A Long Way from Tipperary
The author, a retired 70-year-old, starts a quest for the story of his great-grandparents on the Birdsville Track by talking to his great-grandfather who has been dead for 107 years. It is the best season for 50 years. They rejoice in it as the great-grandfather describes his drovers grazing the channel country as they walked cattle for months to the railhead at Marree for shipment to Adelaide. They talk of sheep and cattle runs the great-grandfather had. The great-grandfather talks of his privileged childhood in Ireland, insurrection and the potato famine before he leaves with his brothers for Australia.
Mungerannie, August 2011 – I sat in my car parked on gravelly clay outside the hotel opposite the fuel pumps talking to my great-grandfather. Mungerannie was on the Birdsville track between Marree in South Australia and Birdsville in Queensland. The place was a waterhole on an abandoned desert stock route where cattle walked from Queensland cattle runs for months to the railhead at Marree for rail transport to Adelaide. Only tourists, geologists and stock transporters use it now. The pub was a commercial gamble and my great-grandfather, who had been dead for 107 years, said it was when he was alive too. He told me about Mungerannie:
‘We walked the stock route to the railhead at Marree for several drives of cattle we sold in Adelaide. The South Australian government sank a bore here, if I remember correctly in about 1900, but there was a well here long before that, with a hotel of sorts and our drovers used to water our cattle here on the way down from Queensland.’
Pam rapped on the window. She was smiling at me tentatively – middle-aged – she had the friendly and tolerant look of someone who was used to motorists chatting to a windscreen.
‘Are you okay? Can I help you?’
I started, blushed, got out of the car, looked at her with a silly grin, looked at the ground and muttered.
‘Sorry. I was sort of talking to myself. Yes. I hope you can help me.’
I asked her humbly for a room, a meal, and said, almost casually, ‘I have a small hole in my fuel tank and I wondered if anyone here could help me fix it.’
‘Well there’s no problem with the room or the meal, Phil’s out the back, if you can wait five minutes, I’ll get him to have a look at the problem, he’s pretty handy.’
Great-grandfather Nicholas Sadleir remained silent. I imagined him smiling. His awkward 70 year old great-grandson, daydreaming and ill-prepared, had been rushing about and getting into trouble in Ireland, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria and now in South Australia. He spoke in a familiar way to unreliable people of uncertain political stances and he seemed to believe what they told him – Australians, it seemed, had become more ill-mannered and independently spirited. The questions about Sadleirs in Ireland and Australia made Nicholas Sadleir reflect on his life and times – his 15 children and the fortunes he had and lost, but it was strange to be talking to a great-grandson who was older in years, had lived in the luxury of the 20th and 21st century (he even had a motor car with a telephone and interrupted conversations by taking calls on it and used it to photograph a couple of dingos on the track) and asked so many questions about Ireland and Australia in the 19th century. The great-grandson spent extravagantly.
He posed questions about blackfellows, money, marriage, crime, affection, friendships, politics, nobility and class, law keeping and religion in Australia and Ireland. His journey down the Birdsville track served no purpose. The track was for drovers with cattle, or mailmen, not for lone motorists. What was the point? He, Nicholas, had never travelled south of Boulia on it. There was a family to care for, stock to buy and sell and stations to manage.
Nicholas Sadleir wasn’t there. Neither were his siblings who came to Australia: Richard, a Melbourne surgeon, Marshal, a Mansfield lawyer, famous John, the policeman who supervised Ned Kelly’s capture at the siege of Glenrowan, nor Nicholas’ twin, Helena, who vanished. I’d imagined them from stories about them and the history of the times they lived in. I thought they were noblemen. History, photographs and imagination drove me. He and his brothers and sister had been real. I wanted him real again but there was nothing spiritual about it. He simply made a good travelling companion. With 15 children, he had to have been a reasonable parent. That made him a useful great-grandfather and storyteller. We were on our way south from cattle stations he had in Queensland. The country was looking wonderful. It had had good rains for two years. Before we got to Mungerannie we’d got to know each other better. Nicholas knew I was his daughter, Georgina’s, grandson. I’d told him that when I’d started the conversations we had on the way to Queensland but we were awkward with the way we talked. He called me Robbie at first to not confuse me with his son Robert and I called him Great- Grandfather.
‘Robbie, it seems we are getting to know each other. Great-grandfather seems too formal, and, in the scheme of things, you are my senior. I died when I was 68 and you are 70. You address me as an old man and I address you as a child. What do you your friends call you? ‘
‘Because I had red hair.’
‘Had? Are you grey now? I went grey in my forties, but I had a redheaded daughter.’
‘No. It’s still red.’
