The Irish

Mary Magenity (1818-1874)

Our Irish heritage began with Mary Magenity from County Down, in what is now known as Northern Ireland. I know nothing of her family or heritage, but it is recorded that she was a domestic servant, a housemaid, and that at the age of 17 was accused and found guilty of stealing from her employer. She was duly imprisoned, and then sentenced to transportation, to the penal colony of New South Wales on the far side of the world. She arrived in December 1836, by which time she was 18 years old.

Employment as a housemaid suggests a family heritage of relative poverty, as does her name, Magenity. Interestingly, in later life Mary took to recording her maiden name as MountGarrett, which has a distinctly more aristocratic ring to it, but the reason behind this change is uncertain. A convict background was not a thing of pride then as it is now, and there seems little doubt that Mary was eager to build a new identity once she had served her term and become a free woman. Was the name MountGarrett made up, her way of reinventing herself? Or was it real, an indication of a truly aristocratic heritage? And if that was the case, what was our Mary doing as a housemaid, and how did her family become so poor that she felt compelled to steal from her employer, presumably to supplement her meagre income?

Mary’s name was changed anyway within a few years of her arrival when in February 1839, at the age of 20, she married another convict who had arrived some years before her, an Englishman named William Watts. He was 12 years older than Mary, a widower, whose first wife had died in England before he was transported. Although they began their married life as indentured servants, once freed they apparently settled down to life as dairy farmers in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Balmain, where they raised their family. They had 13 children in all, though one died in infancy, and another in childhood. Mary’s sixth child, Martha, was born in 1848 and seven more children came after her. Martha Watts was my paternal grandmother’s grandmother. Mary Watts (Magenity or MountGarrett) died in 1874 at the relatively young age of 56. Her death certificate records the cause of her demise as exhaustion, which is understandable after 13 children, but she apparently also suffered some kind of “concussion of the spine,” whatever that might mean. She is buried in the Church of England cemetery in Balmain.

John Christopher Hickson (1848-1945)

In 1866, when Martha Watts was 18, an Irish immigrant named John Hickson arrived in Sydney. He came from Killorglin, in County Kerry, and was about the same age as Martha. Somehow he ended up lodging with the Watts family, though he may have initially lodged with one or other of his older siblings who had migrated to Australia before him.

John was the youngest of his family, born in Kerry in 1848, during the Famine years. In 1853, when John was only five, his oldest sister Susan, in her early twenties, migrated to Australia, for unknown reasons. A short while later his mother died, leaving his father to raise young John with the help of John’s older siblings. However, over the ensuing years, those siblings, in ones and twos, left Ireland. When he was seven two more sisters (Mary and Ellen) migrated, and when he was 15 another sister (Kate) and an older brother (George) also departed from Ireland and made the long journey to Australia. Finally, in 1865, with John now 17, his oldest brother William, who was married with three children, departed Ireland too. Unlike the rest of the Hickson clan, William and his wife Mary went to North America where they settled around Boston Massachusetts. With them went William and John’s ageing father, Richard Hickson, who died and is buried at Providence, Rhode Island.

John, it seems, was left as the only one of his immediate family in Ireland. Why he didn’t go with his father and older brother William, to whom he was surely closest in the family, is uncertain. I suppose it is possible that he did go with them, and later went on to Australia, but I have no records to indicate that. Migration records for John Christopher Hickson have proved impossible to find with any certainty. This suggests he was a self funded migrant, unusual in one so young. Most migrants were sponsored by relatives already in the new country, and extensive records exist for such assisted migration. But for unassisted migrants the records are sparse, and in some cases non-existent. The absence of records is what makes me suspect that John was not sponsored by family already in Australia, but arrived under his own steam, at his own expense.

Even if his date of arrival in Australia is uncertain, what is certain is that by the end of 1868 he was living with the Watts family in Balmain. My father’s cousin, Don Robinson, who is now very old and unwell, had an old Bible passed down to him with an inscription inside as follows: “Miss Martha Watts: A slight acknowledgment for untiring attention and kindness during sickness. Jn C .H. Nov. 6th 1868.” This is the oldest documentary evidence of which I am aware that records John Hickson’s residence in Australia.

