The Isa

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.

We still have the old “American Pie” album we played so often

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.

“Boydies” Image Tourism Queensland

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. Shameful times.

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?”

Boyd’s was just one of many pubs in Queensland with racist rules like that, even after they were made illegal.

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 Irish Image North West Star

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.

Inside the Melbourne tram at the Irish. Image from that classic website,

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.

Kalgoorlie’s Exchange Hotel – one of many spectacular pubs in town Image

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.

Mine workers coming off shift, Mount Isa Image

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.

Carpentaria Buffalo Club Image

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 in recent years, we were shocked to find it would no longer sell anyone 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.

Redearth Boutique Hotel – once Boyd’s Hotel Image

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.

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.

Chimney stacks, Mount Isa Mines Image

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.

“Mount Isa Jobs and Vacancies”, Facebook page, February 2022
Workers needed now at The Irish Club, Mount Isa Image Facebook

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.


Mount Isa never sleeps Image

Great Northern


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Great Northern Hotel, Townsville

The Great Northern Hotel, Townsville, is a fine old corner building with iron lace on its verandahs.

Northern is a good name for a North Queensland pub, but there’s also a Great Northern Hotel in Newcastle, New South Wales, and another in Byron Bay. For a Sydneysider, Newcastle is north, and Byron Bay is a long way north.

It’s all about where you’re standing.

The Great Northern Hotel, Byron Bay, NSW, Australia
Great Northern Hotel, Byron Bay

There is also a Great Northern Hotel in Cairns, but to a patron of the Great Northern Hotel in north London, or the Best Northern in Ontario, Canada, the thought of anything in Australia being named “northern” would be absurd.

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Great Northern Hotel, London

Staying in New Zealand a few years ago, at Invercargill, as far south as I’m ever likely to go, I was startled to find there, on the northern side of the railway line, the Northern Hotel. It makes sense to the locals.

Compass point names pop up everywhere, and they sometimes require a bit of re-orientation for a visitor. As a Queenslander living in Kalgoorlie for several months, I found it difficult to adjust to the idea of going east to the desert and west to the ocean.

When Con and I drive south, over the border to Murwillumbah or Lismore, we’re driving to the Northern Rivers. That name feels right to a Sydneysider, but not to a Queenslander. Our northern rivers are the Mitchell, Herbert and Burdekin, not the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence.

Australia’s interstate clichés involve the compass points, too.

Queenslanders talk about “southerners” with a hint of scorn. Detached from such manly and heroic matters as crocodiles and floods, there are too many of them scuttling about in Sydney and Melbourne, boasting of their Harbour Bridge and their coffee culture. We call them Cockroaches, especially at Rugby League State of Origin, when it’s all about the Queensland Maroons versus the New South Wales Blues.

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State of Origin time

In Sydney and Melbourne, people think of Queensland as the Deep North, a backward place of no account, of cane toads, cyclones and annoying politicians: Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer.

In Tasmania the locals speak about the rest of Australia as “mainlanders”, pretentious sneerers who make cliched jokes about Tasmanians and sometimes leave them off the map entirely, then flock down in the summer to enjoy the state’s arts, history and food.

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“Greetings from Tasmania” post card Image: My Word, Hobart.

Adelaide people enjoy a slight snootiness that goes back to their roots as a settlement of the free and well-heeled, not convicts. South Australia is the state of Don Dunstan, festivals, and wine. Lined up to collect his winnings at the Hawker races in South Australia, Con struck up a conversation with a woman from Adelaide. They started to talk about wine.

“We produce wine in Queensland,” Con said.

“No you don’t,” she said.

To Western Australia, the rest of the country is “over east”, a place that is both far away and unaware that its prosperity rides on W.A.’s mineral wealth and hard work.

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W.A. wealth – iron ore train in the Pilbara

Perth is the most isolated capital city in the world. Migrants from Europe reach Perth and decide to stay there, as if to say, “We’ve been travelling so long we can’t stand the thought of going any further.” Perth has a more British feel than the east coast cities, and more English accents in its streets. There are also more South Africans in Perth, just as there are more New Zealanders in the eastern states.

From Perth, a week in Bali costs less than a week on the Gold Coast, and it’s a shorter flight. Even by air, crossing the country is a major undertaking. It’s no wonder the compass points are so important in our interstate thinking.

Once we flew east from Perth to Brisbane via Melbourne, on the “red eye” which departed at midnight, W.A. time. At half past five in the morning, during the brief stopover at Tullamarine, exhausted and dreading another two hours in the air, I tried to buy a newspaper to fill the time to Brisbane.

The airport shops were shut, but nearby in the queue for a Sydney flight there was a dignified, suited gentleman reading The Age. I walked across, told him my problem, and asked him if he needed the puzzles page. He graciously pulled his paper apart and gave it to me. I thanked him and went back to my boarding gate.

A few minutes later he appeared next to me in the Brisbane queue, and handed me the puzzles page from The Australian as well.

I was grateful. Those puzzles got me all the way north to Brisbane. Southerners can be nice, even to us Queensland Cane Toads.

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