Early in the antipodean Spring of 1973 I stood on the deck of an old passenger ship, Ellinis, as it sailed through the heads of Sydney Harbour and made its way slowly towards the iconic Bridge and Opera House. It was the end of a four and a half week voyage from England. I was just 12 years old and the previous three years had left me thoroughly English. I wasn’t that Australian anyway, born, as I was, in the Fiji Islands in the final days of the colonial era. When I was three, we moved to Australia, the land of my parents, and therefore, by default, my “home.”
Truth be told, I was a confused twelve year old. The land that lay all around me as the ship sailed up the harbour didn’t feel like home at all, but a foreign land. For my siblings – Stephen was seven and Peter was not yet two, it was even less like home. Peter had, till then, never even set foot in this land so distant from old England, the country of his birth. Only Jenny, my older sister, who was a young teenager in 1973, could really look out and say that she was coming home. She at least was born in Australia, though most of her first five years were spent in the islands. And as for England, she had never really liked it that much anyway.
Sailing into a new harbour has always been an emotion filled experience for me, and I have sailed into and out of many over the years. It is so much slower and more sedate than landing in an aeroplane. There is so much more to be seen from the deck of a ship, and there is so much more time to wonder and reflect, to think back over what has been, to anticipate what lies ahead. I barely remember now, forty five years later, that day we sailed into Sydney Harbour, but the feeling is still with me. Anticipation and excitement mixed with grief and sadness. That is what that arrival has meant for me and for so many others.
Ninety years earlier, in 1883, on Christmas Eve, a sailing ship, the Sydenham, made its own way up Sydney Harbour. A young man (1) stood at the railing (2) and took in the beautiful surroundings of the land that was to become his home. It was a very different place then. There was no bridge in those days, and only a few buildings dotted the shores. Sydney was a city of some 250,000, big by colonial standards, but a fraction of the megacity of today. I can only imagine the thoughts that went through his head as he regarded the forested shores of this harbour, so far from home. For him too there would have been sadness – he had left his widowed mother and his siblings in Ireland – and excitement – for the new life that was unfolding before him.
The young man was clean shaven apart from a rather sparse moustache set off against long sideburns, and this day he was dressed in his best suit. He wanted to make a good impression on this day of arrival, and he wondered if there would be anyone at the dock to meet him. He was the first of his family to embark on this journey, the first to migrate to this far flung colony, but he knew well at least one family in Sydney who had migrated from Killarney before him, and he hoped it would not be too difficult to find them. They were friends of his family back in Ireland, and in reply to his letters, written many months previously, they had promised him lodging, and possibly even employment. But how could they know when his ship was coming in, and what would he do if they were not there?
George Byrne was born in 1860 in southern Ireland, amongst the beautiful mountains and lakes that surround Killarney, County Kerry. He was 23 when he arrived in Australia. His father had been a nailer – a maker of nails, a blacksmith really – but he died the year George turned 12. George senior (father and son had the same name) had suffered chest problems for a long time, not helped by the smoke of the blacksmith’s forge, at which he had laboured for years.
In the autumn of that year, 1872, as the days got shorter and colder, and the winter winds began blowing in from the Atlantic, he contracted an infection which he could not shake. His wife’s concern gave way to alarm as he deteriorated each day, his cough becoming more congested, his breathing more laboured, the fevers more severe, delirium leading to lethargy and fluctuating consciousness. Then one day at the end of October, with his family around him, his shallow breathing simply stopped and he slipped away into the next world. He was only 42, and his death left a gaping hole in his stunned family.
Standing on the slightly leaning deck of the Sydenham, whose shortened sails stiffened in the fresh breeze, George reflected with sadness on those dark days of grief. Life had been tough for the Byrnes before his father’s passing, but it became even harder once he was gone. There were four children to feed, Hannah, 13, George 12, James 6 and Richard who was just 2. His mother, therefore, needed to work, since she had become the only breadwinner.
Before her marriage in 1857 Sarah Ruddle had been a sextoness – an administrative assistant and general helper – at the Church of Ireland parish church in Aghadoe, a village on the northern edge of the townland of Killarney. She had grown up in Aghadoe, where her father was the sexton at the church. It was because of him she gained employment as a young single woman. At 22 she married George Byrne in the same church, and their first two children, Hannah and George, were baptised there, in 1859 and 1860 respectively.