‘Why aren’t you called Blue. I had several redheaded coves we called Blue on Albemarle. We had a Menindee Blue, a Booligal Blue and a Victoria Lake Blue. They were reliable coves although one was a bit quick-tempered and spent a lot of time in the Wilcannia lock-up after a spree whenever he went to town.’
‘When I went to boarding school there was already a Blue there before me so they called me Red, Great-Grandfather.’
‘Well I shall call you Blue henceforth, but please desist from calling me Great-Grandfather. Call me Nicholas.’
“No. If you choose to call me Blue, you will be Holas.”
“Holas! I’ve never been called that.”
“And I’ve never been called Blue.”
‘A hard bargain Blue.’
‘Yes but Holas isn’t a bad name. It’s dramatic with its oratorical beginning, dignified and soft-sounding and it gets rid of Nic – the devil in you – if there is any. I believe you were something of a church administrator in Tasmania. To support that, Holas sounds holy. And it’s ideal for somebody who’s dead because there isn’t a living soul I know who answers to that name – so nobody will get mixed up and answer for you when I’m talking to you.’
‘You’re planning a long conversation, Blue?’
‘I reckon you may have a hell of a story, Holas.’
‘What do you want to know Blue?’
‘Everything. But to begin, how did you learn enough to manage one of the biggest sheep stations in Australia less than 10 years after your arrival from Ireland as a raw teenager?’
‘It means someone between 13 and 19, Holas. It’s the TEEN in the word that helps to classify them – someone moving to adulthood from childhood. Did you not call them that? ’
‘Well what did you call them, your children, when they were at that stage?’
‘Youth! Blue. We called them Youth. We spoke the Queen’s English. ’
‘Yes well I suppose you did at home Holas. But what about in the goldfields or the stock camps?’
‘Yes well – perhaps that was another matter – but no one ever called anyone a TEENAGER’.
‘Well what did you call yourself when you arrived in the colony? Surely you didn’t call yourself a youth, Holas. Did you call yourself a young gentleman?’
‘You’re bloody joking.’
‘Usually I left out the young.
‘Did you call yourself that all your life?’
‘It became a slightly more awkward to use it by the time of the federation of the colonies. People wanted to seem slightly more equal, and we didn’t normally use it in conversation – it came up mainly in correspondence or newspaper reports. I was often called Nicholas Sadleir, Gentleman. Other people used it. One didn’t usually denote oneself a gentleman even if one was.’
‘Nowadays being a gentleman can literally mean keeping one’s unwelcome hands off females – or, with more refinement, good manners, opening doors, making people feel less shy in new circumstances, and so on. I think it has changed a bit. In your day Holas, it was a rank, a position even an obligation. It placed you as a wealthy man who did no work?’
‘Yes. You described it correctly, Bluey. Gentlemen worked, but not manually. They directed and planned and invested. They commissioned professionals. They led good order. That sort of thing.’
‘Were you ever called a shearer, Holas?’
‘Because I wasn’t. In its own way it denoted an occupation and standing – just like gentlemen.
‘I was in hospital with a shearer, who was laid up with pleurisy because he had been shearing wet sheep, and he read out a newspaper report saying that two men and a shearer were involved in a serious road accident at a rail crossing. He was furious that the shearer had not been awarded the rank of man by the newspaper’s editor.’
‘Blue, that ranking I can understand.’
We were near Boulia in Queensland going to South Australia when we agreed on our names.
‘Was it as good as this when you were here, Holas?’
‘I can’t see what you can see, Blue.’
‘I’ll describe it. I think this is the best the country has looked for at least 50 years. It’s rolling Mitchell grass plains. The trees are sparse; we’re getting close to the Channel Country. The cattle are sleek, fat and shiny. There is probably enough feed for five times the stock that is here.’
‘But it doesn’t last.’
I knew that. In a year or two, the cattle would be leaner and the ground barer. This plenty wasn’t normal, austerity was. It was why I had come this way. I was unlikely to see seasons like this again.
He expanded. ‘I managed Albemarle on the West Darling in New South Wales from 1862 to 1904, and I’d been in the district for four years before that. We kept good records. In this arid back country there is no such thing as a normal year. We had droughts from 1864 to 66, again in 1868, again in 1877 and then good years before a run of poor seasons from 1882 to 1886. We had a terrible drought in 1889 but the centenary droughts continued for about four years. That finished me. In the early 1860s we had bounteous years and we ran up to 200,000 sheep. Then back to 75,000 in the 1880s. The worst run was from 1898 to my last years. We got down to less than 5,000.
