Irish Settlers in South Australia: The first review of my book has been published!

A review of my book, Irish Settlers in South Australia: The Hayes and O’Toole Families was  published on 10 August 2020 in the online magazine Tintean. The reviewer is Dr Dymphna Lonergan, a researcher and media expert in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University.

From the review:

“[T]his is the story of Bernadette Thakur’s Hayes and O’Toole ancestors who migrated to South Australia in 1840 from Galway and County Wicklow.”

“This is also a handsome book”.

“This author’s style is varied and warm but grounded in truth-finding and truth-telling. The reader cannot help but appreciate the translation of dedicated scholarship into an easy read for those who might not have a personal connection with the people involved.

“Thakur says that ‘writing about my ancestors was very challenging as they left so little mark in the records. They were poor immigrants who arrived with nothing. They did their best to take care of their families and build new lives for themselves as farmers. Their story of honest hard work over many years is totally at odds with the generally negative stereotype of the Irish’. She has succeeded in lifting their lives out of the world of documents and photos. The book could be used as a template for writers’ groups in how to write a family history.

The full review can be found at the link below.

Irish Settlers in South Australia

Is this it? Searching for Derrygoolin

My quest to discover my Irish ancestors began with my paternal ancestors, the Hayes family.  I learnt about the challenges of Irish family history research by studying my Hayes ancestors. The beginning was easy, looking at ship arrivals in South Australia. I soon discovered that they arrived in South Australia on 23 August 1849 on the ship Eliza. The passenger list recorded that they were from County Galway: Thomas and Honora Hayes, aged 38 and 34, and their three children, Mary aged 10, Patrick aged 9 and Thomas who was an infant.

Where had they come from in County Galway? This next step in my research was much harder. It took me the best part of a year to learn that they were from the townland of Derrygoolin, in the far south-eastern corner of County Galway, bordering on County Clare and Lough Derg. One day, I thought, I will go to this townland to see it for myself.

On a warm summer’s day in June this year, that day finally arrived. It was with a great sense of anticipation that we set off from Ennis and drove across the pleasant but unremarkable countryside of eastern County Clare, so different from the rugged and dramatic Atlantic coastline. From Scarriff we turned northwards to follow the shoreline of Lough Derg, a long narrow lake and the third largest in Ireland. We stopped along the way to get a closer look at the Holy Island of Inishcaltra and its ancient monastic site and Round Tower.

Soon after we crossed the Clare/Galway border, we turned on to a local road in what we hoped was the right direction. We knew that Derrygoolin was well off the beaten track and we wouldn’t find it near any main roads. We climbed slowly up the hills on the narrow road, through a spare and barren landscape, with no sign of any human habitation. There were a few cows resting in a rocky field and a clear view down to Lough Derg. We stopped, took a few photographs, and began to wonder “Could this be it? Was this Derrygoolin?”

Loch Derg
Cows grazing on the hillside, Derrygoolin townland, Co. Galway. Co. Tipperary is on the other side of Lough Derg


The GPS kept telling us we were nearly there. As we came down the hill, it guided us into a left turn on to what looked like a dead-end road. Sure enough, the road petered out into the entrance gate of an obvious farmhouse 50 metres away when the GPS told us: “After 80 metres on the left, you have arrived at your destination.” My husband and I looked at each other with a mixture of bafflement, consternation and merriment. Had our drive been in vain? All we could see was a secluded house, hidden behind a high stone wall, with a formidable large gate. It was the only house visible for miles around. It seemed worthwhile to try asking the owners if this was Derrygoolin.

As I approached the gate two dogs came running down the long driveway, barking ferociously. I stood wondering what to do and was about to leave when the figure of a woman appeared in the distance. She must have decided that I wasn’t a threat and began to walk hesitantly down the drive. By this time the dogs had decided that they liked me and were wagging their tails happily. When I explained my reason for stopping by, she confirmed that “Yes, this is Derrygoolin”.

We then proceeded into the village of Woodford about 5km away. With hindsight now I regret not stopping longer in Derrygoolin, to look around me, and reflect that it was on this land that my ancestors lived. It is difficult to imagine the family’s poor living conditions, let alone how they survived the Famine on this stony bare hillside.

