Tag Archives: An gorta Mor

Caught In The Never-Ending O’Sullivan Maze

Over the last couple of days, I’ve found myself caught in the ultimate avoidance device -the Never-ending O’Sullivan Maze.

Well, you might ask where and what on earth this is. If you’re looking for a physical address, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hang on. There are actually physical addresses after all, but what this maze is referring to is nutting out my O’Sullivan family history and entering all these people into an online community at Wikitree. This is a free online database, which allows me to document and share my research and connect up with cousins without feeding the Ancestry machine. I am a great fan of the “free economy”.

Before I get stuck into the whys of the O’Sullivan Maze, I thought I’d launch off with the whats (or is it the whos?) Actually, it is a who. Who were the O’Sullivans? Next question: why do they matter?

Some would argue that they’re rather random and remote ancestors of mine. Although I don’t mention it very often on the blog, my surname is Curtin, although I’m actually known more by my married name, although I’ve only half-changed the legal documentation after 20 years of marriage. To reach the O’Sullivans, we need to go via the Curtins.

James Curtin, son of John Curtin and Bridget O’Sullivan with his wife, Charlotte Merritt

The story begins with John Curtin, who was my first Curtin ancestor to arrive in Australia. He was baptized on the 1st July, 1831 in the Parish of St Finbarr’s, City of Cork County Cork, the fourth child of Thomas Curtin a stevedore on Cork Harbour and Mary Scannell. On the 5th December, 1853 he sailed out of Liverpool as an Able Seaman on board The Scotia, and arrived in Sydney on the 2nd April, 1854.

On 5th September, 1855 John Curtin married Bridget O’Sullivan at the more humble, original St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney . John was aged 22 and Bridget was around 19 years old.

Bridget O’Sullivan was born around January, 1834 in Mallow, County Cork, Ireland to Daniel O’Sullivan and Mary Egan. They were living at Jones Lane, Mallow when she was baptised on the 20th January, 1834 by Father DM Collins who went on to become part of a delegation of Irish priests to lobby the English government for support during An Gorta Mor or the Great Hunger. Her sponsors were Edward Foley and Johanna Leary. Bridget had two younger sisters, Catherine and Mary Ann. The O’Sullivans sailed out of Plymouth on the 6th July, 1851 arriving in Sydney  on the 8th October, 1851. Shipping records state Daniel O’Sullivan’s occupation as Farmer’s Labourer and Mary Ann was a dairywoman. Bridget was 15 years old. She could read and write and worked as a General Servant.

The O’Sullivans didn’t just come out to Australia because they had nothing better to do. Rather, there were probably two forces at work. Firstly, there was the An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger or “Irish Famine”) 1845-1852, and the discovery of gold at Bathurst, NSW on the 12th February, 1851. When you put those two forces together, it was a no brainer. Moreover, Daniel’s brother David O’Sullivan, and Mary’s brother, Denis Egan, were already out here, and had paved the way.

Irish Signs at the Porterhouse Pub, Surry Hills.

That was how the O’Sullivan maze through Sydney’s Surry Hills and Paddington began. Around 1890, Daniel O’Sullivan’s brother, Denis and his wife Hanorah Cahill arrived in Sydney with their four children and youngest son, John Paul, was born in Sydney after they’d arrived. Their daughter Catherine Agatha married Thomas Edward Augustine Plasto on the 24th May, 1879 Sacred Heart Church, Randwick. They had six children before she died on the 25th November, 1891 and her husband went on to have an additional eleven children with his second wife. Fortunately, however, they’re not part of this maze, and the Plasto children were just the tip of the iceberg.

Anyway, before Denis and his family arrived on the scene, we had Bridget who had married John Curtin, and they had nine children. Before you start thinking they bred like rabbits populating Surry Hills, Paddington and beyond; three of their children died as infants.

Meanwhile, Bridget had her two sisters living nearby and I guess this is where I’m heading with this story…a story of three Irish sisters arriving in Surry Hills and the various ups and downs they and their descendants experienced. However, before I can really delve too much into the story, there’s the scaffolding of the actual family history and how these Irish families in Surry Hills and Paddington intermingled both genetically in families and as community. That’s what mathematicians refer to as the “working out”. You always need to be able to show your working out (if even if it’s as tedious and boring as those genealogical passages in the Bible.) You can’t just go from A to Z without being able to show how you got there.