I can’t see this country now, but even if you described it, I can’t compare it with my memory of it. I never took this track south to Bedourie and Birdsville but we certainly knew about this Channel Country. This was the fattening country we could use but not own. It often bloomed after a flood when our country further north was dry so we put stock on the road with drovers. Sometimes we sold them in Adelaide, and occasionally, if we had good rains back at Cloncurry or on the Templeton, we would get word to our drovers to turn our herds around and bring them home. They were often on the road for six months.’
Water from here was on its way to South Australia. When the rivers ran (they were more often dry than wet) they flowed inland to Lake Eyre. But mostly Lake Eyre was barren with a salty crust. The inland rivers didn’t usually get to it – they filled billabongs and lagoons along the way and petered out. Lake Eyre had filled only four times in my lifetime, and it had flooded last year and would get Queensland water from more than 1000 miles away again this year
As we went south the country changed. Tall red sandhills governed the course of the road and the streams and waterholes beside it had pelicans. I wound through, over and beside the sandhills. Most of this country had not flooded and it looked parched. I pictured turbaned Afghans leading groaning camel strings plodding beside sandhills carrying bundled sheets of galvanised iron on either side of their humps for buildings on stations.
‘Did you use camels, Holas?’
‘Oh yes, Blue – for Albemarle and Bingara. There were Afghan families in Broken Hill with camels and they helped us cart wool when the paddle steamers sat in a dry river when we needed to get wool to the Adelaide auctions. The camels carried two bales each (some of the big camels carried four) from Albemarle to Broken Hill and the wool went by train down to Adelaide for sale. And of course we used contractors with camels to take things out from the paddle steamers to parts of the station away from the river. We carted coils of wire out to fencing contractors that way. Some of our back paddocks were more than 50 miles from the river.
Camels carted stores and fencing wire a couple of times from the wharves at Wilcannia to our cattle station Bingara east of here, close to Eulo, near the New South Wales-Queensland border. That was a big trip. Probably more than 300 miles. And remember, most of the goods came from England via Melbourne – by train to Echuca – then on to paddle steamers going down the Murray River to Wentworth and then up the Darling to Wilcannia. Some of those coils of wire might have been travelling for nearly a year!’
More broad, long sandhills, less waterholes as the country became more desert-like as it led to Birdsville. Overall, the country ran flat but sandhills sometimes made it mountainous. There were fewer trees – sparse stunted shrubs instead. I saw no one.
I reached Birdsville in four hours from Bedourie. An aeroplane had landed from Brisbane with the mail and the pilot was having lunch at the pub before he continued his round.
‘It’s a milk-round mate. We service Boulia, Bedourie, Mt Isa, Charleville, Quilpie and Windorah and we connect with Brisbane. It’s a good service. This is a day/night airstrip so we can get in and out reliably.’
Considering the size of the town (about 20 buildings) and the population of the district it supported (probably less than 200) Air Atlanta Icelandic gave luxurious service.
I wondered why an Icelandic airline was flying in outback Queensland and the pilot shrugged. ‘Dunno mate, it probably just made commercial sense at the time. The whole thing is more or less an Australian operation; it just works under the banner of Air Atlanta Icelandic. We run a service to most of inland Queensland, it’s a more or less regular service – a sort of cross between that and a charter flight – if there is a mail run, we have a regular flight but on the others, if there are not enough bookings, we don’t go. Passengers may have to wait a day or so.’
‘Have you anything to say about Birdsville, Holas?’
‘Hardly a fair question, Blue. As you know, I’ve not been here, but in my day fellows called it a wild and dangerous place. There was always a pub for drovers to get into trouble, and there was a police and customs post to maintain some semblance of order. We had to pay duty on goods passing into South Australia, and I can remember one of our drovers complaining about his bags being searched in case he was smuggling Queensland rum or Chinaman’s opium. Strange! Of all the drovers we had he was the only teetotaller.’
The Diamantina River south of Birdsville had receded enough to let me cross it on the road south to Marree – the famous Birdsville track – ‘the loneliest track in the world’. It had been officially ‘open’ for a week or so. It was flooded for weeks before that. This was the ‘outside track’. The ‘inside track’ was shorter but it would be closed for months. Goyder’s Lagoon flooded it with water from Queensland’s rivers.
The sandhills grew taller as I drove in dust beside them. I crossed into South Australia but the country stayed beautifully harsh. It had proper roads only in the last 40 years. Before then, motorists carried sheets of metal to lay a temporary road to get them over sandhills. Often they made less than 50 miles a day.
At first, the mail service to Birdsville came from Marree in South Australia. Mail contractors used packhorses and camels or horses hauling buggies and stagecoaches – depending on the track. Entrepreneurs tendered for the Royal Mail contract (usually, the cheapest bid got the job) but they made money out of goods and passengers too. The mail contract formed the skeleton and freight put on flesh.