Loch Derg
Derrygoolin townland, Co. Galway

This was the land where my great grandfather Patrick Hayes spent his first nine years.  What an exciting time it must have been for a young boy when the family made their way down to Cobh harbour to take a boat across to Plymouth, where they boarded the big ship, the Eliza on 11 May 1849, for their journey to the other side of the world. They travelled without family or friends, for there were only 22 Irish on board and 305 English passengers.

The main street, Woodford village, Co. Galway

Woodford was a delight, charming and picturesque. The ladies in the public library on the main street were interested and friendly. The waitress in the café across the street was married to a Hayes. We found the graves of many deceased Hayes in the Catholic cemetery a short stroll up the hill. I felt that I was in Hayes territory.


A stroll through Woodford village, as neat as a pin


The East Galway Family History Society had been very helpful to me in the early days of my research, and I wanted to see the Woodford Heritage Centre where it is located. The building itself is of historical interest as it was formerly a National School built in 1834. We were there on a Saturday and I expected the Centre to be closed, but to my surprise, the door was open. The people inside looked astonished when I stepped through the door, but in typical Irish fashion they were generous with their time and eager to help.

Woodford Heritage Centre – the door is open!

It was another instance of the serendipitous events which occurred during my visit to Ireland where I felt the spirits of my ancestors were watching over me and helping me on my journey.

Stopping to say hello to the horses outside Woodford. Derrygoolin and Lough Derg in the distance.
Co. Galway Ireland

The Hayes family from County Galway

I knew little about the Hayes family when I was growing up. Dad never talked about his family much. We did not know any Hayes relatives. We knew the bare bones of Dad’s life story: that he was born in Wirrabara in 1916, the first child of William Michael Hayes and Catherine Veronica Kennedy. His parents owned a picturesque farm on rolling hills a few miles north-east of Wirrabara. The farm was bequeathed to William Michael by his father, Patrick Hayes on the occasion of his marriage in 1915.

Hayes' farm ruins

The ruins of the Hayes farm near Wirrabara, built by my great grandfather Patrick Hayes (1840-1918). My father spent the first 14 years of his life here.

© Photograph by Ramesh Thakur 2016

Opp. Hayes' farm ruins-2

The Hayes farm, September 2016

© Photograph by Ramesh Thakur

This blog post is not about my father or grandfather,  but about the Irish origins of my great grandfather Patrick Hayes and his parents before him.  Patrick arrived in South Australia as a nine year old boy on the ship Eliza on 23 August 1849. As a child born in 1840 he probably witnessed many harrowing sights during the Famine.  In his later life he signed legal documents with his “X” mark, so we assume he was illiterate. There was probably little opportunity to get much education after he arrived in South Australia. As a very young man he worked as a ‘bullocky’ carting copper from the mine at Burra to Port Wakefield. He married my great grandmother Catherine O’Toole in Mintaro in 1865 and they raised twelve children. My grandfather, William Michael, was the youngest. Patrick became a land-owner and lease-holder in the region around Wirrabara and Melrose. His is a remarkable story of hard work and achievement against the odds.

With Patrick on the Eliza were his parents Thomas Hayes and Honora Hennessy, his sister Mary aged ten and infant brother Thomas. The passenger list states that they were from County Galway, and Thomas’ occupation was given as a “husbandman”. That is all I knew about their Irish origins.

I began my search with the history of the surnames Hayes and Hennessy. In mid-19th century Ireland these names were not common in County Galway. They were mostly clustered in County Cork, followed by counties Tipperary and Limerick.

Hayes distribution

The distribution of the Hayes surname at the time of Griffith’s Valuation (1847-64)


When searching historic land records, I had a great stroke of luck: there was only one Hennessy name in County Galway, that of Pat Hennessy, who lived in the townland of Derrygoolin, Civil Parish of Ballynakill/Catholic parish of Woodford in 1834. He was a tenant of the Marquis of Clanricarde and occupied 160 acres of land.

