My great grandfather Patrick McGrath was born at Finnahy in Tipperary and was baptized at the church in Upperchurch on the 19 Jul 1848. He was the eldest son and fifth child of Thomas McGrath and Mary Ryan. In 1853, when Patrick was five, the family left Ireland and migrated to Australia. For the first six years in Australia the McGraths lived in Richmond, around 2 miles east of central Melbourne, but in 1860 they moved to the Ballarat area finally settling at Glendaruel (17 miles from Ballarat) where Thomas took up farming.
Little detail is known of Patrick’s childhood. Patrick’s father, Thomas, could read and write but Mary, his mother, could only read. Patrick definitely could read and write so it is fair to assume that he received some education whilst living in Richmond. There were four church schools established in Richmond in the 1850s and one National School in 1858, all of which charged fees. Even those working class children whose parents wanted their children to attend school could not always afford it, consequently school attendance was erratic. It was not until the Public Education Act of 1872 was passed that all Victorian children became entitled to an education that was free, secular and compulsory.
In 1875 Patrick married Margaret Ryan at St Thomas Aquinas, Clunes. Mary was the daughter of Patrick Ryan and Margaret Crennan and had been born in Drumgoole, Kilkenny in 1851. She appears to have arrived in Queensland around 1869 and stayed there for two years before finally settling in Victoria. The witnesses to the marriage were Margaret’s brother-in-law Patrick Lacy and Patrick’s sister Annie McGrath. Patrick and Margaret’s first two children were born in the area with Thomas Francis born at Clunes in 1876 and Patrick Joseph at in Coghills Creek. In 1879 Patrick McDonnell, Patrick’s sister Bridget’s husband, found employment for Patrick on the Victorian railways. This may mean that Patrick McDonnell was aware of employment vacancies and who was doing the hiring and sent Patrick McGrath to that person rahter than Patrick McDonnell actually employed him. By May 1880 Patrick and Margaret were living at Drouin in Gippsland where their eldest daughter Mary was born. Four months after Mary’s birth, Patrick’s father Thomas died at Glendaruel. His farm was left to Patrick but with secure ongoing work with the railways, Patrick clearly saw a better future with the railways so the farm was sold by 1883.
From then on Patrick, and Margaret remained in Gippsland with the places of birth of their next six children evidence of their movement around the district as Patrick worked as a repairer on the railway line around Longwarry (about 5 miles west of Drouin) and later Bunyip. They moved to Boisdale in 1890 when Patrick became a ganger, overseeing a gang of men laying the lines between Maffra, Boisdale, and Briagolong.
While they were at Boisdale, the family lived in a railway house near the railway line. Margaret worked as a gate-woman, opening and closing the gates across the road when the train went through the town. By 1908 the family had shifted to Maffra where they lived at a house called Cypress in Johnston Street. Patrick, never shy of hard work, began work harvesting sugar beet around the time he retired from the railways in 1911. The sugar beet industry, established in 1896 at Maffra, had been revived in 1910.
Patrick died unexpectedly aged 63 on 26 August of that year of heart disease, the same disease which had taken his father at 64. He was buried at the Maffra Cemetery in a large family plot where later his wife Margaret (1851-1924) was buried as well as their sons James Hislop (1885-1915) and William Lawrence (1883-1927), their daughter Mary Ellen (1880-1924) and their granddaughter Lorna (1923-1923). The Maffra Spectator of Monday 28 August 1911 (p.3, c2) reported
We are sorry to record the death of Mr Patrick McGrath, which occurred suddenly at Maffra on Saturday night. He had been up the street in the afternoon, but at 7 ‘clock in the evening he complained of feeling unwell and went to bed. Dr. Bona was sent for and attended to the sufferer, but the heart was affected and death occurred at 11 pm. Mr McGrath, who had recently retired from the Railways, was highly respected by all. The funeral will take place this afternoon.
Patrick left an estate worth £2,000 comprising two houses and Bank shares, around $150,000 in today’s money – not an extraordinary amount, yet substantial for someone who had essentially spent his life labouring. His legacy was also a family of honest, hard working children who were a credit to him. To them he also left attitudes learnt, no doubt, from his own father and reinforced by his own experience of life. He was a strong believer in the benefit of hard work, honesty and frugal habits. My own grandfather’s philosophy, learnt from Patrick, was that a working man needed not only to earn his wage but also something for the fair boss who had given him the work, for if he had not provided him with that job there would be no wage.
Although he had spent most of his life in Australia, Patrick was still culturally Irish. There is a story handed on, with a laugh, by my grandfather of a boy he went to school with who was very ill with pneumonia and thought to die. Patrick and Margaret and their children were sitting around the fire in the evening when they heard, in the distance, a dog howl three times. Patrick said, ‘Poor Michael has died.’ So they all got to their knees and prayed for the repose of his soul. The next morning Patrick took himself over to offer his condolences to the boy’s parents only to be told Michael had improved and the crisis had passed. There is an old Irish belief that the sound of a dog howling three times indicates that someone has died. Another gift from Patrick’s Irish heritage was the art of storytelling. As a child, when staying with my grandparents, we did as my grandfather had done during his own childhood, sat around the fire in the evenings while the adults told stories – some thrillingly true, others embellished for effect.
With 700 years of English occupation of Ireland, suspicion of England was not easily thrown off by the Irish, even in young egalitarian Australia. Only one son of Patrick’s joined the Australian Infantry Force during World War 1 and that was my grandfather Jack, although he did leave it rather late, joining in 1918 as the result of a recruitment drive in Queensland (Ryan’s Thousand) where he was working as a stockman. There was apparently horror amongst members of his family at what he had done with one remarking, ‘Your father would be spinning in his grave to think that one of his sons was fighting for the English.’ Yet while there may have been suspicion of England as a concept, my grandfather said that his father never treated any person as worthy of less respect because of his origins.
Once again Patrick’s story is of that of someone who came from Ireland and by hard work took advantage of the many opportunities a developing country offered and so lived a far better life than could have been expected as the son of a small tenant farmer in 19th century Ireland.
©Catherine Anne Merrick
Image of St Thomas Aquinas Church via http://www.churchhistories.net.au/church-catalog/clunes-st-thomas-aquinas-catholic/
Map courtesy of Google
All other photographs are in the possession of the author.