Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Story of Edmond O'Donnell

This week's post tells the story of my maternal Great Grandfather, Edmond O'Donnell (1862-1893).

1862, the year of my Great Grandfather's birth, was the year that paper currency was introduced in the U.S. by President Abraham Lincoln; the American Civil War was in its second year; the first pasteurization test was completed by Louis Pasteur; Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) created Alice in Wonderland for Alice Liddell on a family boat trip; and John McDouall Stuart completed his third attempt at crossing Australia from north to south, successfully this time!

County Kilkenny, Ireland

Edmond O'Donnell was born in August 1862 at the O'Donnell family farm in the townland of Killonerry (Cill Ó Neire), County Kilkenny (Cill Chainnigh) in Ireland.

His father, John O'Donnell, was 49 and his mother, Catherine (Kate) Joy was 34.

At the time of his birth, there had been a history of the anglicisation of Irish surnames beginning in the late 1700s.  Many families felt the pressure to change their fine Gaelic Irish surnames into English surnames or English translations of the family surname.  There were strong socio-economic reasons for this, given that Ireland was under English rule and there was a concerted effort to completely subjugate the Gaelic way of life.  Thankfully, the process of adopting English versions of Irish surnames was halted and often reversed by many Irish families during the ninteenth century; which is what happened to our ancestral family name.

The O'Donnell family in County Kilkenny in 1862 was known as 'Daniel'.  On the birth record for Edmond his name is recorded as 'Danniell', although it was usually spelt 'Daniel'.  There are other errors on the transcription of his birth record as well.  His mother's name was recorded as 'Joyce', but it was 'Joy'.

Edmond already had six siblings.

Patrick (known as Patsy) was born in 1854.
Richard (known as Dick) was born in 1855.
Margaret was born in 1856.
Michael was born in 1857.
William was born in 1859.
John was born in 1861.

The family of John and Kate O'Donnell kept on growing after the birth of Edmond though.

Peter was born in 1864, when Edmond was 1.
Ellen was born in 1865, and Edmond was 3 years old.
James came along in 1867.  Edmond was aged 4.
Thomas was born in 1870, and Edmond was now 8 years old.  Unfortunately Thomas died a few months later.
Catherine arrived in 1871, when Edmond was 9.
Then Mary was born in 1872, when Edmond was aged 10.

Edmond and his 11 siblings grew up living on the O'Donnell farm, around 30 acres in size, in a house with stone walls and a slate roof. Back then, a house with stone walls was not the usual thing for a tenant farmer, so it appears that Edmond's father was able to provide a fairly comfortable home for his growing family.  Of course, as the children approached their early adult years, the realisation must have come to them that this single family farm would not support them all if they were to marry and have their own families.

The original building is evident in the photo above, which was taken about 15 years ago, before extensive renovations.  The house had been built sometime around 1806 and would have been considered quite a substantial farmhouse for its time.  Edmond's father and mother had moved into the home in the early 1850s.  They would have lived quite comfortably in the home to start with, but as the family grew to be a family of 14 in the 1870s, it would not have felt particularly spacious.

By mid-1880 Edmond's younger sister Ellen died when she was only 14 years old; and by the end of 1880, Edmond's oldest brother Patrick had left the farm and emigrated from Ireland to the U.S.  Edmond was aged 17.

Two years later, in early February 1882, Edmond's mother died at the age of 48.

Thanks to my Irish second cousin Brigid for the added comment:
" As an aside, both Ellen and her mother Catherine had died from tuberculosis. Neither had received any medical attention. That disease was rampant in Ireland at the time and entire families were wiped out."
Not long after the death of mother Catherine in early 1882, Edmond's older brother Richard also left the farm and emigrated from Ireland to Australia.

Towards the end of 1882 Edmond decided to leave the farm in Ireland and immigrate to Australia. Perhaps he had been closer to his brother Richard than his older brother Patrick, and that's why he chose to go off to Australia and not America?

