Family Fragments (cont.)

The Breens

And, now, what about the Breens, my mother’s family? In many ways, compared with the McDonells, a very different kettle of fish!

The Breen family came from central-western Ireland, from Tipperary County, whence came, indeed, most of the Irish people who migrated to Australia in the 19th century. Their home district was in South Tipperary, round a place called Donohill, but various members had settled in other, nearby neighbourhoods. I haven’t been able to trace them back past about the 1840s, but, like most devoutly Catholic Irish people, they had been poor after the occupation of Ireland by the English in the 17th century. Various members seem to have gradually built themselves up a bit, getting leases to land and thereby being able to have their own cattle, the main source of wealth, and being able to do some farming. This not only provided them with food to eat, but also some extras left over which they could sell at market. In the middle of the nineteenth century there was a great famine in Ireland. It is still a heavy memory for many Irish people-several million were said to have died, and its causes are still debated. Anyway, as a result, many Irish emigrated over the following decades, especially to the United States and Canada, but also to Australia.

My grandfather, Michael Breen, was one of a large family and seems to have come to Australia about the same time as the Doolans, my grandmother’s family. He was the youngest, and probably because of that had no hope of inheriting anything from his parents, and so life in the new country was his best hope. Although family legend has it that at least one other Breen from this family came to Australia I have no record of any other of those Breens coming to Australia. Of course, there are other Breens-the name is found in several parts of Ireland-but it is not common in Australia.

The Doolans came in the mid 1870s arriving in Rockhampton in the “Scottish Bard’ on 18 August 1976.   Like so many others they were attracted to the district because of the boom, and, IN great grandfather Doolan’s case by the construction of the large Lake’s Creek meatworks, for he was a butcher and soon opened his own butcher shop in Rockhampton.  So, by the standards of the day, he and his family were comfortable and I have heard that he later opened one or more shops and, in particular, stood by Nana when her husband turned out to be pretty hopeless as a provider.

There were two links between the Breens and the Doolans-another Breen cousin married Johanna elder brother John Doolan-so perhaps they knew each other back in Ireland, and perhaps Grandfather Michael and Grandmother Johanna did too. Gold had been discovered north of Rockhampton at Canoona in the 1850s and then large deposits were found at Mt Morgan, just 38 kms south of Rocky, as it used to be called in the family, in 1882. Already Queensland had been growing quickly, with many migrants from the British Isles, and now it became even more popular. This is no doubt why the Breens came there, and the McDonells, too, although they stayed on the land.

Michael Breen, however, had neither money nor special work skills-although I was often told by my mother that he had gone to school ’till he was a man’-that is, about 18 years old, because, she said, the family had a great love of learning. In those days in Ireland such a level of education was rare indeed, and he must have been regarded as smart and also much favoured by his parents and brothers to be able to do that. Also, again, perhaps because he was the youngest, and would not get any of the family land. But in Australia the education wasn’t much use to him and so he went as a labourer into the mines in Mt Morgan. As far as I know he worked there and around Rockhampton all his life. I never heard much about Grandfather Michael although Mum said he was a great singer and dancer, and was often called upon to entertain at weddings and parties: he used to get up on the table and tap dance and sing-it was a great act, apparently-and all of his sons were good dancers, too, and most of them sang or performed poetry. It was, as they used to say, ‘in the blood’. But it seems he used to drink a lot, and no doubt was well ‘plastered’ at all the parties, and he didn’t get enough money to provide well for his family. He died fairly young, when he was 53, in Maryborough and it seems that he had been thrown out by his family. Indeed, I have been told that it was my mother who was instrumental in getting him to leave the family because of all the stress he brought upon Nana.

His wife Johanna, my Nana Breen, was, as I remember from the late 1930s/early 1940s, a handsome, very Irish-looking woman, serious, not very talkative, kind enough to me but not very affectionate, but the dominant figure among her family. By all accounts she had had a pretty tough life and her children idolised her for what she had done for them in just bringing them up. She and Michael had 8 children, as follows, in order of birth:

Mary, Lawrence (Larry), James (Jim), Catherine (Kit, my mum, born in 1895), Patrick (Paddy), Michael (Mick), Cornelius (Con), John (Jack). All of these names were common in the Breen and Doolan families in earlier generations.