As I headed south a rock the size of a watermelon crashed into the fuel tank leaving a split and a dribble of diesel. I looked, knew I couldn’t mend it, calculated the distance to Mungerannie Bore, tried to guess the fuel I was leaking, declined to speak to my great-grandfather about it, leapt behind the wheel and sped to this halfway hotel.
And so Holas and I talked outside the Mungerannie pub until Pam stopped us and Phil mended the split in the fuel tank. It was the end of a travelling quest.
Nicholas Clarke Sadleir and Anna Georgina Sadleir were talented Australian colonists. I’d learned about them and their children in Ireland, Australia and Scotland. Sadleir brothers came from Tipperary in Ireland following the potato famine. They prospered in Australia. They had large families. Descendants live in Argentina, Australia, England New Zealand and Scotland. Some had been, or nearly became, wealthy members of the British aristocracy.
It was time to tell their tales from the beginning.
There were many Australians looking for ancestors in Ireland in 2010. I was one of them. I had just left Brookville House, south of Tipperary town. Nicholas Sadleir was born there. There were no Sadleirs there now. The Crowe family had it. Mr Crowe bought it from the estate of Marshal Sadleir in 1964.
I read this aloud:
Containing 117 acres 0 roods, two perches or thereabouts,
This most desirable property is situate on the Road to Glen of Arherlow, within one and a half miles of Tipperary town, it is well served for marts, creameries and all other amenities.
The lands are excellent limestone quality, all under pasture, entire without waste, well fenced and sheltered and have a never failing supply of water from springs, streams and the River Ara, which forms part of the boundary.
There is a very substantial Georgian residence, approached by a short avenue, and the accommodation comprises large hall, large dining room, study, two reception rooms, kitchen, scullery, and hot room and bathroom on the ground floor; large landing, six large bedrooms, one smaller bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, French window in reception room leads to a wall in the kitchen garden and orchard at the rear. The outbuildings contained in two independent yards and are all stone built and slated. Yard number one has independent entrance from the road and contains a cow house (partially lofted) to tie 40 cows; machinery house (lofted); dairy; two standing stalls; harness room (lofted): feeding house, fuel house and four column hay barn. Yard number 2 which is attached to yard number 1 contains large barn and fuel house; storehouses: large garage and machine house (which is the only building covered with iron). Galtee supply laid on to residences, yards and concrete tank in lands E. S. B. Installed throughout.
There is also a two-storey residence (in need of repair) which will be sold as a separate lot.
The special attention of those in quest of the most outstanding and attractive dairying or fattening holding is directed to the sale of this very valuable property, or to those requiring an ideal hunting residence being situated in the centre of the Scarteen and Tipperary hunting country.
‘Can you hear me, Holas? Do you know what I’m describing?’
‘I believe I do. Where does the description come from? Could it be my old home in Tipperary?’
‘It’s from a Tipperary newspaper, an advertisement to sell Brookville House from the estate of your nephew Marshal Sadleir. He was your oldest brother James’ son.’
His voice had changed. ‘Yes. We had news of Marshal’s birth. We got letters from home. But have you seen the house, Blue? Are you there? Please tell me what you observe?’
‘I’m at the end of the drive leading to it on the edge of the road south of Tipperary town. I can see the house and I’ve just been in it. It’s a large two-storey house with an archway at the side leading into yards, stables and farm sheds. It has an elegant reception hall with a skylight and a staircase, large dining room to the left, and a sitting room or salon – perhaps you called it a drawing room – to the right. A large kitchen leads off the dining room and there is an entrance to the kitchen coming from the side yard as well. External stairs lead to the front door which has an ornamental glass arch above it. How does that serve?’
‘Well done, Blue. I remember it well from your description. I left this house for the colony of Victoria when I was 17, in 1852 but I had a lovely childhood. Respectable Christian parents. Loving household staff and a tutor before I went off to school at Midleton College in County Cork. Children from tenant farms to play with. Older brothers, a twin sister. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins nearby. And friends from families of the other big houses for church, levees, hunting, horse racing, balls, serious discussion and deeper friendships. [footnote]James Sadleir (born 1792, died 1867) married Elizabeth Hare Clarke (born 1799, died 1889). They lived at Brookville House, Tipperary and had the following children: James Robert Sadleir( born 1820) Richard Sadleir (born 1822, died 1822, South Yarra, Victoria, Australia. Alicia Sadleir (born 1825) Marshal Clarke Sadleir (born 1827, died 1903, Mansfield, Victoria, Australia. Robert Sadleir (born 1831, presumably died as an infant) John Sadleir (born 1833, died Melbourne Victoria 1919) Nicholas Clarke Sadleir (born 1835 as a twin to Helena, died 1904, Menindee, NSW, Australia) Helena Sadleir (born 1835, there is some indication she died in Australia) Elizabeth Bolton Sadleir (born 1845, died 1872, Brookville) Mary. E. Sadleir (born 1862, died 1950, Brookville)[/footnote]
I didn’t always think so then, but we had a good life. Sadly, I never repatriated. I wanted to, but I never contrived to do it.’