I next discovered that Michael, William and John Hayes were also tenants of the Marquis of Clanricarde in the same townland, each with 80 acres. Derrygoolin is located about 3  miles south west of the village of Woodford. County Clare forms the southern boundary of the townland and Lough Derg is to the east. Derrygoolin is in the foothills of the Slieve Aughty mountains which form the boundary between County Galway and County Clare. The hills of the Slieve Aughty range contain vast tracks of some of the most desolate landscapes in Ireland. The highest point in the townlanland is 669 metres. The Slieve Aughty Bog, now a protected conservation area, is not far away from Derrygoolin.

DerrygoolinThe townland of Derrygoolin, 3 ¼ miles SW of Woodford,-8.448,13z

I was hopeful that I was on the right track in my ancestral search. I next examined  the Catholic parish records for further evidence that this was in fact their place of origin. I did not find a marriage record for Thomas and Honora but I did find a baptism record for their son John who was baptised on 6 February 1842 in the Catholic parish of Woodford. This infant did not survive the Famine years but his date of death is unknown.

The Hayes and Hennessy families were tenants of the Marquis of Clanricarde, Ulick John de Burgh (1802-1874). The history of this family dates back to the Norman invasion of Ireland in the late 12th/early 13th century. The de Burgh family, or Burkes as they later became known, succeeded in subjugating the local Gaelic population and at times they dominated the whole province of Connacht. Much has been written about this family and their historic role over the centuries. In Woodford at the time my ancestors lived there they were one of the leading landowning families in County Galway, with 52,000 acres. A book has been written about the Earl of Clanricarde, A Galway Landlord during the Great Famine. He staunchly defended the interests of the landlord class during the Famine, but did not entirely ignore the misery of his tenants.

The quality of the land my ancestors occupied was very poor. A total of only seventeen families lived there. In the mid 19th century Derrygoolin townland was described as

A large townland very partially cultivated being composed of bog and mountain. There are only a few cabins of a very inferior description in the townland. There is nothing remarkable in the townland.

In this harsh landscape it must have been difficult for these families to eke out a subsistence livelihood, even in the good years. What it was like during the Famine is hard to imagine. There is a Workhouse in nearby Portumna which I hope to visit when I am in Ireland, but as far as I know none of my ancestors had to enter the Workhouse.

Galway suffered severely during the Great Famine. Over 73,000 people died in the County between 1845 and 1850 and approximately 11% of the population emigrated in the succeeding five years. Between 1841 and 1871, the population of the Clanricarde estates in Galway fell from nearly 22,000 to under 10,000. In the aftermath of the Famine, the land agents of the Earl of Clanricarde promoted the assisted emigration of his tenants. There are no records for the individual tenants who left. Nor is it known what assistance the land agents gave the tenants to leave: whether the estate paid part of the fares or assisted the tenants to successfully apply for a government assisted passage. There are no records to indicate if the estate assisted the departing tenants with the cost of equipping themselves with the required outfit of clothing, other sundry expenses, or the cost of reaching the port of embarkation.

Postscript: From Derrygoolin to Caltowie

The lives of Thomas and Honora after their arrival in South Australia are another story. Briefly, four more children were born. We know from the children’s baptism records that the family were living in Kapunda. It seems highly likely that Thomas worked as a labourer in the copper mine in the years immediately after their arrival. He must have worked hard, for on 3 December 1858 he bought his first land in the colony, 168 acres in the Hundred of Belvidere, County of Light. This land is just on the outskirts of Kapunda. In 1873 he purchased 312 acres of land near Caltowie in the mid-north. Thomas died in Caltowie in 1887. Honora lived to the age of 85, taken care of in her old age by her daughters Catherine and Bridget who were born in South Australia. She died in 1899.

While they no doubt endured much hardship in their lives, I would like to think Thomas and Honora felt a sense of relief and security when they bought their own land in South Australia. No longer would they or their children be at the mercy of an absentee landlord, at risk of eviction or starvation. I have visited their final resting place in the Caltowie cemetery. I now look forward to seeing where their journey began, Derrygoolin townland in County Galway.

Caltowie Cemetery-2

Caltowie Cemetery,  where Thomas and Honora and some of their children are buried.

© Photograph by Ramesh Thakur

Michael Naughton from County Westmeath


My great grandmother with my mothe, 1915 approx.