It seems incredible that the Watts family, with 11 children (two died young), should have room to take in a lodger, though it is likely that some of Martha’s older siblings had left the family home by the time John Hickson met them and moved in. I suppose they would have valued the extra income, and he was, after all, a countryman to his landlady, Mary Watts (Magenity).

John’s background was ostensibly different to Mary’s. Born in southern Ireland during the awful years of the Famine, he was the son of a nailer, not a particularly auspicious profession, but he could trace his heritage back to an English clergyman who had come over to Ireland during the Elizabethan plantations of the sixteenth century. As such he seemed to see himself as a product of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and later in life named his Sydney home after the Hickson “ancestral seat” in Dingle, Kerry, a stately home called “The Grove,” which was destroyed I believe during the Irish Civil War of the 1920s.

John himself, however, was born not in Dingle but in Killorglin, some distance eastward toward Killarney, and spent part of his childhood (perhaps after the death of his mother in 1853) in the picturesque village of Sneem on the southern side of the Iveragh Peninsula, the next promontory south from the Dingle Peninsula on the wild west coast of Ireland. Why he lived in Sneem is uncertain, but I have wondered if his father and his older brother William may have found employment as nailers on a large estate near there owned by the Brand family, another family of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, no doubt known to the Hicksons of The Grove, in Dingle. It is unclear exactly what John’s family’s connection was with those Hicksons, but the connection was important to John, who in his writings refers to the big house in Dingle as the “ancestral seat,” even if he certainly never lived there.

After his arrival in Sydney, and while boarding with the Watts, John found employment with a timber merchant, George Hudson, in Sydney. Within a few years, showing entrepreneurial flare, he “went out on his own,” starting his own business. He sourced timber from Nabiac (near Forster in NSW), transported it by ship down to Sydney, and sold it in the city, where building was booming. It was the right business to be in at that time and his wealth grew quickly.

John and Martha Hickson

In 1872, when they were both 24 years old, John and Martha married, and over the next 21 years they had 11 children. Their first born, Alice, was, according to Don Robinson, “born at Botany Road, Waterloo” but the family later lived in “Cleveland Street facing Albert Park.” At some stage they moved to Summer Hill and in the late 1880s they moved again to the house which they named “The Grove” (after the “ancestral seat” in Dingle) in Liverpool Road, Enfield. Alice was my grandmother’s mother.

William Carter Hickson (1832-1899)

John’s older brother, William, had, as mentioned above, migrated to America a year or so before John had left for Australia. William Hickson had married in Ireland in 1858, when John was 10. Before they left for America, he and his wife Mary had three children, all apparently born in Killarney. In the USA they would have four more. William was a nailer, like his father and at least one of his brothers, George, but in America he had a variety of employments, including farming.

William married Mary Needham, who had grown up in Templenoe, just a few miles east of Sneem. Her family was of English origins: her father had been a captain in the Kerry coastguard but later became a parish clerk in Templenoe. The Needhams were staunch members of the Church of Ireland in Templenoe, and would be greatly influenced by the revival that broke out in Kerry in 1861, which resulted in the emergence of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Four of Mary Needham’s brothers became evangelists or pastors in the great awakening that happened in America in the late 1800s under the influence of JL Moody.

William and Mary Hickson

Of William and Mary’s three Irish born children, the second was Susan, born in 1861 in Killarney. She was always called Susie. Her older brother was Richard, and she had a younger sister, Mary Anne, who was known as Lizzie. Susie was three when the family moved to America, and spent the rest of her childhood there. But when she was 16 her parents decided to return to Ireland and start again. Her parents were in their early forties by then and in addition to their three Irish children (Richard, Susie and Lizzie) they left the USA with three more American born children, William, Charles and Sarah. There had been another boy, Christopher, born in America, but he died of croup at age 4.

