Irish migrants in the Highlands - Part 1

MANY Irish families came to Australia as assisted migrants between 1850 and 1900, due to ongoing religious conflict. Some of these settled in the Southern Highlands.

BEFORE FIRE: Children of No 3 Cottage Home with Nurse Graham (centre) and visitors, 1903. Photo supplied by BDH&FHS

BEFORE FIRE: Children of No 3 Cottage Home with Nurse Graham (centre) and visitors, 1903. Photo supplied by BDH&FHS

Three Irish sisters, Elizabeth, Margaret and Kathleen Graham, separately took up local residence from the 1880s. Their inter-woven lives provide a personal glimpse into the district’s history.

Their parents, John and Kathleen Graham, came from Castleblayney in County Monaghan, located on the Irish side of the Northern Ireland border. Married around 1840 they eventually raised 10 children. By 1870 they were living in Sydney, probably at Ashfield.

The first of the sisters to come to the Highlands was Catherine (or Kate), the youngest.

She arrived at Mittagong in 1885 to take up duty as “ophthalmia nurse” and then as senior matron at a Cottage Home.

Catherine married John Smith at Ryde in 1891 but was always known locally as Nurse Graham.

A Bowral Free Press article in 1886 describes the Cottage Homes for State Children, recently opened at Mittagong, as being clean and well conducted. Miss Graham is mentioned as being a nurse.

For 21 years she was Matron in Charge of No 3 Cottage Home, situated at the corner of present-day Lyell St and Old Hume Highway.

Her next oldest sister Margaret had married Walter Tyrrell in 1883. They had three children in Sydney. A fourth, Ella, was born in Bowral in 1894 after Walter had established a dairy farm at Mittagong, named ‘Derrycreevy’ after a bridge at Castleblayney, his wife’s Irish home.

The dairy farm was located immediately opposite the Cottage Home, so the two sisters were neighbours. In the early 1900s Walter began a long period as alderman on Mittagong Council.

Fire destroyed the Cottage Home in February 1906. According to BFP reports on the fire and subsequent inquiry, Kate Graham was awakened at 2.30am on the night of the fire by the calls of Eva Penson, an inmate. Through a hole in the kitchen ceiling she saw a fire burning furiously out of reach in the loft.

With the help of Eva she got all the children, some crippled, out safely. She had no idea how the fire originated.

The Coroner’s verdict was that matron appeared to have done her duty, the evidence failed to disclose the origin of the fire, and an open verdict was returned.

By the time Walter and Margaret Tyrrell were aroused and came over, the back part of the building was well alight but all the children were out front. It was impossible to save the building, however some furniture was rescued from the front room.

The eldest sister of our trio, Elizabeth, was born in 1855. She married John McFarlane in 1875. He was an engineer by trade, born in Northern Ireland, and 15 years older than her. They lived at Rozelle, raising nine boys and one girl. In September 1905 John was killed in a tragic accident at Balmain.

Within a few years of becoming a widow, Elizabeth also moved to the Southern Highlands with two sons, Sydney and Blayney, who were still youngsters.

In 1917 she purchased a large rural property at Braemar on which Sydney built a residence known as Ravensdale and there raised a family. The legacy of the sisters lived on.  

ON THE FARM: Sid McFarlane with spade and horses at work on his mother’s property near Braemar, c1920.

ON THE FARM: Sid McFarlane with spade and horses at work on his mother’s property near Braemar, c1920.

  • Part 1 of a four-part series. To be continued.

Berrima District Historical and Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton

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