Now I'm going to digress a little to mention that my post this week is in response to the prompt for Week 7 of the '52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks Challenge'.  The prompt is Valentine 💕💖💗
The definition of valentine is both 'a card or gift' and 'a sweetheart'.

Edmond O'Donnell travelled to Australia with a familiar neighbour, who would become his wife once they reached their destination.  Bridget Burke (spelt Bourke at home in Ireland) lived on a neighbouring farm, and it seems likely that they might have been courting for some time, making plans to head off together to a seemingly brighter future.

It is at this point that a little context is needed:

Bridget was the only daughter in a family of seven children.  The prospects of the family farm supporting so many children was quite hopeless; and as Bridget was a female, her choices would have been even more limited. She and Edmond would have been in a similar position.  His family farm was not going to support the thirteen offspring in their adult years either.

Both Edmond and Bridget were making the decision to leave Ireland at a crucial point in Irish history as well.  There had been two Great Famines that had resulted in mass deaths back in the mid-1700s and the mid-1800s.  The tragic stories of starvation and death would have been passed down in family oral history, as their parents would have grown up during the 1845-1851 Great Famine (now known as The Great Starvation).  Mass migration had begun in the 1850s, and both sets of parents would likely have experienced either family or friends leaving Ireland forever.

In 1879, when Edmond was aged 16, another famine occurred and over 1,000 Irish people were evicted from the land by their British landlords.  Even though it was of a far smaller scale, the 1879 mini-famine would have caused great concern amongst adults who had experienced The Great Famine as children, and no doubt this anxiety would have been keenly felt by their own children. 

The reality for both Edmond and Bridget was that neither of them would have had much of a chance at improving their lot if they were to stay in Ireland.  The sweethearts were prepared to leave their families behind and make a new life together in a far-off land. 

(Just as another aside ... in all, seven of the O'Donnell sons and two of the daughters emigrated from Ireland.  Apart from Richard and Edmond, all the other siblings headed to the U.S.  Only one of them returned to Ireland!) 

The barquentine-rigged steamer, the Almora.  (Photo in the public domain).

So it was that Edmond boarded the ship 'Almora' in England, along with his valentine, Bridget.  The ship departed Plymouth on November 22nd, 1882. At the time Edmond was 20 years old.  He was listed as a 'free' passenger.  The Queensland Immigration Act of 1882 allowed free passage for farm labourers and female domestic servants.  Edmond definitely met the criteria as he had been a 'farm labourer' on his family farm for many years.

I've often wondered what it would be like to leave your home and family, and head off on a long voyage to a foreign land, and interestingly, a shipboard diary exists, kept by an unidentified passenger on the same trip as Edmond and Bridget; so I know a little about their three-month voyage out to Australia.

It detailed the passengers aboard the ship, the places visited and the day-to-day weather conditions experienced on the voyage.

The unknown writer also noted things such as the large number of German passengers aboard the ship, and that the ship's matron, Miss Chase, supervised the single females quite harshly.

That would have included Edmond's sweetheart Bridget.  Although at the time, she was aged 32 (29 was recorded on the passenger manifest, but it was incorrect!) and had grown up with five brothers, so perhaps she gave Miss Chase some lip in return!!

Parts of this diary were included in a short article published in the January 22nd edition of the Brisbane Courier.

Brisbane Courier, Monday 22nd of February, 1883
Excerpt from the article "Arrival of the R.M.S. Almora":

"The Almora left London 20th November at 6.50 a.m., and Plymouth at 8.30a.m. on the 22nd. 

In the Bay of Biscay encountered rather rough weather for two days, but otherwise the run to Malta was fair. Malta was left at 1.30 p.m. on the 2nd December, and had favourable weather to Port Said. Port Said was left on the 6th, at 10.5 a.m.; had an easy passage through the Canal. 