Mary Ann Dempsey, nee Naughton with her grand-daughters. My mother, Mary Imelda Dempsey is the baby sitting on her grandmother’s knee. The little girl is her sister, Patricia Dempsey (1915)

 Michael Naughton was the first of my mother’s ancestors to arrive in South Australia. Naughton is an Irish Gaelic surname. Before the Anglo-Norman invasion the Naughtons lived in the plain around Loughrea in Co. Galway. After the invasion they settled in the Fews, Barony of Athlone, Co. Roscommon. The land between Ballinasloe in Galway and Athlone in Roscommon is traditionally known as Naughton country. The surname Naughton has many variants in Ireland: Connaughton, Knockton, McNaghten, Naghton, Naughtan, Naughten, Nochtin, Norton (anglicised version of Naghten), Noughton, etc.

When I was growing up, I remember my mother talking fondly of her grandmother, Grannie Dempsey. When my mother was at boarding school she enjoyed visiting her Dempsey grandparents at their home on Molesworth Street, North Adelaide, where they lived when they retired from farming in the mid-north of South Australia.

124 Molesworth St, North Adelaide

The Dempsey home on Molesworth Street as it is today

Grannie Dempsey’s maiden name was Mary Ann Naughton. She was born on 20 September 1861 near Farrell Flat, South Australia, a farming community about 20km east of Clare. Her parents were Michael Naughton and Bridget O’Loughlin. When I started my ancestral journey, I knew nothing about them.

This project is an attempt to trace the history of my ancestors from Ireland to South Australia. It is impossible to find glimmers of what their hopes and fears in the new land might have been without first trying to understand the circumstances that led them to leave behind all that was familiar and to sever their strong bonds to family and community in Ireland.This blog post is about my attempt to discover the Irish origins of my great great grandfather, Michael Naughton.

I came across An article by Eric Richards on Irish life in colonial South Australia which refered to Sir Montagu Chapman of Co. Westmeath who in 1847 assisted 200 of his tenants to emigrate to South Australia. They sailed on three ships, the Trafalgar (arrived 2 July 1847), the Aboukir (4 September 1847) and the Lady McNaughten (13 October 1847). Michael Naughton, Rose Naughton and Margaret Naughton were all passengers on the Trafalgar.

Westmeath Catholic parish

Catholic Parishes in County Westmeath

 There is a record in the Catholic parish registers for the baptism of Michael Naghten in the Catholic parish of Clonmellon, Co. Westmeath on 7 October 1824. He was the son of Patrick Naghten and Ann Egan. The family’s address was the townland of Cloran. The Sponsors were Patrick Conelon and Margaret Kiernan.

The townland of Cloran (now called Cloran and Corcullentry), just 1.42 square miles in size, is in the Catholic parish of Clonmellon, bordering on County Meath. The nearest village is Clonmellon.  Not surprisingly, a search of those listed as tenants of Sir Montagu in the townland of Cloran and Corcullentry revealed many of the same names as the passengers on the Trafalgar.

Sir Montagu Chapman was a descendant of Benjamin Chapman, a captain in Cromwell’s army. As a reward for serving in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, he was granted a 9000-acre estate at Killua, County Westmeath on land which had been confiscated from the Knights Hospitallers of St John. Killua Castle, situated near the village of Clonmellon, was built for the Chapman family in the mid-1780s. It was left as a ruin for many years and is currently undergoing restoration by its new owners.


Killua Castle. By Gavigan 01 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

 Sir Montagu succeeded his father as baronet in 1837. He visited Australia in 1841 and on 14 June 1842 was granted title to a large estate in Adelaide, which he leased out as smaller farms. Originally named Montagu’s Farm, the area is now part of the suburb of Gepp’s Cross. He died in 1852 on a sea voyage from Melbourne to Adelaide, when the vessel in which he was sailing disappeared without trace. He had never married and his Irish and Australian estates were inherited by his younger brother Benjamin.

Leaving Cloran

An assisted passage was not a free passage. Emigrants from Ireland were expected to meet their own travel costs to Plymouth. They also had to meet the strict requirements for the essential clothing needed for the voyage. Emigrants were subject to pre-embarkation checks at the Depot in Plymouth before they could board their vessel for departure. The Chairman of the Board of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners, came down from London

expressly to inspect the emigrants about to sail for Adelaide in the splendid ship Trafalgar…. Shortly after his arrival, Mr Elliott examined those among the people not then embarked, inquiring into all their circumstances, prospects, &c. He then went on board the Trafalgar, and minutely examined all the arrangements, as well as the emigrants on board….

