Cousin Kerry

“Who would imagine you’d get so emotional about someone from 160 years ago?” Kerry O’Brien observed on tonight’s edition of “Who Do You Think You Are?” on SBS TV. The ABC-TV presenter was a little bit teary when reflecting on the plight of his ancestors. I completely understand what he was talking about, as I’ve often felt that way as I’ve researched my family history and have learned about ancestors I’ve never known.

The story that tears me up, every time, is the story of Ellen Laing. She was my great-grandmother, who was born in the small community of Towamba, not far from Eden on the NSW South Coast. Ellen had a relationship with, but never married, her first cousin, William Rixon. Willliam was born 1868 at Towamba (1868/902), the eldest son of Thomas Rixon and Jane Laing. They are documented to have had at least two children together, more likely four. Despite the relationship, on December 31, 1902, eighteen months after the birth of William Arthur (known as Barney), William Rixon married another woman, Bertha Mary Ramsay at Bombala Church of England (1047/1902). Throughout her life, Ellen continued to use the name Rixon, although her death certificate refers to her as Ellen Lang. Ellen appears to have lived a somewhat mobile lifestyle, as the electoral roles record her living in Bombala, Sydney, Lismore and Brisbane at various times. Ellen appears to have spent the last months of her life at Newintong State Hospital, which NSW State Records notes in these terms…

Although the residents of Newington Asylum were predominantly elderly, Newington and the other Government Asylums also assumed the functions of hospitals for the “ordinary pauper population” and for those with incurable conditions, or who required convalescent care, at one third of the cost to the Government compared to Hospital treatment.

Ellen died on June 16, 1950 (1950/009885) and was buried in a paupers grave in the Presbyterian section of Liverpool Cemetery. I never knew Ellen (as she died 15 years before I was born), but it’s certain to me her life experience influenced many of the decisions made my her children and grand children, and hence me.

Having worked for the ABC for many years, and having been asked on far too many occasions, “Are you related to Kerry O’Brien?”, of course I had to watch tonight’s program. The short answer to the question was always “I have no idea. It’s a pretty common name”. After watching tonight’s show, the short answer I am no confident is “No”. Even though O’Brien is an extremely common name, it would appear our ancestors come from quite distinctly different counties. Kerry’s ancestry is from County Clare on the West Coast, whereas my O’Brien ancestry is from County Meath, not far from Dublin. His ancestors arrived about ten years earlier than mine. They appear to have been fairly poor, whereas my appear to have been reasonably wealthy. His ancestors settled in Queensland. Although mine had intended to settle on the Darling Downs, they ended up on the NSW South Coast.

But there is a Queensland connection. Patrick O’Brien, the son of James O’Brien and Mary Smith who came to Australia in 1864, moved to Queensland and had a career as a horse trainer in the area around Woodford, north of Brisbane. There was also a connection in that both Kerry and I have ancestors who were on the Berry Estate in the Shoalhaven. But aside from that, there’s no apparent connection.

Even though we’re not related, it was a fascinating program to watch, and I felt it was especially interesting to watch Kerry, as someone who has spent his life as a journalist, bring a journalist’s eye to the primary documentation and interpretation presented on the program. In contrast to some of the other people they’ve featured who just say “wow”, Kerry’s eye was more critical, though not any less passionate.

Now, having scratched Kerry off the list of distant relatives, my attention now turns to potential cousin Joe O’Brien from ABC News 24 :)