I intend this story to accompany articles in the November issue of Subud Voice. It has two themes. First, the Irish diapsora in Australia...a sideshow to Ilaina Lennard's story of Bapak's last visit to Ireland...And second, it is the story of my mother's death and resonates I hope with the stories by Rachman Mitchell and Levi Lemberger about the deaths of parents...
In that period of mass starvation, disease and emigration between 1845 and 1852, commonly known as the Great Potato Famine, many of the Irish came to Australia, and greatly shaped the development of our nation. Perhaps the most famous of all Australians, the outlaw Ned Kelly, was, of course, of Irish stock. And I myself am partly of Irish descent.
My father died when I was very young and my mother did not remarry for many years. But then when she was in her late fifties, she moved to a little country town in Queensland called Coominya. It is about 70 kms due west of Brisbane. It is an area mostly settled by Germans and Irish from the great Irish diaspora. And my mother married a farmer from the area.
Then a few years later my mother fell ill with cancer and I went to spend the last few weeks of her life with her in Coominya. My mother was in the hospital in a town called Esk and I would visit her every day, but then after that there was not much to do so I used to wander around talking to the local people.
I used to visit an old Irishman called Ned Hanrahan, a friend of my mother’s. He lived just outside Coominya in the house his father had built when he first came here, and where Ned was born in 1913. The kitchen was built separate from the house with a passage between the two, as was the custom up there, so that if a fire broke out in the kitchen at least the whole house wouldn’t burn down.
Ned's father came from County Cork. Ned showed me the steamship ticket. It cost £7 and stated that he had to provide his own bedding and mess utensils.
Ned told me a lot about the history of the district. Occasionally around Coominya you’d come upon the foundations of where there’d once been a farmhouse, and Ned told me these were all that remained of 900 soldier settlements that had been tried around Coominya after the First World War.
“They were given a thirty acre plot, a grubber, a hand plough and a horse and cart and told ‘go for it boy’. They were all English. It was hopeless. They knew nothing of farming. None of them left now. By the time they got the ground cleared, they’d had enough of it.”
He talked about how it had been in Coominya in “the good old days”. “It was a good living in those days. You always had something coming in. There wasn’t a fortune in it, but you had a cream cheque regular, and then you’d sell a batch of pigs every few months. You ate well, were clothed well, and had all the fun in the world. Go to Coominya on a pig day. The pub did well.
“Now it’s changed. Nobody wants to sit under a cow twice a day seven days a week. You’d be hard put to find a pig in Coominya these days. People left, sold to developers, old people died out, young people went to jobs in the city.”
During the war there had been an aerodrome near Coominya and a lot of Americans had been stationed there. “I don’t know how many thousand they had out there. The Yanks came in and the poor Aussies had to get out. You’d hear their planes, they came in like a mob of bees when they came. They had two dances a week. Every Saturday and Wednesday, playing the hillbilly records until they wore out. Girls from the farms, they’d come in from miles around. Especially when there was soldiers around. The Air Force ran trucks to pick them up.”
There was an old lady called Miss Flynn who lived by herself in a house beside one of the general stores.
“My people came here in 1908,” she told me. “They were all railway people. My dad was a ganger on the railways. During World War One, there was a big sawmill here and it was a great dairying district. They built a hall, then churches and a school. Miss Thomson was the teacher. I never had another teacher and I was there until I was sixteen. There’s 240 children go to the school now, but I don’t know anyone now. All the oldies are dying out. I’ve been offered good money for my place, but I don’t like to part with it. Sentimental, I suppose.
“My father lived to be eighty four. He lost his eyes in an accident, poor man. We nursed him. We didn’t want to put him in a home or anything. He was a handsome old chap with his white moustache. My brothers used to come up on the train and they’d trim his whiskers for him and shave him and they’d say: ‘Now, Dad you look like a prince!’ And he’d laugh like anything, and then we’d have afternoon tea for them. I’d go and buy them some lollies. They didn’t smoke but they were great old sweet eaters.
“But they’re all gone now. I’m all left on my own. Last of the generation. I’m safe here anyhow. In the city so many dreadful things happen. I always looked after our church, sixty years or more. I should go to heaven. Well, I don’t know so much about that! But it was always my pleasure to do so, to look after the church.