On the following day Mr Elliott again visited the ship, the whole of the emigrants being then embarked. A minute inspection then took place, after which the emigrants were mustered on the quarter-deck, and addressed by Mr Elliott in a most kind and feeling manner. After alluding to the painful emotions which many of them were probably experiencing at the separation from friends, he encouraged them to look forward hopefully to the prospect before them, and the improved circumstances which would assuredly attend their honest and industrious exertions — that in the fine colony to which they were about to proceed labour was abundant and food plentiful, and it therefore depended on themselves to realise comforts which at home they could never aspire to. He then gave them some excellent advice for the regulation of their conduct on board, insisting strongly on the paramount necessity of cleanly habits to ensure health, and goodwill and brotherly kindness towards each other, to make the passage happy and agreeable…. The whole address was marked by deep and earnest feeling, and the utmost solicitude for the welfare of the people; it was listened to with profound attention, and at its conclusion the kind-hearted speaker was greeted with a most enthusiastic round of cheering.

The tenants from the Chapman estate were probably in no position to pay for their passage to Plymouth or for the personal effects required for the voyage. It was reported in the Westmeath Guardian that Sir Montagu fitted out the tenants from his estate at his own expense with all their needs for the voyage.

It is hard to imagine the sorrow of the parents who were left behind as these young people left their homes at the height of the Famine and set off for the long journey to South Australia. After the death of Michael Naughton in 1891, a heartfelt and admiring obituary for him was published in the local newspapers which says in part:

The late Mr Naughton was one of the old stock of faithful and virtuous Catholic Irishmen, whom the providence of God directed to Australian shores in the days when Ireland’s stalwart sons were forced, through unjust laws and tyrannical Government, to seek a home and a livelihood in a foreign land…. At the age of about twenty-one he left his native land, just as the harrowing scenes of the great Irish famine were being witnessed.

It is clear that the memory of the Famine lingered on amongst the Catholic Irish in South Australia for many years afterwards.

Rose and Margaret Naughton

Margaret Naughton married William Munday on 14 January 1850 at Saint Patrick’s Church, Adelaide. Rose Naughton died in Adelaide on 26 May 1850 aged 28. Michael Naughton’s eldest daughter was named Rose and a younger daughter was named Margaret. Although the evidence is not conclusive, I am inclined to think that the Rose and Margaret Naughton who travelled on the Trafalgar were Michael’s sisters.

Rose and Mary Ann Naughton
Rose Naughton (standing) and Mary Ann Naughton (my great grandmother). This photograph was taken in 1877. Rose was aged 20 and Mary Ann was 16. Rose Naughton joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph


This blog post is about Michael Naughton’s place of origin in Ireland, not about his life in South Australia. Briefly however, I can say that on 5 November 1856 at the Catholic Church in Sevenhills, Michael Naughton married Bridget O’Loughlin, a young woman of twenty from County Meath. They must have had high hopes as they began their married life together in the colony of South Australia. They became successful farmers, raised a family of eight children, and died as much loved and highly respected members of their community. They are buried side by side in the Peterborough Cemetery.

Michael & Bridget Naughton graves


The O’Tooles of County Wicklow

The O’Tooles of County Wicklow


Wicklow map
County Wicklow

My O’Toole ancestors were from County Wicklow, “The Garden of Ireland.” They arrived in Adelaide on 7 July 1840 on a small ship named the William Nichol. It was carrying Scottish and Irish immigrants from Greenock and Dublin. The William Nichol was built in Greenock in 1834. In 1842 it was condemned at Mauritius after being dismasted in a hurricane and running upon a reef.

The O’Tooles were the first of all my ancestors to arrive in South Australia. They travelled as a family: my 3X great grandparents, John O’Toole and Catherine O’Brien who were aged 57 and 50, my 2X great grandparents John Thomas O’Toole and his wife Ellen Murphy, plus their daughter Mary and sons Dennis and James.