They left America, it would seem, at the urging of William’s younger brother John, in Sydney. John was very fond of his older brother, and clearly missed him greatly, separated as they were by so many miles. Somehow he persuaded William and Mary to return to Ireland and migrate for a second time, with their whole family, this time to Australia. John sponsored them and when they arrived provided employment for his older brother in the family business. William and Mary were never as well off as John and Martha, but they were comfortable. Their six children grew to adulthood in Sydney, cousins to John’s Australian born tribe of 11.

Susie, born in Killarney in 1861, raised from age 4 to 16 in Massachusetts, was 17 when they arrived in Australia in 1878. She doted on her young Australian cousin, Alice, a sweet little six year old when the two first met in Sydney. I wonder if she shared with Alice her special secret. During her short sojourn in Ireland she had fallen in love with a boy just about her age, whose family lived in Killarney, but who himself was an apprentice in Killorglin. His name was George Byrne, and he was the eldest son of friends of her parents. It is even possible the Hicksons lodged with the Byrnes during those few months in the summer of 1877. When the Hicksons sailed for Sydney, Susie had left a part of her heart in Ireland, with the boy she loved.

George Byrne (1860-1929)

George was not free to follow Susie to Australia when she left with her family in 1877. He was only 17 himself, and had just commenced an apprenticeship to a general merchant in Killorglin, where he was indentured for 5 years. The general merchant in Killorglin, as it turns out, was an old school friend of John Hickson, Susie’s uncle. So there is no doubt that John, in Australia, knew the Byrne family well, though he had left Ireland when young George was only 5 or 6. His older brother, William, after all, was good friends with George’s father. Kerry was not such a big place in the middle of the 1800s, and the Protestant community, of which all these families were a part, was even smaller.

At some time after he had completed his apprenticeship, George Byrne junior left his family and siblings behind in Ireland, and shipped out to Australia to follow the girl he had fallen for in the summer of 77, Susie Hickson. It is uncertain exactly when he arrived in Sydney – he too appears to have been an unassisted migrant who paid his own way, so the records are scanty, but it is recorded that he married Susie in 1885 in Summer Hill, Sydney. This suggests that Susie, her siblings and parents, were, in the early 80s, living in the same suburb of Sydney as her uncle John and his wife Martha. The marriage certificate for George and Susie records George’s occupation as clerk. He worked, I believe, in retail, and would eventually become an executive in the IXL company, one of Australia’s oldest and biggest jam companies. He worked for them until he retired.

George and Susie Byrne

George and Susie Byrne were my great grandparents, my mother’s Irish born grandparents. They had seven children, including five girls and two boys. One of the boys died in infancy, so the one remaining grew up with five sisters. One of those sisters was my grandmother, my mothers mother. Her name was Gertrude, but she was always called Gertie. Another sister was Emily Constance, known as Connie. The three other sisters were Lena (Kathleen), Frances and Isobel. Kathleen was the first born in the family and outlived them all, dying in 1986 at the age of 100. She had never married; neither did Frances or Isobel. The three spinsters lived together in the Blue Mountains when they were old. I knew them as “the aunts in the mountains,” but they had all spent most of their lives in Sydney and had only moved to Springwood in retirement.

The only boy in the family was William, a veteran of both world wars. Although he married he never had children, so the Byrne name passed out of our family when Kathleen died in 1986.

Richard (Dick) Byrne (1870-1946)

George Byrne, who followed his sweetheart to Australia in the 1880s, had two younger brothers, James and Richard, who also migrated to Australia much later. James I knew nothing of until recently, and may have been estranged from the other two. Richard, however, 10 years younger than George, does feature in our family story. He came out in the 1890s, and most likely lodged with his brother George and sister-in-law Susie. Here he met Susie’s young cousin, Alice Hickson, and they fell for each other in a flash.

But there was a problem. Alice’s father, John Hickson, would not consider a partnership of his daughter with Dick Byrne. The reason for his opposition remains obscure to this day. Richard was purportedly an amiable young man, well liked by all who knew him, except John Hickson, the father of his beloved Alice.