During the years in the forties when I knew her, after we had come back from Roma and Ipswich, she was living in a house in Davidson St, Newmarket, Brisbane which the children, but especially Mary, had bought for her. We stayed with her till we were able to move into our Ashgrove Avenue house. My parents had come down to Brisbane in the late 1920s/early 1930s from Roackhampton, where my brother , Brian was born , nearly ten years before me. Dad had got a promotion and got the move to the Queensland capital, the ‘big smoke’, probably because they reckoned that there would be better opportunities, especially in education, and also probably because Mum thought she should be near her mother. (By this time, both of Dad’s parents were long dead.) It was also the beginnings of the Great Depression when all the economies of the world went into a tailspin, and there was a huge amount of unemployment-in Queensland it was 30 or 40%-that is, more than a third of men were out of work and they and their families had to live on the ‘dole’, a very small amount of money which the government paid out each week. (Of course, very few women worked at paying jobs in those days, so that if the man lost his job the whole family was in trouble).

Fortunately for us, the people employed in the Railways were not, because of the strength of the railway unions, affected nearly so much-they had ‘permanent’ jobs and couldn’t be fired. So Dad was never out of work, but other members of both the Breens and the McDonells were unemployed during these years. When we came back to Brisbane from the years we were in Roma and Ipswich years, and I was about seven, this whole area of the stream and its big banks and flood plains, and rough land where there were no houses, with bush all around, was a great place for me to wander and play in. But more of that later.

Because the Breen family needed the money which Michael, the father, didn’t provide, Larry, as the eldest boy, had to leave school before he was ten and so didn’t get much of an education. But he was very keen to learn, and very ambitious. Years later, he told me-and was very proud of the fact-that he was determined to get some education, somehow stole some money, and bought himself ‘table books’, that is, arithmetic books for learning the multiplication and division tables, and other books so he could teach himself. This he did, and then he got himself jobs in the mines and the industrial works around Rockhampton which involved machines. He did trade studies as an apprentice and got certificates which allowed him to operate big machines, like cranes, and large digging machines, and just about any of the many machines which were common in those days, and most of all, motors and electricity generators.

Many years later, when I got to know him when I was about 10, he showed me all his certificates, and it was a very thick pile that he had. I was impressed. So before long, he was licensed to operate just about any sort of machine around. In those days, many factories and places like hospitals and railway yards and tram yards and steel works had their own electricity generation facilities, because the electricity plants that the towns ran were too small to handle anything apart from household and street lighting. Even many towns didn’t have much of that. And, also, in those days, and for many years later, the towns themselves were not connected to other towns in one grid so that they could help each other. It wasn’t until after World War 2 that big transmission grids were built which linked up the whole State, and it wasn’t until after 1995 that the whole of eastern Australia was linked into one grid. Now, there is one electricity grid which stretches from North Queensland to Tasmania to the west of South Australia-the longest in the world, a development which I, in  turn, had something to do with, as I shall retail.

So, Uncle Larry was very proud of the fact that, as still a young man, he was put in charge of installing the electricity machinery for the project which brought electricity to the whole of Rockhampton, which by then was quite a large city-it was a big accomplishment for a boy who had left school at ten, and stole money for tablebooks! During this time he became a member of the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association (FEDFA) which was one of the largest and most politically active unions. Of course, its members were powerful because they were the only ones who could run all those machines-just as the members of the Australian Railways Union, like my father, were powerful because they ran the whole railway network and the big telecommunications system which covered the whole State of Queensland. But more of that later.

Grandfather Michael who was born on 20 October 1855-his address is given as Lisheendarby, probably a part of Donohill-was the son of Lawrence Breen (though it is spelt Laurence in the record of the marriage that I got from the Tipperary Family History research group of the Archdiocese of Cashel and Emly in Ireland) who married Winifred Hickey on 9 February 1832. I don’t have a birth record for Greatgrandfather Laurence but Greatgrandmother Winifred was born on 1 December 1811, so probably he was a few years older. The address of both of them is given as Shanadanganon, According to the marriage certificate.Michael had the following siblings, according to the records:

James, born 9.9.1832; Cornelius, 1.9.1834; Mary. 23.3.1840; Ellen 16.3.1843; John 15.8.1844; Patrick 4.3 1847; Laurence 22.6.1851

The address of all of them at birth is given as Lisheendarby

Greatgrandmother Winifred would have been 44 when she had Michael.

Grandfather Michael married my Grandmother Johanna Doolan who was born at Cappamore, not far away in County Limerick, on 9 June 1887 in Rockhampton. He died on 13 August 1914. Johanna was born on 9 November 1865 and her parents were James Doolan and Catherine Deere. So she was ten years younger than Michael.