In the Red Sea weather very warm till Aden was reached. At Aden detained four days for the mails; left Aden on the 16th, at 8 a.m.; encountered adverse trade winds in the Indian Ocean; otherwise had a fine run to Batavia. Left Batavia 2nd January, at 7.30 a.m., and proceeded to Thursday Island. 

Discharged cargo, and left Thursday Island on the 11th; proceeded to Cooktown, and landed ten immigrants and discharged cargo; left Cooktown on the 13th and Townsville on the15th, discharging cargo at each place; from Townsville proceeded to Bowen; left Bowen on the 16th, and Mackay on the evening of the same day, unable to discharge cargo at either of these ports, but carried it on to Rockhampton, where part was discharged, and the rest carried on to Brisbane. Left Rockhampton at noon on 18th, for Maryborough, and arrived at the Brisbane anchorage on Saturday, 20th."

The article also noted:
"Married couples in the bow; then a batch of single men, and another batch of married couples; while the single girls were allowed the privilege of using one side of the quarter-deck."

So all the passengers spent the entire three-month trip up on deck.  Edmond would have been on the side with the "batch of single men", and Bridget would have been amongst the single girls who had the "privilege of using one side of the quarter-deck".  When the ship encountered "adverse trade winds" in the Indian Ocean, I imagine the conditions would have been a little scary!

Once Edmond and Bridget had disembarked, they appear to have headed straight to Toowoomba.  Perhaps Edmond's brother Richard, who had emigrated the year before, was there; although I have been unsuccessful in tracking down Richard's movements after he had arrived in Australia.  I know for certain that Bridget had a brother living in Toowoomba though, so that family support would have been a drawcard.

A few months after arriving in Toowoomba, Edmond married Bridget Burke at Saint Patrick's Roman Catholic Church on July 22nd, 1883.  He was 20 years old.  One of the witnesses was Bridget's brother William Burke, who had been living in Australia for nearly 20 years.  

It was recorded on the marriage certificate that Edmond was living in Irish Town, which was just outside Toowoomba (and was to become known as Aubigny).  Obviously this was a little place where many Irish immigrants had settled in, amongst their own, whilst trying to find work, find a home and start a new life.  Bridget, meanwhile, was living in Toowoomba.

Edmond and Bridget had five children during the course of what-was-to-be their short marriage.

In September of 1884, their daughter Catherine (known as Kate) was born.  Her birthplace was recorded as Aubigny, also known as 'Irish Town'. Edmond was now 21 years of age.

Edmond's son John was born in 1886, when Edmond was aged 23.  His birthplace was recorded as the 'Agricultural Showgrounds' in Toowoomba.  So by this time Edmond and Bridget had moved from 'Irish Town' into the township of Toowoomba, most likely so that Edmond could be close to his workplace; but they had not yet been able to afford moving into a house.  Living at the showgrounds most likely involved living in a temporary dwelling and doing it tough.

Perkins Brewery, Toowoomba, photo taken between 1872 and 1882.

By 1886 Edmond had commenced work as a carter / carrier for Messrs. Perkins & Co. The company owned a brewery in Toowoomba and as a carrier, it would have been Edmond's job to deliver barrels of beer to the many hotels in the area. 

James, Edmond's second son (my Grandfather) was born in 1887, also at the Agricultural Showgrounds in Toowoomba.  So perhaps Edmond's job was not a well-paid one, or there was another reason why the family had not yet moved into a house in town.  

Knowing the rest of Edmond's story, I can state that it seemed he had a drinking problem.  Perhaps this had started back in Ireland, or perhaps it was the consequence of the hard life in Australia.  The promise of a brighter future had not borne fruit for Edmond, and perhaps he had become very disillusioned with the daily hard grind!  It seems likely he spent a lot of his wages on 'the drink'.

Unfortunately, in 1888, Edmond's first-born son died. His death certificate stated that he had been suffering from diarrhoea and convulsions for three days.  He was only 2 years old!  I'm not entirely sure why his name was recorded as James Patrick, when the birth record showed his name as 'John'!  