John was so alarmed by the blossoming romance between the two of them that he decided to force a separation by taking his daughter Alice on a world trip, in which they would return to the old country. Presumably he things to show her there, perhaps secrets to tell. It would be John’s first trip back to Ireland since his departure nearly thirty years previously, and Alice’s first time away from Australia. John’s wife, Martha, had only recently had their last child, and she remained in Australia to care for the family. John and Alice were gone for six months. It was 1893 and Alice was just twenty years old.

How Alice felt about Richard on her return is uncertain, but I suspect nothing had changed. However, it is clear that nothing had changed in her father’s mind either, and a marriage between them was not going to happen. He remained steadfastly opposed to a union between his daughter and the young Byrne from Killarney, even if his niece was married to the older Byrne. Alice ended up marrying a much older man, William Ross, in 1895, a man whom her father clearly saw as much more suitable. I have always felt a bit sorry for William, since it would seem that Alice never really loved him.

William and Alice Ross were my father’s grandparents. Dad remembers his grandmother as an unhappy person, rather self obsessed and spoilt, who liked to be the centre of attention. Together William and Alice had five daughters but no sons. One of their daughters, Winifred, was my grandmother. Which is odd given that my other grandmother, Gertrude Byrne, was the daughter of George and Susie Byrne. Susie Byrne and Alice Ross were first cousins.

Many years later, and to everyone’s surprise, bewilderment, and her ageing father’s irritation, Alice Ross, recently widowed, finally married Dick Byrne, the man she had fallen in love with so many years before but who had been barred from marrying her by her father. Not long after Alice married William Ross, Dick cut his losses and married Victoria Gray, the daughter of Irish immigrants from Cork, and they raised a family of seven children, in a different part of Sydney. The Byrne name is carried on by them. Sadly Alice and Dick only had a few years together, since Dick died shortly after their marriage, but Alice, when she died, in the early 1960s, was buried a Byrne. Her father must have turned in his grave. It is hard to imagine how life would have turned out if Alice and Richard had married in their youth.

Hicksons and Byrnes

John Hickson lived to a ripe old age, dying just before the end of the Second World War at 97 years of age. Throughout his life he had maintained a love of travel and of the land of his birth. He made the long voyage back to Ireland at least twice more during his life. On the second trip his beloved wife Martha died while returning to Australia. John ended up marrying an English woman he had met on the ship who had nursed Martha through her final illness. His second marriage ended when she too died some years later, and John married a third time, another English lady. His third wife survived him.

The remaining enigma is why John Hickson disliked Dick Byrne so much. The answer must lie in his early years in Ireland, and may date back to their respective families long before the time when they migrated. I have wondered if Dick, like his older brother George, did an apprenticeship with John’s old friend in Killorglin, and whether there was a falling out between them. I have even wondered if perhaps John had fallen out with Dicks parents in Ireland before he had ever left, but Dick wasn’t even born when John left Ireland.

More recently I have wondered whether the reason was religious. Although the Byrnes were Brethren/COI Protestants, it has occurred to me that George Byrne senior or his parents may have originally been Catholic. But I have not been able to prove this. The antagonism between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland is well known and has gone on for centuries. John Hickson’s ancestor was an English COI clergyman, but various members of the Hickson family over the centuries had become Catholic. Perhaps John saw Dick Byrne as a Catholic, and was prejudiced against him because of that. But that too seems far fetched, given the number of Catholics in the Hickson family. So the mystery remains.

Whatever the truth, there is little doubt that John Christopher Hickson is the central person of our Irish ancestry, though our Byrne ancestors are probably the most “Irish,” if their roots are indeed in the O’Byrne clan which dates back a thousand years in Irish history. The Hicksons were originally English, as were the Needhams, the family of Mary Needham, William Hickson’s wife. The Ruddle family, whom George Byrne senior married into, was also English. But the Byrnes were Irish, and it’s from them we derive most of our Irish identity, whatever that is.