So though she had left her job when the children came, she naturally went first to the church for employment when her husband got sick and was forced to stop working. They lived by then in Killarney, where the family had moved after George junior’s birth. Their home was in Chapel Lane, close to the centre of town, so they had not been regular attenders at the Aghadoe Church since that time. What is more, like many others, they had started attending a Brethren assembly following the Kerry Revival in 1861, when Hannah and little George were just toddlers, so her connection with the established church was perhaps not as strong as it had been. She wondered if she would still be welcome at the Aghadoe Church, given her non-conformist leanings.
But she needn’t have worried. Her father was a staunch and lifelong member of the church, having worked as sexton for many years, and she was able to procure a position there (3), which went some way toward paying the bills and feeding the family. That, of course, left a gap back home, so Hannah, though she was just 13, had to leave school to look after her younger brothers and keep house. George, the oldest of the three boys, of course didn’t need looking after, and he too found employment, at a local store where he quickly showed an aptitude for buying and selling. His wages, meagre as they were, were a welcome contribution to the needs of the family.
Aghadoe lies a few miles north west of Killarney town, between the road north to Tralee and the road west to Killorglin, so it was a bit of a walk for Sarah Byrne, but she traversed it with thankfulness that she had work, when so many people around her lived in abject poverty. Sometimes she could get a ride in one of the horse drawn “jaunting cars” that travelled the roads between Killarney, Tralee and Killorglin. There had been a railway line from Killarney to Tralee since 1859, but Sarah seldom travelled by train, and there was no stop near Aghadoe. It was, after all, only two miles from where she lived and she could walk the distance in less than an hour.
George Byrne thought back to Aghadoe. It had been his home for the first years of his life and he still loved the village and its surroundings. He reflected on the long history of the area, a story stretching back to mysterious pagan beginnings. Missionaries had come – St Abban in the fifth century and St Finian in the sixth. Finian had founded a monastery, and the ruins of the Old Abbey are still there. George had been fascinated by the antiquity of his home town since he was at school.
As much as the history, he loved the surroundings, the wonderful views across the dark lakes and mist covered mountains of the Iveragh peninsula. But they were places he would never see again. His new home lay before him and around him. The European history of this new world was barely a hundred years old, but he knew there were Aboriginal people who had been here since time immemorial, long before white people had set foot on this continent. George, as an Irishman, knew what it was to have a foreign power come and take over his country. The English, with their remarkable sense of entitlement, had done the same thing in Australia as they had done in Ireland, simply arrived and assumed control. He wondered if the Aborigines, the first Australians, resented the English “invaders” as much as so many of his countrymen back in Ireland.
George suffered a little from identity confusion. His mother was of English stock, as were all the Ruddles. His father was a Byrne, from an ancient Irish clan that dated back to Viking times. His mother was Protestant, traditionally the religious leaning of the English, but his father’s heritage was Catholic (4). For reasons which had always been a mystery to him, his grandfather had converted, as had his father, who was born a Catholic but married a Protestant. Then his parents had come under the influence of the Kerry revival, which saw so many leaving both the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland traditions to start meeting in small informal home groups where they could worship God and practice their faith free from the confines of the traditions of either persuasion.
Neither Irish nor English, neither Catholic nor Church of Ireland – it was not surprising that George, as a young man, sometimes found himself feeling like a misfit in his native land. It was not surprising that he was attracted by the thought of starting afresh in a new place far away. So many others were leaving Ireland at that time – Killarney was a smaller town when George left that when he was born. It was only natural that migration would be part of the thoughts and conversation in the Byrne family, as it was in every Kerry family. His father’s death had somehow loosened the ties with Ireland even more.
But ultimately it was not a confusion of identity, or even poor job prospects, that led George to leave Ireland, but a pretty young girl who walked unexpectedly into his life when he was 17, turned his world upside down, and who just as abruptly walked out of his life a few months later when her parents migrated to Australia. Her name was Susie Hickson.
As the sailing ship tacked slowly up Sydney Harbour, George thought back to that summer 6 years earlier when he had fallen in love. Four years after his father died he had been fortunate enough to land an apprenticeship with a merchant in Killorglin, a certain Roger Martin. He moved to Killorglin in November of 1876, where he lodged with his employer, indentured for the next five years. He attended a small Brethren assembly there, but whenever he could he would get back to Killarney on a Sunday and spend the day with his widowed mother, his sister Hannah, and his two younger brothers.
It was at one of the Sunday meetings, a short time after he had started is apprenticeship, that he first set eyes on 16 year old Susie Hickson. Actually, it was not really the first time he had set eyes on her. They had played together when they were infants, when their parents were friends. His and Susie’s fathers were both blacksmiths, nailmakers. Both families were “Anglo-Irish” and both had joined the Plymouth Brethren. But the Hickson family had migrated to America when George was not yet five, and his memory of his early childhood was vague. George had largely forgotten Susie when she left Ireland at age four and sailed to America. From time to time he heard about the Irish-American Hicksons from his parents, who kept in touch with them by mail, but he seldom gave the Hickson children a second thought.
