general.

One of the most famous South Africans of Irish heritage (both his parents were Irish expatriates) was Percy Fitzpatrick, author of Jock of the Bushveld. But, while Fitzpatrick was an advocate of British intervention and expansion, most Irish sympathies lay with those who – like themselves – were victims of British oppression. At the end of the nineteenth century, that list included the Boers of the then-Transvaal; even James Joyce, in his mock-epic novel Ulysses, took up the cause of the ‘Boer War’ as a war of independence. The Irish fought on both sides of the conflict, as volunteers with the Boer guerillas and as conscripts in the British army.

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Given all these connections between Ireland and South Africa, it’s hardly surprising that when one Edward Strangman bought a tract of fertile soil near Somerset West in 1868, he named it after the country of his birth: Erin Vale, or “Irish Valley”. Little is known about the owners in subsequent decades – although there are a few stories in circulation about a redoubtable pair of sisters who ran the farm in proto-feminist fashion a few generations after Mr Strangman. 

What can be more readily verified is the history of the surrounding farmland, which was part of the 30 000-hectare Vergelegen estate founded by conman, autocrat and horticulturist extraordinaire Willem Adriaan van der Stel. It was sub-divided in the 1700s after Van der Stel was sent back to the Netherlands for extortion and mistreatment of his fellow Dutch farmers – thus it was that, along with Vergelegen, Lourensford and Morgenster were turned into wine farms. Today they remain major attractions on the Helderberg wine route, offering tastings (not only of wine but also of olives and chocolate) and tours in exquisite settings: Cape Dutch architecture, perfectly manicured grounds and terraced vineyards all around. 

Erinvale, however, did not end up as a winery. David Gant of Lourensford saw its potential as a residential golf estate and commissioned Gary Player to design the course layout. Erinvale presents a challenging 18 holes: long and flat on the front nine, undulating on the back nine, with some remarkable vistas across the Hottentots Holland mountains and even (on the more elevated holes) over False Bay in the distance. Certainly, the views offer some comfort to those golfers – such as the author of this article – who frequently find themselves in the rough, the sand or the water ... And the golfers, in turn, offer some entertainment for occupants of the houses looking onto the fairways.

In 1995, Peter Baragwanath opened the Erinvale Estate Hotel and Spa, a complex of buildings developed around the original three hundred year old manor house of the farm; where once there were stables and barns, there are now elegantly furnished thatched rooms. Then, in 1999, Erinvale returned to Irish hands when County Kerry-born tycoon Xavier McAuliffe purchased the hotel. It was acquired by the Louis Group in 2007, but a few Irish touches remain: Skelligs Pub and the Shannon room, for instance, hark back to the days of Mr Strangman. 

Erinvale is thus able to offer the highly appealing his-and-hers (or his-and-his, or hers-and-hers) combination of a top quality golf course and decadent spa treatments, along with good food and wine, in a spectacular setting. It’s all a far cry from the deprivation that forced so many people to leave Ireland over the centuries – but that change in fortune can be attributed, you might say, to the luck of the Irish.

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