Full lives, and those that never were

I got a call the other day from my sister asking for a favour. Her eldest boy – my nephew – had a school project he needed some help with. He had to come up with his family tree but had got stuck going back a few generations. Did I know anything? Could I help?

I didn’t know much more than a few vague notions, but I figured I might be able to help, and so I promised to look into it and get back to her.

As it happens, my uncle had done some work on the family tree some years ago. When he died, that information had ended up with my aunt – his sister – and then when she died, and I had gone up to tie up all the loose ends it had ended up with me. I had glanced at it once before, and so when I got the call from my sister dug it up out of the filing cabinet.

I sat down to read through it. My nephew was simply after a few details of his great-great-grandparents, names, place of birth etc. I quickly found that information but found myself digging deeper into the material. I worked through the family trees written up in my uncle’s left-handed scrawl, then into some notes he had made along the way. It was fascinating.

Two stories really stood out.

There was the story of my great, great grandfather. He had been an Irish rebel, captured by the English and taken to England for trial. He had escaped somehow and made his way to the States. He landed in Boston just in time for the Civil War. He fought for the north, before leaving the country for the southern hemisphere. He landed in New Zealand, wanted still by the English. He boarded a vessel bound for Australia (the Donald Mac Kay) and commandeered it halfway to Van Diemens Land. He diverted it’s course and landed in Portland in 1868. He fled inland, to Hamilton, started an illegal brewery and changed his name from O’Hare to O’Hara to avoid capture.

Great story, would have loved to have met him—big character.

The other story is much more poignant.

All this is my father’s side of the family. They had a big presence in the Ballarat region of Victoria. They married into the Poole family. Among the artifacts, I was left with is a small prayer book with a now tarnished bone cover. There is a handwritten inscription inside: To Flo, From Lily and Jack on the occasion of their marriage. April 21.4.10

Jack and Flo were my great-grandparents. His was the name I still have, she was a Poole.

Like in many country towns there is in Ballarat various monuments to those ‘fallen’ in the first war. Most notable of these is the Avenue of Honour – a straight road bordered on either sound by Cypress trees growing straight and tall on either side, each tree representative of a fallen soldier. Growing up, I was made aware of this. As an impressionable kid, I would look upon these trees with wide eyes, and with a sense of pride instilled into me. It was made clear to me that my family was among those who had lost someone in the war.

Pasted inside this little prayer book are little snippets cut from the newspapers of the day announcing births and deaths and various marriages. I guess that was the custom. Amongst these are tributes to a soldier who died fighting.

Sergeant-Major Poole died in the Dardanelles – what we know as Gallipoli today. He was the brother of my great-grandmother. Among the bereavement notices and condolences, there was one particularly that struck home:

A tribute of love to my beloved friend, Sergeant Major Leslie Joseph Poole, killed in action at Dardanelles 3rd June.

They miss you most who loved you best.

– Inserted by his sorrowing friend, Nell Mulligan

He was 21. From what I gather in the years after the identity of Nell Mulligan was a bit of a mystery, though clearly she was close to him and known to his family. You can only imagine the sheer sorrow and distress occasioned by the death of someone so young, so violently. Yet this is a scene repeated a million times over throughout the world. Millions of little tragedies being played out and never forgotten.

That’s near a century ago now, but you can’t help but wonder what happened to poor Nell. Did she find happiness? Did she get over the loss over her beautiful boy and marry another?

I wish I knew. Perhaps one day I’ll find out.

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