‘What is your first memory at Brookville house, Holas?’
‘It was a funeral. Our mother and father left us in tears in the care of our nanny to go to it and my sister Helena pleaded with our mother to be allowed to go. At first, I sided with my mother.
“Girls may not go to funerals,” I said.
“Nor may boys,” my mother said and she started weeping too.
I must have other memories, but it was the first time I had seen my mother cry. I forgot about it quickly because Cook and Nanny bribed us with apple pudding as my mother and father drove off with coachman Liam in the carriage in their black clothes, but I connected with the story later in life because it was the funeral of my mother’s brother, Uncle Patrick Clarke. Some of his tenant farmers shot and bayoneted him. It caused an outrage at the time; two people were hanged and another escaped to America. I think my mother grieved for him all her life. She was very fond of him, and he was kind to us, but all sister Helena and I thought of at the end of the day was the apple pudding. I can still taste it. Mrs Ryan was an accomplished cook.
We had fine horses to ride – and we raced them with lighter jockeys in local meetings. Brothers James, Marshal, Richard, John and I joined in with the local hunt club when we could. I used to play football with some of the tenant family boys, but Pater didn’t encourage fraternisation so I stopped when I went to Midleton College. We played English games there. I enjoyed tennis and cricket and we had a few games on stations in Australia – I was a host at tennis competitions in Northern Tasmania.
The next thing striking my memory was my getting ready to board the stagecoach in Tipperary town to go to Midleton when I started boarding school. I suppose I was about 13. Helena was weeping. She was my twin. I think because we were babies of the family (there was a younger sister but she was tiny), the brothers, the servants, and even Mater and Pater, allowed us more comforting affection than would normally have been allowed between brothers and sisters.
Helena was angry too. “You are going off to Midleton, Nicholas, just so I will have to do all of the Greek and Latin verb conjugations by myself. And who will pick all the flowers for Mrs Nicholson or look to the hounds?”
We were in the hall. Mater held out her arms to comfort her, but brother Richard, who was down from Dublin between courses at Trinity College, started to tease her: “Little Hellie, the gardener’s maid doesn’t know what will become of her.” Helena ran up the stairs furiously. I looked to my father.
“Best you just go now, Nicholas. Leave her. She will be better soon.” And he glared at Richard.
Liam took me in the buggy and pair to the coaching station in town. It was raining and we both wore hats and heavy woollen coats. We didn’t utter a word on the way. The coach was waiting in the cobbled main street. Liam tossed my bag to the coachman who strapped my trunk atop the coach with leather ties. “This young gentleman is for Midleton via Cork. Have a care he gets there safe.” And he got down, turned to me, took my hand and said “Good luck, Master Nicholas. We will look after Helena. I’m sure you will do the family proud.”
So off I went in the dripping coach. Brother John was already there as a pupil. He was waiting for me. It was evening and I connected to the Dublin mail coach and travelled all night to Cork city in the rain. We had four stops for refreshments and to change horses and I had to wait in Cork for half a day for a coach out to Midleton. Two ruffians tried to rob me twice but I drove them off while I was waiting at the coaching station in Cork city and I remember being admonished for being late by an under-master when I walked to the college with a barrow boy pushing my travelling trunk from the coaching station, but John came to my aid. I had an interview with the headmaster, the Reverend Turpin, a plain dinner in the long noisy refectory with the rest of the boys and masters, settled into my dormitory and slept all night. I was exhausted.’
‘And did you do the family proud, Holas? Cups? Medallions? That sort of thing? ’
‘I was a fair scholar Blue, but John was the outstanding sportsman. I stayed for two or three years. I expect I conformed to the standards set by my brothers – and please don’t laugh, Blue – I won an exhibition for my scholarship in Divinity.
‘I’m not laughing. I got one too.’
‘Really! You’re a distinguished theological scholar too, Bluey?’
‘No. I reckon the school chaplain wanted to encourage me in continuing life so he changed the marks. I hated boarding school. Did you Holas?’