Under the assisted emigration scheme, labouring classes received free passage if they were aged 15 to 30 years of age and had two references. Preference was given to married applicants. John Thomas Toole (the name as written in their official documents), aged 23 and Dennis Toole aged 25 received approval for an assisted passage on 27 January 1840. It is possible that the rest of the family paid their own way. It is unlikely that John O’Toole and Catherine O’Brien would have received an assisted passage as they would have been considered too old.

It is remarkable that they were successful in their application because at that time the distribution of emigration agents in the British Isles gave less opportunity to the Irish than anyone else. In the first five years of the colony’s existence the Irish made up less than 7 per cent of immigrants.

The O’Tooles are unusual in another respect, as very few Irish immigrants to South Australia came from County Wicklow. Most came from the northern counties of Cavan and Monaghan, and the southern counties of Clare and Tipperary.

It is hard to imagine the scene which must have greeted them on their arrival. Adelaide had been settled just four years previously and the white population was only 14,600 people. It is not known how many Aborigines were living in South Australia before the arrival of Europeans. Estimates of the pre-contact indigenous population vary between 10,000 and 15,000.

The Kaurna people lived in the area around Adelaide. During the first few years of settlement race relations were amicable. The colony started out with high ideals of safeguarding the Aborigines’ interests and 20 per cent of the proceeds of land sales was to be used for their benefit. This scheme was never implemented. But I must get back to the story of the O’Tooles.

View of Port Adelaide. - Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia
“View on the Port Creek” from a watercolour by Colonel William Light. The original is in the S.A. Art Gallery. Date of original: 1838
Photographer : Colin Ballantyne. Photograph courtesy of the State Library of South Australia

After arrival in Adelaide the emigrants were allowed to stay for only a short time in the Emigration Depot before they were required to leave and start fending for themselves. The Emigration Depot, established in 1838, was located in the West Parklands opposite what is now Hindley Street.

My 2X great grandmother Ellen gave birth to a daughter in the Emigration Depot on 26 July, just a few weeks after their arrival. Ellen and her mother-in-law Catherine O’Toole received relief assistance for ten days. They had to leave the Emigration Depot when Ellen’s baby was a few days old. The baby, named Catherine, died a few days later, on 3 August. It was a sad beginning to their lives in South Australia.

Their early years in the colony must have been a struggle for survival, for the colony itself fell on hard times, became bankrupt, and all assisted immigration was stopped between 1841 and 1845. The British Government had very inadequate knowledge of conditions in the colony. The third Governor, George Grey was ordered to carry out a stern policy of retrenchment. He continued with zeal the austerity measures begun by Governor George Gawler. He suspended work on Adelaide’s public buildings and greatly reduced all government expenditure, including the scale of relief for the unemployed and destitute. People who had been engaged on government contracts lost all means of livelihood.

The Board of Commissioners informed Grey that all who held no contract with the Board might conveniently be left to starve. Lord Stanley, Secretary of the State for the Colonies, ordered Grey to ship the unemployed to other colonies and to throw the destitute on their own resources or their relations.

The new policy engendered deep distress and discontent. Grey defied orders by drawing bills on the British Treasury for £25,000 for poor relief. The British authorities condemned these expenditures, censured the Governor and abolished his discretionary power.

It is most likely that the O’Toole’s got work as agricultural labourers. They lived in Morphett Vale, now one of Adelaide’s southern suburbs. Times must have been difficult. In April 1846, my 3X great grandfather John O’Toole and his sons, James and John, and one other were charged with stealing timber from the parklands in North Adelaide. The case was reported in The Register on 20 April. I can’t help but feel sympathetic towards my ancestors.



Col Light lookout
Colonel William Light statue overlooking city of Adelaide

Photograph taken by Michael Coghlan, 12 January 2011 (Flickr Creative Commons)

The parklands between the city and North Adelaide are well manicured today, but in 1846 I imagine they were untamed Australian bush. North Adelaide now is one of the most prestigious suburbs of Adelaide. There is a statue of Colonel William Light on a hill in the Parklands overlooking the City.

More O’Tooles from County Wicklow arrived in South Australia over the next few decades. My guess is these people were related to John O’Toole in some way and came to South Australia in a pattern of chain migration for which the Irish were famous.