It was Edmond who had provided the details for the death certificate, so perhaps he was not all that sober at the time, and was confusing his first-born with his second son, James!  Edmond also gave Water Street as his address.  Given that the family was still living at the showgrounds when their next child was born, it's very unlikely that they had moved into a house at Water Street, as recorded on the death certificate! 

A second daughter, Mary Margaret, was born in 1890 when Edmond was 28 years old. Her birthplace was recorded as the Agricultural Showgrounds in Toowoomba.  So it seems the hard times had continued.

In 1892 another son, Maurice Patrick, was born.  Edmond was now 30 years old.  Maurice's place of birth was recorded by his mother Bridget as James Street.  So it seems that the family had finally moved out of temporary shelter and into a proper house. 

Unfortunately, Edmond's story ends just a couple of months later, in January 1893.  He was just 30 years of age, and had only been in Australia for slightly less than10 years.  The ending was rather tragic.

I found very detailed reports of Edmond's death in a few editions of two newpapers published in the area at the time, the Darling Downs Gazette and the Toowoomba Chronicle.  In the reports Edmond is named as 'Edward', which is not an error as he had been known as Edward by his family, and his wife Bridget.

Darling Downs Gazette, Jan 11 1893, p.3
Darling Downs Gazette (Qld.: 1881 - 1922), Wednesday 11 January 1893, page 3

"A Sad End.
A man named Edward O'Donnell, who for a considerable time had been in the employ of Messrs. Perkins & Co, Toowoomba, as cart driver, was found dead in one of the cells of the police station yesterday morning; about breakfast hour.

His removal to a place of safety had been rendered necessary owing to a violent attack of 'delirium tremens' by which he was overtaken on the previous night.

Mr. W. Andrews, to whom much credit is due for his efforts to overcome the violent ravings of the sufferer, supplies the following information: —

O'Donnell, who had exhibited symptoms of the dreadful infliction during the latter part of last week, was sent to the hospital from whence he escaped on Sunday evening and returned to his wife and family.

On Monday evening our informant was summoned to the rear of Mr. Giles' residence where the deceased, dressed only in his shirt, was employed in grabbing a gate post and otherwise behaving so strangely as to leave no doubt about his condition.

Mr. Andrews succeeded after much trouble in clothing him, and by skilful manoeuvring induced him to move in the direction of the town and police.

The progress was very fitful, and during its course two or three girls took fright and fled hysterically.
At last the poor man was brought to the corner of Herries and Ruthven streets, and Mr. Andrews accomplished the feat of finding a policeman. O'Donnell was soon in safe-keeping, and he was left for the night apparently much calmer. In the morning he was found dead, and a post mortem examination of the remains was made shortly afterwards.

Deceased was a finely built, muscular man of about 35 years (not quite correct, so he may have looked older than is years), and leaves a wife and family of small children. A magisterial inquiry will be held this morning. The funeral takes place to-day, and members of the Hibernian Society are requested to assemble in regalia at the hall at 1:30 in order to follow the remains of their departed brother to the grave."

Edmond had died in police custody and a magisterial inquiry followed.  The reports filed about this inquiry were very detailed.

Darling Downs Gazette, Jan 14 1893, p.4

Essentially, the inquiry found that Edmond had on the 9th of January, a Monday evening, been arrested and locked up because of his rather strange behaviour in the streets, as if suffering from 'delirium'.  He had been taken to the watch-house.  During the night he became very ill, experienced two fits through the night, the last of which he did not recover from, and died at 7.45 am the following morning, Tuesday January 10th.  He was pronounced dead by the Government Medical Officer, who knew him well as one of his own patients.  Dr. Garde stated that O'Donnell was a hard drinker, and deemed that his death was the result of paralysis of the brain, a coma, bought on by chronic alcoholism.