‘No. I really was good at remembering and reciting the scriptures so I didn’t need to be bribed to continue. In the end I had to conceal my talent. The family aspired to holy orders for me. I didn’t seek life as a clergyman! Australia saved me. Perhaps it would have been better for you Blue.’
I declined to answer. He went on. ‘Like me, Marshal and Richard qualified for entrance to Trinity College, Dublin, but only Richard attended as part of his medical studies. Marshal was an apprentice attorney with our uncle Nicholas in Dublin – he qualified as a lawyer without going to Trinity. John was an excellent sportsman, but he didn’t take the entrance examinations – I think he looked to a career in the military. I qualified for Trinity College entrance but I never enrolled. Fortunes had changed in the family. Money for fees was scarce.’
‘Surely you know of the potato famine, Blue?’[footnote]Thousands of people died. A “Poor Law Union” operated. Owners and occupiers of land paid tax for relief for the poor. In 1845, the famine exhausted reserves. One third of people starved. Tipperary’s poor law union could not cope. It dissolved and the central government from Dublin took over. More than 21,000 people relied on it as thousands died.[/footnote]
‘I know a bit. A disease killed the crop for several years in a row. But tell me more; I had always imagined the Sadleirs in Ireland with independent incomes.’
‘We had been comfortable until the potato famine and a few of the other branches of the family could be called wealthy, but the potato famine ruined everyone’s livelihood – from the highest to the lowest. Tenants lost their land, labourers lost employment, and some of the large estates were broken up and sold.’[footnote]Between 1849 and 1856, landlords evicted 22,000 people from South Tipperary. Emigration saved many. For Ireland, 75,000 left in 1845 increasing to 250,000 by 1851. About 18,000 people left County Tipperary then. And some of the “Ascendancy” went broke. Some landed families lived extravagantly and the famine was “the last straw.” Their debts exceeded income. In 1849 Dublin Castle set up the Incumbent Estates Court to allow rapid land sales. [/footnote]
‘How was it for you and the rest of the family?’
‘We had sufficient, and we gave food to our tenants and other local families in difficulty, but it was terrible for many ordinary people. When I was at Midleton College I saw dead people on the side of the road with green slime coming out of their mouths. They’d been eating grass. The college always had enough food for the masters, pupils and servants. At first the housekeeper and cooks armed themselves to guard the food, but the headmaster intervened and from then on a line of people waited in the kitchen yard for scraps from about midday onwards. Dr Turpin espoused and practiced Christian charity.’
‘Did you go without?’
‘No. But we were made to think that we were sacrificing something for the good of the poor. And we prayed for them a lot, and there were many sermons about the need for Christian charity and care.’
‘Why did you go to Midleton College? Wasn’t your grandfather, Marshal Clarke, headmaster of the Abbey School at Tipperary?’
‘Yes he had been a headmaster and clergyman, but at about the time we boys needed a school (we had a tutor at home) the army purloined the school buildings to use as barracks.’
‘Politics, Blue. Rebellions were starting. I’ve never had much time for the Fenians. Probably one of the benefits of the potato famine (it is probably unwise of me to promote this opinion) is that it extinguished many of the rebellious tendencies held by supporters of the Papacy and Irish independence. Not to joke about it – but they lost their stomach for it, and many of their leaders left for America or Australia (I met several there and they had started a new and reformed life). But I never paid much attention to the detail, Pater and Marshal debated it vigorously, there were reading rooms in town, but I could not maintain an interest.’[footnote]There were three ‘news and reading rooms’ – a Clanwilliam club for Tories, the Repeal room for O’Connellites, and the moderate Subscription room. Daniel O’Connell championed Roman Catholics – 85% of the people. He persuaded the British to let Roman Catholics enter Parliament in 1841. He opposed tithe taxes for the Church of Ireland (and nothing to the Roman Catholics). His ‘monster meetings’ for an Irish parliament made O’Connellite thinking part of the Irish psyche.[/footnote]
‘I was probably too young when the rebels were most active.[footnote]Before the famine, Tipperary people took violent action in disputes about farming land. Eighty-five per cent of the people had no votes. Tipperary residents killed 11 landlords, nine employees of landlords and eight farmers.[/footnote] Brother John told me about rifle balls coming through our front window when we were small boys, and one of our cows was shot, but John didn’t think this had much to do with the general revolution or religion. It was about threats to Pater who was giving evidence against somebody who had assaulted someone on a road to a market. Pater never mentioned it, and John told me about it after we had arrived in Australia.’
‘Did your family think of itself as Irish, Holas?’