Bridget Curtin’s sister, Catherine Murphy and husband Thomas had a grocery store at 410 Crown Street, Surry Hills. She did in 1895 and this photo was taken a block away on the corner of Fitzroy and Bourke Streets in the 1930’s. However, I thought it made a good parallel and I’m sure this woman, like Catherine Murphy, would’ve had her finger on the pulse and known what’s what in the community.

I have no sisters. I don’t have any idea of what it is to have a sister, and I’m barely in touch with my brother. I don’t want to idealise these relationships or create a closeness that wasn’t there. After all, perhaps these sisters had some intractable falling out and while they almost lived on opposite street corners, perhaps the emotional distance was an impenetrable void.

Charlotte Curtin and sons outside their grocery store on Cleveland Street.

That’s the trouble with writing non-fiction especially using real people with real names. Ideally, you somehow manage to walk in their shoes rather than turning them into a reproduction of yourself. Placing your stamp on their forehead. That is something I take rather seriously, and to be honest my efforts to reach the truth more often than not prevents me from writing anything at all.

My grandfather “Robbie”” and brother “Eddie”. Their mother’s handwriting was on the back of the photo.

Anyway, that’s not what I’m doing now. I’m transferring my who begat whom into this Wiki genealogy thing online. I don’t know why I started doing this. Well, I sort of do. I was talking to a friend and discovered a mutual connection via the Spora family and I was trying to nut it out. Bridget O’Sullivan’s niece, Johanna Maria Murphy, had married Gaetana “Frank” Spora and they’d had eight children. Three of their sons headed out to Rylstone near Orange taking the family out West. It’s interesting to see where all these various branches of our family tree headed of to.

Bert Curtin (left), and son Bob (my grandfather)

As it turns out, our family also sounds like a roll call of Irish Australia: Curtin, O’Sullivan, McNamara, Murphy, Donovan, Maguire, Quealy, O’Neil. They lived on Crown, Fitzroy, Albion, Arthur, Campbell and Ann Streets Surry Hills and also in Paddington and Woollahra. My grandparents made the radical move of crossing over the Sydney Habour Bridge after they got married in 1940. They starting out in Mosman, and settled in Lindfield, a suburb which came to represent their house within the family. My father and most of his siblings married outside the Irish-Catholic fraternity, which could well be a good thing. I married Geoff from Tasmania, and even then my kids managed to gain an additional O’Sullivan to add to two from me. I am yet to find out if mine are related. However, the Great Great Grandfather from West Maitland was actually born in Albion Street Surry Hills and his mother was Mary Sullivan, daughter of John Sullivan and Mary Bourke also of Cork. Small world…!

Anyway, I blame the mad lunatic in me who is in self-imposed lockdown trying to avoid the covid menace for all of this. The official stats clocked up to a massive 45,098 cases today and the graph just keeps soaring straight up. It’s covid soup out there and our family is madly trying to prepare for the likelihood that someone is going to bring Covid home, and how we’re going to manage that seeming inevitability. I spent a few hours on Friday afternoon trying to access RATs (Rapid Antigen Tests). There’s been no mention ANYWHERE about making them available for people with disabilities and chronic health conditions. Trust me. I’ve looked. It’s like we don’t exist. Physically I can’t queue for half an hour let alone 4-5 hours, and if I don’t have it, I don’t want to catch it while I’m waiting either. We can’t take our kids to be tested either. Indeed, that is even more of a no-no. Perhaps, they’ll have to walk. Who knows? I could be reading books, going for walks, baking, playing my violin and yet for some mad reason, I started working on this. The only explanation I can come up with is escape. Pure escape. No one would ever think to find me here – corona virus included.

Do you have Irish heritage? Or perhaps you’re Irish yourself? Maybe you have no Irish blood whatsoever, but you’d still like to have a chat. You’re all welcome. The cricket is on the TV but I’m ignoring that, and I can offer you a cup of tea, some leftover gingerbread house, but it’s a bit more difficult to offer you a seat on the couch.

Best wishes,

Rowena