Michael and Johanna had the following children:

Lawrence born 4 Dec 1887 died 5 December 1887

Mary Winifred born 24 march 1889, died about 1960 in Brisbane

Laurence born 9 June 1890 died about 1954 at ‘Remilton’ Beverly (Larry’s daughter) and Norman Robinson’s property west of Goondiwindi

James born about 1894 died 1942 in Brisbane

Catherine Cecilia born 7 March 1995 died 1966 in Brisbane, my mother

Patrick born 5 April 1900, died about 1950 in Ipswich

Cornelius born 18 March 1902, died about 1975 in Brisbane

John born 7 April 1904 died about 1970

The details of their marriages and children are recorded in the Family Tree file.

The only member of the family in Ireland about whom much is known was Daniel Breen, son of a cousin of Michael, and therefore my mother’s second cousin. During the later years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century there was a great upwelling around the world of desires by the underclasses and the underpriveleged to have a greater say in their lives, to achieve ’emancipation’ or ‘independence’. It was then that the working class movement which developed trade unionism and produced the Labour parties of the world started to mobilise; the first attempts at revolution were made in Russia; and the colonies, such as India and Ireland, started to develop political movements designed to drive off the colonialists (in these two cases the British) and to achieve political independence. In 1901 Australia itself became independent: before that it had been a collection of states which were colonies of Great Britain.

Ireland had been occupied by the British for centuries. It is a long story and there are good histories of it. Not only did it suffer from the oppression of occupation by a foreign army, but there was also religious persecution and discrimination. Roman Catholicism was the deeply held religion of Ireland, or Eire, as it was known in Gaelic, the native language, going back many centuries. Most of northern Europe had been converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries during the Dark Ages from about the 5th century to about the 10th. So it was a very long tradition. Anyway, the Irish in general were poor, had little of the good land, had great difficulty in getting education, and were not even registered when they were born-the only records were the baptismal record in the parish church when they were christened. (This continued well into the 19th century-the records I obtained of my grandfather and his family are all baptismal certificates: there were still no official records kept by the government even at that time.)

In 1916 there was an uprising of nationalist Irish in Dublin, which became known as the Easter Rising. It was defeated by the British Army, and the ringleaders were executed or jailed. This was the first major attempt by the various Irish patriots to organise a major action against the British, though there had been informal movements begun years before. Dan Breen, with his more famous mate, Sean Tracy, were the founding members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood which later became the Irish Republican Army. Its first unit was the 13th Tipperary Brigade. From the beginning it started military training for its members and, in his book, ‘My fight for Irish freedom’, first published in 1924, he describes these early days and how the Brotherhood, many of whom later became the Irish Volunteers, trained and organised. His book is a very good, swaggering, self-promoting read-I have a copy.

Dan and his companions made several raids on police stations and police parties and also tried to assassinate the British Governor of Ireland. Today he would probably be called a terrorist, but of course to many of the Irish people he was a freedom fighter and a hero. Later on there were many military engagements with the British Army. During this period Dan reported directly to Danel O’Connell, the leader of the Irish independence movement. It seems that he was put in charge of ‘flying squads’ which were undercover operations carrying out the assassination of British informers and other enemies of the independence movement.  At this time also the British brought over from England a militia group infamously known as the ‘Black and Tans’, because of the uniforms they wore. These were used to keep order with great brutality among the Irish people.

As a result of the whole political campaign that was going on in Ireland of which Dan Breen was a part, the British finally decided to give Ireland the independence that was sought. It is a long story which Dan Breen gives a lot of detail about in the book, but, anyway, in 1922 Ireland won ‘home rule’ and a few years later became a completely independent Republic. Dan Breen became a member of the Irish Parliament, known as the Dail, (pronounced doil), where he served for many years. He is still regarded as an important historical figure in Ireland.  He was often spoken of with glowing praise by my Breen uncles, but in fact most of them were not very active in the political struggles of the time. The exceptions were Larry and Paddy, while the others, as my father used to say, ‘talk a lot but don’t do much’. He was very opposed to this-for him, a rather silent man, he thought that ‘if you want to know what a man is like, watch what he does, not what he says.’

My aunt Mary was the eldest of the Breens, and being a girl, it wasn’t considered important that she get a good education, especially as the family was poor. So she left school early-I don’t know when-and before long was working in the Railway Refreshment Service, which I described above. She must have been so employed for years, and was moved around various towns that were important in the railway system and so had Railway Refreshment Rooms, as they were called. These were large rooms with a high counter running around one or more sides from behind which the waitresses served the people when they came in from the trains. Usually the stop was for about half an hour, while the train took on water or while some other operation had to be completed, just time enough to get a cup of tea and some sandwiches or cakes or pies; but at the bigger places the train would stop for lunch or dinner for about an hour, and so there would be a big rush to get seats around the large tables. My father always seemed to be a bit of a wizard at being able to get cups of tea and whatever at the refreshment rooms and bringing them back to Mum and me and anyone else we happened to be with.


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