‘I think we did. Sadleirs had been in the country for about 200 years. We sometimes denoted ourselves Anglo-Irish. The Sadleirs in Tipperary, Limerick and Cork counties came down from Colonel Thomas Sadleir who arrived from Stratford-upon-Avon in England with Oliver Cromwell to crush an Irish revolution and to outlaw Popery. He was granted land here but it wasn’t extensive.[footnote]Colonel Thomas Sadleir got about 5,500 Irish acres (8,923 ordinary acres) in Tipperary for his work in Oliver Cromwell’s invasion.[/footnote] The Sadleirs didn’t have titles like others of the ascendancy, and most of our land holdings were modest. Many family members were clergymen in the Church of Ireland and there were lots of military men and barristers and solicitors and magistrates. We were listed as gentry in government lists – the families had income from land and capital.’
‘Why did you go to Australia? How did you know about the opportunities there?’
‘Yes. Well there’s the rub Blue. James, the eldest, was to assist with the estates and he was to inherit the lands. That was settled. It was normal. Richard, John and I had to think about our futures. Marshal was to become an apprentice attorney with Uncle Nicholas in Dublin. Pater and Mater encouraged us to contemplate the professions and callings (I think they guessed family investments and lands could no longer support us although they were too gentle to mention it). John and I hoped for bucolic pursuits but our hopes of being able to purchase or lease additional land and livestock in Ireland were fading. When a letter came from a cousin who had been in Australia for more than 10 years with his brother, investing in sheep and land, telling us his flocks exceeded 100,000 head we started to imagine ourselves immigrating. This cousin was from a Limerick branch of my mother’s family. He was not a Papist but nor was he from the Church of Ireland. He was a member of the Society of Friends – a Quaker, and we considered him somewhat degenerate. In our conceit, we thought that if he succeeded we could surpass his efforts. And there was the gold in Victoria. There was news of it in abundance in all the news sheets. Many of our friends planned to go and urged us to join them.
We started to prepare secretly. Kathleen, the upstairs maid was the first to catch us. “Master Nicholas, why ever are you storing pistols, saddlery and riding boots beneath your bed? To be sure are you after thinking of riding out with the Young Irelanders?”[footnote]An Irish nationalist movement whose uprising in Tipperary was defeated in 1848. Several of the gentlemen ringleaders were transported to Tasmania.[/footnote]
I blushed. I was fond of Kathleen, but she was much older than I. I knew she would be hurt by what I planned to do but I resolved to make a clean breast of it. “You must not be teasing me about the Young Irelanders. They are a frightful lot. They challenged our Queen and the good order of things here. And anyway, they lost and are dispersed. That equipment’s for adventures in Australia, Kathleen.”
“Never!” she said and collapsed on the bed staring at me. She rose and started pacing. “So it’s come to this. Is gold more important than us? Do the master and mistress know of this? This seems to be a crime worthy of punishment by transportation[footnote]Transportation to Australia was a punishment second only to hanging. Many Irish were transported.[/footnote] and you seem set on punishing yourself by arranging that very thing. I have two cousins transported there two years ago. They do not report happy prosperous times on government road gangs! Think on it, Nicholas. What of your friends and your mother and father?” She rushed off down the stairs towards the kitchen. She clearly thought it her duty to inform all members of the household of my imminent desertion.
Dinner that evening became an ordeal. We still maintained formal service – glittering glass , shining silver – everything coming to one’s plate from serving dishes brought from the kitchen by servants – a formal and solemn ritual, and we wore our best clothes. Kathleen helped with service (our footman was away visiting his sick mother in Golden) and she kept glaring and smiling at me by turns. I faced the front and ate fitfully. After Kathleen cleared the dessert things, Pater relieved my tension.
“Nicholas. What’s this I hear of your plans to go to Australia?” Brothers Richard and John started and stared at me. I flushed. I was not afraid of my father, but his tone was unusually confronting.
John responded before I could reply, “Nicholas is not acting alone, Pater. I plan to go as well and Richard is pondering the idea. It isn’t just the gold (although that is immediately attractive) but you will remember the letter from Mater’s cousin, John Phelps, with news of the flocks of sheep he has accumulated. It seems Australia is a continent of opportunity.”
Mater frowned, looked to Kathleen, nodded and Kathleen withdrew. I sensed we were to be admonished but not in the company of servants – but that is not how events ensued.
“But Richard, you have not completed your medical studies. Please explain your thoughts,” my mother said.
“John was right when he said I am not firmly decided, Mater, but I fear that the practice of medicine or surgery here in Tipperary or in Dublin or Waterford or Cork will not be well rewarded. People have little money to employ professional healers. The talk in the Medical School is that I may be able to profit from my skills more easily in the colony of Victoria. All reports are of profligate prosperity. Opportunities for medical men seem to be without limit on the goldfields. We as brothers also propose to care for each other if we undertake the adventure together.”