In 1844 my 2X great grandmother Ellen gave birth to another daughter, also named Catherine. This baby was my great grandmother, and the first of my ancestors to be born in Australia. Ellen gave birth to more children: Mary, Margaret, James, Thomas and Denis. Sadly, the youngest two died in infancy.

All of the O’Tooles who arrived in 1840 became owners of their own land, something they could never have dreamed of back in Ireland.

In September 2016 my husband and I had a holiday in South Australia, visiting the places where my ancestors had once lived. We found the burial place of John and Ellen O’Toole in the Whyte Yarcowie cemetery.

My mother Mary Dempsey grew up on a farm a few miles from Whyte Yarcowie. One hundred years ago Whyte Yarcowie was a thriving small community. Now it is a ghost town. Even the small cemetery was difficult to find.

Whyte Yarcowie-Jamestown Rd-2
Ruined farmhouses between Whyte Yarcowie and Jamestown
Photo credit: © Ramesh Thakur, September 2016

Whyte Yarcowie-Jamestown Rd-3

It was a cold day which made the cemetery seem even more bleak and desolate. As I stood at the graveside of John Thomas O’Toole and Ellen O’Toole, I wondered about their lives, particularly my 2X great grandmother. Ellen lived into the next century and died on 1 July 1901 aged 89 years. I thought of her giving birth to her first baby in the Emigration Depot. Who were her parents? Where was she born and grew up? When and where did she marry John Thomas O’Toole? Once she was a young woman with hopes and dreams. I knew I had to try to find out more about her.

Whyte Yarcowie
Whyte Yarcowie Cemetery, South Australia. The farm where my mother grew up is a few miles over these hills in the distance.

My first trip to Ireland

This is the post excerpt.

King John's Castle, Limerick
Beside the River Shannon, Limerick, 1972

In January 1972 I set off to see the world, leaving South Australia behind forever (although I didn’t know that at the time). Ireland was my first stop.  I knew nothing about my ancestors, apart from my mother’s family, the Dempseys who were from County Cavan. Perhaps there was something in my blood which drew me back to Ireland.

It wasn’t a simple matter to get there. In those far-off days international air travel was still relatively expensive. The cheapest way to get to London from Adelaide was a domestic flight to Perth, then 6 days of sheer tedium on a Russian passenger ship, the Khabarovsk to Singapore and finally a charter flight to London. After recovering at a Youth Hostel in Holland Park, I took the four hour train journey to Holyhead in Wales, from where I caught a ferry across the Irish Sea to Dublin.

Dublin was cold, dark and wet, a stark contrast to the heat and brilliant sunshine I’d left behind in Adelaide.  It was not just the weather which was grim. This was a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland dominated the news. A few weeks after my arrival, on 30 January 1972, the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland occurred. British soldiers shot dead 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march. The massacre was followed by huge protests throughout Ireland, and on 2 February the British Embassy was burnt down in Merrion Square. This was my introduction to Dublin.

I spent about three months in Dublin and found it an enchanting city. I had read quite of lot of Irish literature by this time. It was thrilling to walk the streets of the city and visit places which had figured in the books I’d read: the Martello Tower at Sandycove which features in the first chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the Cliff Walk at Howth Head, to walk across the cobblestone courtyard of Trinity College and visit the Library (and yes, to see The Book of Kells), to attend a play at The Abbey Theatre. I took the bus to Dún Laoghaire Harbour and walked along the pier. Dún Laoghaire used to be called Kingstown. I wonder if any of my ancestors may have departed Ireland from this port?

 Somehow Ireland didn’t feel like a foreign country. Several times strangers stopped me in the streets of Dublin to ask for directions.  I was thrilled that they mistook me for a local. I realised then that I “fitted in,” that I looked Irish.

After three months I left Dublin for England. I went on to Canada, married and raised a family. I continued to travel the world for the next 40 years, returning to Ireland a couple of times, but never in search of my ancestors. Now I am ready to begin my ancestral search in earnest, to find those lost voices from the past before it is too late. I am on this quest because I want to know who these people were, but also in the hope that there may be other descendants who find this story interesting.