Why the Hicksons came back was something he still hardly understood. As far as he could work out, it was because Suzie’s uncle, who had migrated to Australia not long after her father had taken his family to America, had persuaded them that prospects in Australia were better than in North America. He was also aware that there had been a tragedy in the family when a younger brother of Suzie’s had died sadly of croup at age four. Perhaps that sadness dampened any enthusiasm that the Hicksons might have previously had for America.
Whatever the reason, when the family returned after 12 years in America, the almost forgotten Suzie re-entered his life, and George was captivated. Suddenly he found he could barely think of anything else. She had an older brother, Richard, who was closer to George’s age, and he liked him well enough. She had a younger sister, Lizzie, also born in Ireland, then two younger brothers and another sister, all born in America. But George had eyes only for Susie; his heart and his mind was flooded. He realised that he was in love, yet at the same time realised how hopeless that was. He knew from the outset that the Hicksons would only be in Ireland a few short months before they left for Australia, and George himself would not be free for almost five years more.
George and Susie’s relationship in that summer of 77 was circumspect, and it was not immediately obvious to anyone that the young apprentice was burning with passion for the young Irish-American lass. Suzie was sweet and vivacious and obviously very capable. Within weeks George knew that she was the girl he would marry. It tore his heart out when she sailed away, but from that time his mind was made up. He would serve out the remaining four years of his apprenticeship, and then he would leave. He would follow her to the ends of the world.
In the years that followed their contact was only by letter, which took months between Australia and Ireland. Suzie wrote about Australia, and Sydney, the city where her parents had settled. She herself had found work as a housemaid (5), and was gradually starting to feel at home.
George wrote to Susie’s parents and asked about job prospects. It seemed they were good. He could work for Susie’s uncle, John Hickson, who had a timber business in Sydney. What is more, he could lodge with them after he arrived.
But for all that, George was not able to leave Ireland till the second half of 1883, the year after he finished his apprenticeship. When the time came he left with no hesitation, as young men do, thoughts of his ancient and beautiful native land and his grieving mother engulfed by the excitement of the adventure that lay ahead. The voyage down the coast of Africa and the wild crossing of the Southern Ocean were simply a preface to the life of which he had dreamed for years, in a new country close to a girl he could not get out of his head.
Now here he was, sailing slowly up Sydney Harbour on Christmas Eve, 1883, after some four months at sea. He had not seen Suzie for six years. He knew she was no longer a girl, but had grown into a young woman. For his part, he felt he had something to offer, having completed his apprenticeship with Roger Martin. How would it be to meet her again? Would the attraction still be there, or would it have petered out? Would she still be interested?
Circular Quay was crowded with the towering masts of clippers, which lay docked between the newer steamships, but the Sydenham docked on the other side of Dawes Point. A steam tug had taken the ship in tow and another nudged the iron hull to where it could finally rest, at Dalton’s Wharf near Miller’s Point. George stood at the rail of the ship surrounded by a crowd of migrants and crew, some of whom had become his firm friends during the voyage. He searched the small gathered crowd on the dock, and finally spotted them, the Hicksons, in the mass of people. He recognised Mr and Mrs Hickson with relief, but his heart leapt when he saw that Suzie was there too. She had spotted him at the same moment, and was waving madly, a smile lighting up the lovely face he remembered so well.
He was far from his birthplace, on the other side of the world, and the green mountains of Kerry seemed far away. But when he walked down the gangway and was welcomed by his old friends, catching that wonderful smile of Susie’s, and hearing her sweet Irish-American brogue, he felt that he had come home.
- The George Byrne that I have written about here was my great grandfather, my mother’s grandfather, but he died before she was born. His fourth daughter was my grandmother, Gertrude Byrne.
- The ship that George sailed on was probably the Sydenham, but the details on the passenger arrival list are so scanty that it is hard to verify this
- I do not know if Sarah Byrne worked at Aghadoe Parish Church after her husband’s death, but it seems not unlikely. She was certainly a sextoness there before she married, and her father Thomas Ruddle was the sexton.
- I have only been able to find records of one Byrne family in Kerry with a son named George, born at approximately the right time to be the father of my George (and therefore my great great grandfather). That family is Catholic, and I have taken the liberty of presuming that this family was my Byrne family, though I have no way of verifying this.
- Whether Susie Hickson ever worked as a housemaid is also uncertain, but seems very possible.