My father looked to John. “And you John. What are your arguments?”
“I suggest respectfully, Pater; the family is not in a position to buy me a commission in the Suffolk Regiment in the way that we talked about as a possible career for me after my schooling at Midleton. There are several chaps who were keen on military commissions and have given up the idea as I have, thinking that there may be careers in colonial leadership in Australia. There are British regiments there and we hear that their numbers are depleted with men and officers deserting for the gold diggings.”
“And Nicholas?” Pater turned to me.
“I want to make my fortune in gold or wool, Pater, return here and restore our family’s fortunes and standing.”
Pater and Mater smiled. They seemed to be indulging me.
“Noble aspirations, Nicholas. Your reports from Middleton suggest that you should thrive in a world of scholarship – holy orders, or a life of letters, perhaps even the law. My brother Nicholas already plans to apprentice your brother Marshal in his chambers in Dublin. I could make representation to your Uncle Nicholas on your behalf?”
“Thank you Pater, I do not wish to appear ungrateful but I do not admire Dublin. It seems its main purpose is to harbour rogues and thieves.”
“Yes. And I imagine you would be at home there, Nicholas”. Pater’s eyes twinkled and my brothers chuckled; only Mater and Sister Helena lowered their eyes.
“I am determined to go, Pater, but I do seek your permission and blessing.” I turned to my mother: “and, Mater, may I seek your good offices as well?”
My mother slowly smiled. The tension dissipated. Only Helena stared stonily into the garden beyond the window facing her.
Our parents looked to each other. It was a serious sad look. Then they looked at us with gentle smiles. Pater said, “We will not stand in your way, any of you. We are pleased to have had the means to educate you to enhance your endeavours wherever you go. And Helena, look up, be joyful. One day you may feel inclined to visit your brothers in Australia.” And the door burst open and Kathleen came into the room with a tray of wine glasses and a decanter of port. “Madam, I thought the family might be after needing this for a celebration.” She must have been listening at the door.
Mater told me later that Kathleen had reported our early conversation and she responded to Kathleen by telling her she knew John, Richard and I were contemplating going to Australia, she and Pater approved, and they planned to tell us that evening. In many ways, it was a kind and intelligent household.
We had cleared the air. In hindsight, I think the finances of the household may have been far worse than we knew. Perhaps, with our going, Pater could see a way to keep the household and the lands.
For John it may have been the greatest wrench of all. The following day he took a coach to Sligo to visit his sweetheart, Isabella Crofton, at the village of Skreen. Isabella’s father was the Rector. John was away for more than a week and he returned looking sad. He said nothing to me but steadfastly planned to get to Liverpool and on a ship to Port Phillip Bay. He never told me he and Isabella planned to marry later (perhaps they didn’t then) but she came to Australia and married John five years after he immigrated.
Richard and I had no such ties beyond the family. To soften the hurt I spent a lot of time in Helena’s company talking about Australia. Sometimes we walked through oak groves to Tipperary town and back or we sat in the dappled sunlight of the walled kitchen garden with a pot of tea peeling potatoes for Mrs Ryan.
“Nicholas, promise me you will not compromise your safety by moving unguarded through native forests. I’m told the native black people of Australia are cannibals, and there are more tales of heathen Chinese who infest the lives of native tribesman and equip them with foul poisons and pagan spells.”
“Helena, whoever informed you so?”
Helena stared at me forthrightly, “Kathleen. Our housemaid. She has two cousins there, in Van Diemen’s Land.”
“But I’m not going to Van Diemen’s Land, Helena. We are bound for the new colony of Victoria. The reports from London deem it the most prosperous colony in the Queen’s Empire. There will be Christian colonists and miners of all descriptions, strengthening company in numbers, and it is a lawful and orderly outpost of Great Britain. I believe from my reading that Melbourne, the main town of Port Phillip Bay, is larger than Tipperary. I do not believe there is anything to fear, but I will be mindful of your cautions, dear Helena.”
Later we talked of kangaroos.
“And what of the huge hopping rats? The animals called kangaroos. Do you think them dangerous, Nicholas? May they transmit disease?”
“Not that I know of, Helena. But I’m reliably informed they are tractable and when treated kindly and well-nourished with honey they make excellent draught animals. Horses are in short supply in the colonies. I believe that many of the best families use kangaroos to draw their buggies. I’m told their hopping gait aids digestion.”
Helena roared with laughter. We embraced. “I shall miss you Nicholas,” she lisped.
I simply grinned. I had not yet attained the wiles of flattering sophistry. Helena arrived much later in Australia. She was unhappy and she disappeared. But that is a tale for another day.’