“During The Depression there were always bagmen at the back door and they camped over there by the cricket oval. Oh yes, very prevalent, they were. Always around then.
“Some of them used to drink in the old days. The women, too, they were just as bad as the men. My mum came in one day, she was terribly tickled. An old lady, Granny O’Neil just came away from the hotel and she was in an old cart. Mr. Muckett, the blacksmith, made all the carts. Anyway, poor old Granny O’Neil fell out of the cart, right out there in front of our house, and Mr. Cameron came along on his beautiful horse like a racehorse, and he picked her up and put her back in her cart. ‘May the curse of Ireland fly over your head,’ she called out after him. Mum thought it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.”
For three weeks I went to visit my mother every day in the hospital. One day I asked the doctor how much longer she would live and he said: “She could go on for another three weeks, or another three months, or she could go tomorrow.”
I thought I’d take a break from visiting my mother. I’d been to visit her every day and I wanted to go to latihan in Brisbane, so I asked her: “Would you mind if I don’t come to see you tomorrow. I’d like to go and visit some people in Brisbane.”
“Oh no, love, you go. Don’t think you have to come in and see me every day. You go to Brisbane and see your friends.”
It seemed like she meant it and so the next day I went to Brisbane. When I cam back from Brisbane about eight o’ clock at night, I was surprised to see that all the lights were on in my stepfather’s house. He met me at the door and said: “She’s gone.”
For a moment I didn’t understand what he meant. Who’s gone? Where?
Later we were talking and I said to him: “Isn’t that a strange thing. I go to see her every day for three weeks, and then the one day I don’t go to see her is the day she dies.”
“But isn’t that just like your mother,’ he said. “No fuss. Never wanted to be any trouble to anyone. She didn’t want you or anyone else to see her go.”
The Presbyterian minister who came to do the funeral service was a friendly man in his sixties with silvery hair. My mother wasn’t a churchgoer, but he had met her once or twice. We gathered around the grave and he said some prayers and read from Bible.
When it came to the eulogy he said: “I’m not going to make a big speech. Dorothy wouldn’t have wanted that. I’m just going to let each one of you remember Dorothy in your own way for a few moments in silence.”
I thought, Oh well, fair enough. What can you expect? He didn’t know her after all. You couldn’t really expect him to have anything to say.
But while we were standing there in silence he said: “You know I was looking at us all outside the cemetery, and we’d all arranged ourselves in a very orderly way, and then we came into the cemetery in a nice orderly way, and I thought, Dorothy would have been proud of us because she was a very neat and orderly person.’
He’d struck on something about my mother that was true. She was always a well-organised person. The minister looked pleased with himself, amazed really, like a magician who has just pulled a rabbit out of a hat when he didn’t even know he had one in there.
I had to dispose of my mother’s things.
Of course she’d left everything in a neat and orderly way with precise written instructions about what was to be done with it all.
There were some books she wanted distributed to various people. I kept some tapestries she’d done, a Venetian scene at sunset, a portrait of an old Cornish fisherman, a boy on a pony who reminded her of her grandson. There was a lot of fine needlework that she’d done for her trousseau: tablecloths and napkins embroidered with little flowers.
There were all the patterns from her dressmaking. It seemed a shame to throw them out, but what else could you do with them?
There was the family photo album. Here is my mother as a girl on a trip to the Blue Mountains with her parents and brother and sister. Here is my father posing beside a shark that someone had caught at a beach. Here is a photo of my mother and father with me as a baby in my mother’s arms.
It’s during the war, and my father, home on leave, is wearing his Air Force uniform. My mother is smiling at the cameras and in her eyes there is no hint of the sorrows to come. She has everything she ever wanted in life, a good husband, children. The future, she assumes, once this war is over, will proceed in its pleasant and predictable way. She has no sense that it will all be ripped away from her.
Here’s a photograph of my sister and I. She is aged two. She is toothless, but smiling, full of hope, innocence. How could it have come to pass that she would kill herself? That was the hardest thing I ever had to do, to ring my mother and tell her my sister had committed suicide.
These photographs seemed like clean sheets of paper on which terrible messages had been written in black ink.
When I had finished sorting it all out, everything of my mother’s that was to be kept fitted into a small suitcase.
Listen to Lament