In the Boyd’s Hotel, Mount Isa, Con sang the whole of “American Pie” from beginning to end. All eight minutes of it. People cheered.
It was 1974, and Don McLean’s famous folk rock song, brought out in 1971, was already a classic.
Con remembers the occasion well.
“When I’d finished, the publican offered me a regular gig – $300 a week plus keep!”
Con was principal of Burketown school at the time, and we’d made the long drive down for a Teachers’ Union conference. The evening get-together was held at this popular pub, known locally as Boydies.
Boyd’s Hotel was typical of Mount Isa hotels back then: a rough and tumble place. There was a notorious lounge bar out the back, known locally as the Snakepit.
In those days, as in so many places, Aboriginal patrons were not allowed in the front bar of Boyd’s. They had to go to the Snakepit.
A North West Star history column relates what happened when, in 1977, Senator Neville Bonner went to the Boyd for a beer.
…when Queensland Senator Neville Bonner popped into the pub for a quiet one in December, 1977, he was told by a barmaid, “We don’t serve darkies here.”
“I walked down the street from my motel, picked up a paper and dropped into the hotel for a cold beer”, he said.
“I sat at the bar reading and it was a few minutes before a barmaid came over to me and said, I’m sorry, I can’t serve you.”
He told her he was an Australian citizen and that she must be joking.
Senator Bonner was Aboriginal and, the unwritten rule at Boydies was, Aboriginals were expected to drink in the Snake Pit, not the public bar, let alone the private bar where he was sitting.
Finally sense prevailed and Senator Bonner was given a cold, froth topped pulled beer but not before he asked the manager, “Are you aware you’re liable to a penalty of $5,000 under the Race Discrimination Act for refusing to serve a person because of their colour or nationality?”
Twenty-five years later, when we next visited Mount Isa, the city’s hospitality scene had changed. Instead of a hotel, we went to the Irish Club for dinner.
The Mount Isa Irish Club, known to everyone simply as The Irish, was astonishing to us; and in a tough mining city with a famously high beer consumption, in a harsh desert climate, with many hard workers a long way from home, it’s flourishing.
From outside, the Irish Club looks like an enormous shed, but inside there is a whole, air-conditioned world: multiple bars and eating places, a nightclub and piano bar, bingo hall and a coffee shop in a restored Melbourne tram.
There’s a Dublin street with street lamps and a traditional Irish pub. There’s a collection of Waterford crystal, and any amount of Irish decor. The sports bar has a huge screen and many smaller screens, as well as half a dozen billiard tables, and there are currently 157 poker machines to choose from. Over the top? A little. But the Isa is that kind of place.
Twenty years ago we spent a couple of months in Kalgoorlie, that other famous mining town; and its fine old hotels were just as spectacular, and just as busy.
The Irish also offers a range of accommodation, catering for everyone from business travellers to sporting and tour groups and backpackers; a gym, and an enormous bottle shop.
Being a city of shift workers, Mount Isa never sleeps. The Irish is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, just like those grand hotels in Kalgoorlie.
If The Irish isn’t to your taste, you can go to its main rival – The Buffs. The Carpentaria Buffalo Club was founded by the Royal Antideluvian Order of Buffalos Lodge, and it is almost as huge as the Irish. Con and I went there too. In the name of research.
Old-style hotels linger on in Queensland country towns, and it’s those pubs that I enjoy, rather than the bright lights and glitter of the clubs; but many have had to reinvent themselves to stay viable. When we went to revisit Boydies, we got a shock to find it would no longer sell us a beer. It no longer exists, although the original building still stands on the corner of West Street and Rodeo Drive. Redearth Boutique Hotel has taken it over, and it is a very different establishment, providing the amenities that modern corporate travellers expect in accommodation.
Next door to the Redearth, and joined to it, is what was once the Mount Isa Hotel, now the Isa Hotel, focussing on eating, drinking and entertainment.
To celebrate Mount Isa’s coming centenary, ABC North West Queensland recently posted an interesting video on Facebook, filmed during the 1970s, around the time we were there. It brought back memories, and says a lot about the atmosphere of the place. I doubt if things have changed much, even today. https://www.facebook.com/ABCNorthWestQLD/videos/344122070925685
Normally, when we lived at Burketown, we drove to the Isa, and catching a glimpse of the tall, red and white striped Mount Isa mine chimney stack, after a long, dusty trip, was as exciting as it would have been to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Mount Isa meant fresh milk, electricity, comfort, air conditioning, shopping and streetlights.
Now, the Isa has an even taller chimney stack and a much larger population.
Like most of western Queensland in the last couple of years, Mount Isa is currently chronically short of workers, across all fields, from mining to the hospitality industry. A Facebook page, Mount Isa Jobs and Vacancies, shows how widespread the need.
I wonder if they need a singer at the Irish. Someone who knows every verse of “American Pie”. We could live in the backpackers’ accommodation, and I could work behind the bar.
Sounds like fun.