Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I look back upon my past and wish I had asked more questions. But then the answers most probably would not have stayed with me or would not have had any impact or meaning. So, it is perhaps a good thing that I can look back and make my discoveries as an adult.
I grew up in a small town where my childhood was coloured with many interesting living ancestors. I crossed paths with countless Great Aunts and Great Uncles along with vintage friends of the family. Like most families, there was one particular Great Aunt who shone like a treasured jewel. Indeed Aunty Nelly Hourigan was a much treasured family heirloom.
Nelly Deane was my Great Grandmother’s youngest sister and with an age difference of 19 years, she was part of my life for many years longer than her sister. My oldest memories of Aunty Nelly go back to early childhood. We regularly visited her at “Burwood” where she lived with Uncle Tom. We learned to ride on her big old draft horse named “Spider”. We picked cumquats and mandarins from her trees. All the while, an empty old house watched from the shadows of large mango trees in the yard next door.
I knew little about the significance of that old house, of the history that lingered behind the walls. I never enquired who had tread the floorboards or who sat on the verandah; nor did I ever question who stood at the old wood stove in the iron alcove at the rear of the kitchen. No, it sat in silence, and commanded silence in return.
The thought never occurred to me that it had once been a vibrant family home, where two little girls grew into adulthood, one being Nelly Deane. It was also the place where Irish immigrants George and Harriet Deane finally called home, where they lived into old age, where they left behind a rich family legacy. It was the place where their wandering roots, that sprouted in County Cavan, reached out across the seas to the land down-under and finally took hold in the fertile cane fields along the Haughton River in North Queensland.
As time goes on, I have gleaned snippets of information that form a picture of life behind those old tongue and groove walls. Recently I inherited two large photographs that would exceed 100 years old. They depict Aunty Nelly and her sister Lily riding horses at the Ayr Show.
“I remember those photos being on the walls of the old Burwood house,” Dad recalled.
In a discussion recently about George Deane’s strong personality, Dad recalled his father saying, “My grandfather would be sitting on the front verandah reading the paper, whilst yelling out instructions to my grandmother on how to do the housework inside.”
Aunty Nelly loved to tell stories. She was stone deaf which made idle chat a little difficult, and often she’d sit at our dining room table drinking tea and without any prompting stories would flow from her mouth. We tried on a number of occasions to record her ramblings, but she always sensed that something was going on and resorted to silence. Finally, Mum asked her to write down the details of her father’s life story and I am thankful that she did. Also I have acquired his obituary, written by his son in law William Lyons, which paints a colourful picture of his character.
The old house at Burwood has long since joined its owners in that great place in the sky. However, thanks to family stories, its significance still lives on. The man of the house was a great pioneering spirit of North Queensland. According to legend, he was an engineering genius, and the man to put to the task if you wanted to get things done. Perhaps he should have been a politician like his brother John. He had the foresight to envisage the Haughton River as a flourishing cane growing area and was the first to be given permission to grow sugar cane in the district. Much of the land he selected for his family enterprise is still in the family today, including my own family’s farm.
I wonder if my Great Great Grandfather was here today, sitting on his front verandah surveying his land, what he would think of his achievements. It was his vision that saw the establishment of an industry that is still going strong, more than one hundred and ten years later. He was the driving force behind the establishment of a mill on the banks of the Haughton. Invicta is one of the largest mills in the state today. All I can say is that I’d like to have a conversation with that old Irishman. He was indeed a pioneer worthy of recognition. Although I would say that very few people outside his family would have heard of him at all.
I can thank our most treasured heirloom, Aunty Nelly Hourigan, for writing down her father’s story. She has enabled present and future generations to learn their family history. I can also thank my Mother for recognizing the significance of the story and asking Aunty Nelly to document the details before she took them to the grave. I still have her seven page, handwritten account, and her words are worth more to me than any treasure of diamonds and gold.
We all have treasures waiting to be revealed; stories waiting to be told. The stories may not always be as historically significant as the one I’ve just told, however, as insignificant as the details may seem, they nevertheless are part of your DNA. The secret is to ask questions of our living relatives. Enquire about their childhood experiences, their family’s way of life, stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. The important thing is to simply engage a conversation and you might be surprised at the details you uncover.