In my opinion, there were two other factors that appear to have had some impact on the chain of events for poor Edmond.  I know I'm his great-granddaughter, and might be slightly biased in my view of things, but ...

Bridget O'Donnell was called to give evidence at the inquiry, and she mentioned that Edmond had experienced an accident at work a week prior to this, and that her husband had not been drinking very hard at that time.

Her testimony:
"He was about 32 years old, was a native of County Kilkenny, Ireland, and had been nine years in Queensland; had not been drinking very hard lately; had kept at his work; had been unwell, having met with an accident in the show grounds over a week ago through lifting a heavy load on to a dray.
He went to the hospital last Saturday evening and came home about 3 o'clock on Sunday morning; all Sunday he seemed right enough and gave no trouble; early on Monday he grew fidgety and as evening came on got worse; he remained at home until half past 7 p.m. when he ran out from his bed, having nothing on but two shirts; that was the last time witness was near him; about 10 minutes later she saw him in the street; he did not return, and she did not again see him alive; he did not sleep since he came back from the hospital.
Dr. Nolan came to see him on Monday and gave the witness a sleeping draught; she gave her husband a tablespoonful four times, one every hour, according to the directions on the bottle.  She was sent for about 8 a.m. on Tuesday to go and see her husband; when she got to the lockup found he had just died; she knew her husband was in the lockup but did not go to see him until sent for on Tuesday morning."
Whilst it sounds terrible that Bridget did not go to the watch-house straight away on Monday evening, it was perfectly reasonable given that she had an 8-year old, a 5-year old, a 2-year old and a 4-month old baby at home.

I find it immensely interesting that Edmond had had an accident the week before, had obviously suffered some pain, but had put off going to the hospital for a number of days.  He had spent hours at the hospital through the Saturday night of that week, but decided to head home at about 3 o'clock in the morning of the next day, Sunday.

Did a doctor attend to him at all on the Saturday night?  It doesn't seem so because, according to Bridget, Edmond became very 'fidgety' early on Monday morning and not slept at all since returning home early on Sunday morning.  She must have called for Dr. Nolan because he turned up at her home sometime on Monday morning, and gave Edmond a sleeping draught.  Bridget then administered four tablespoons of the draught every hour, for the rest of that day, according to instructions!

I wonder what the 'draught' was, because it was on Monday evening that Edmond appeared to become delirious and started acting very strangely.

Another interesting event occurred the weekend before Edmond died.  Apparently the weather had turned extremely hot.  In fact on the day that he died, Tuesday January 10th, newspapers reported that it had been the "hottest day ever known in Toowoomba", with the mercury rising to "99 degrees in the shade at 4 in the afternoon."  Dr. Garde did mention in his testimony that "the hot weather would have a tendency to develop the congestion of the brain quicker than cold weather."

What if Toowoomba had not experienced such a heat wave at the time?  What if Edmond had received the proper care and attention he needed after being hurt in the accident at work?  Would the outcome have been different?  That's a question that can never be answered unfortunately.

It does seem rather sad though that Edmond and Bridget, who had left Ireland together, with such hopes, were destined not to live a long and happy life together.

Edmond was survived by his wife Bridget, aged 42; his daughter Catherine, aged 8; his son James (my Grandfather) aged 5; his second daughter Mary Margaret, aged 2; and his infant son, Maurice, aged just 4 months old. 

Footnote:  I'm joining the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks project / challenge.

The prompt for Week 7 is 'Valentine'.

You can join by blogging or posting on social media with the tag #52ancestors.

Check out this FB page:  Amy Johnson Crow


  1. A sad ending indeed. I’m enjoying your very interesting posts.

    1. Thank you CR. It's been a great experience collating material to fashion a story about these ancestors of mine. Some stories really touch my heart, and Edmond's story is one of those.

  2. Wow! Great post. Very thorough. I enjoyed reading Edmond's story.

    1. It's amazing what you find out when you dig a little deeper. Thank Caitlin, I'm glad you enjoyed the read.