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Searching for Borrisnoe

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Last September I stood in a packed Brooklyn courtroom, held up my right hand, and solemnly swore to renounce my ‘allegiance to any foreign potentate’.

After 20 years as an Australian expatriate in New York, I was a brand new American citizen. Mild depression followed. I anxiously wondered, ‘What is it that I have so shamefully renounced?’

I decided it was time to do a little on-the-spot research, so booked a flight from New York to Melbourne with my nine-year-old daughter Grace. Allie, her cousin, joined us on a drive up through the Great Dividing Range and then down into the Goulburn Valley. We were searching for marks left behind by the ancestral Hamiltons who had taken up selections in the area.

At the cemetery outside the pretty town of Alexandra, a cracked, bitumen path separates the relatively substantial Protestants from the scrappy Catholics. We quickly found my grandmother’s gravestone, which dominates the Catholic section. The large pedestal is crowned by an imposing column that seems to have strayed across from the Protestant side. The grave is well preserved except for some rust on the ornamental iron fence.

We went back into town and bought crayons, butcher’s paper and masking tape. Despite a breeze that tore at the paper, Allie and Grace worked up a bright, red rubbing of the finely chiseled inscription:

In Memory of
Hannah Hamilton
(née Costigan,)
Wife of
Charles Hamilton
(Cremona, Molesworth.)
Born at Borrisnoe.
Co Tipperary, Ireland.
Died at Molesworth
29th Aug st 1905, aged 29 years

I had been taken to Hannah’s grave when I was about Grace’s age, but had never since felt any curiosity about her. I was told she had died of a fever passed by an infected midwife from home to home as she delivered babies throughout Central Victoria.

My father James was three when he lost his mother, and he was the eldest of three boys. Charles came next. The baby, Jack, never celebrated his birthday, because it was so linked to the day his mother died.

As we picked scraps of masking tape off the gravestone, I wondered if my father’s remoteness could be traced back to the tragic story revealed in Hannah’s inscription. I remember standing next to him in church when I was little and reciting the ‘Hail Holy Queen’. I felt his chest expand at the verse ‘To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve’. Even then, I guessed that the crying and banishment that seemed so familiar to him were related to his motherless childhood.

But of the woman who lay behind this sadness? All I cared to know was that she had died tragically, and that her shocking death seemed to have left an emptiness that rippled across the generations.

We sat on the gravestone—Charles Hamilton’s Taj Mahal—and began to create Hannah’s story.

I was surprised to read that she was Irish, born in Tipperary in about 1876. We imagined a damp, overcrowded farmhouse, a final, shocking goodbye to her parents, followed by a cold trek west to Limerick, or perhaps south to Cork, maybe with a brother or sister. Then came the harsh ocean voyage to Port Philip or New South Wales. A respectable marriage followed: Charles Hamilton had inherited a property that was important enough to be given the aspirational Italian name Cremona. The work on the farm was hard. Two baby boys came. And then expecting a third.

Grace and Allie were suddenly hungry and bored with ancestor study. They wanted to have fun. We drove under a canopy of river gums along one of Victoria’s most beautiful stretches of road to the village of Molesworth. We checked into the pub, and the girls happily trampolined on their twin beds.

It was Melbourne Cup eve, and the bar was packed. I asked the publican about Cremona. She called out to one of her patrons, Rick, who said the property was currently owned by a Melbourne syndicate, and was managed by Les Ridd, the owner of the neighbouring property. Rick fumbled under the bar and produced Ridd’s phone number. I called and left a message explaining that I was interested in taking a peek at Cremona.

Charles Hamilton ‘lost’ Cremona during the Depression. It was a shameful episode in our family history, and was buried behind a vague and typical family story of victimhood. Experiencing hard times, Charles had taken on a Kyneton solicitor as a partner. According to this story, the solicitor was a feral type, and the Hamiltons were soon evicted from their home. My oldest brother John never stopped wanting to restore Cremona to the Hamilton name.

Les Ridd called back, and when I explained my connection to Cremona, he invited us over. He is a gracious, welcoming man in his sixties, and full of energy. He says that farming today is a constant struggle to find new sources of income. As well as raising cattle, Ridd produces first-class olive oil and a superb tapenade. He is active in marketing regional fine foods.

Les explained that he is not the manager of Cremona but a local agricultural contractor who carries out fodder conservation and various activities on the property.

The girls happily jumped into the tray of the truck with Les’s dog, and we drove up to the iron gate at Cremona Park. Les lifted the latch, and I imagined that we were the first Hamiltons to pass through that gate in 70 years.

As we bumped along the track and down into the property, he praised the mix of grasses found in each pasture. He described Cremona Park as probably ‘the best property in Victoria’ because it so perfectly combines a favourable aspect, good soil, and the most productive ratio of naturally drained river flats to gently sloping hillside.

It is located north of the Great Dividing Range, providing a balanced rainfall and year-round sunlight. It avoids both the harsh droughts that persist even a few miles to the north and west, and the cold fogs that envelop the rugged valleys a short distance to the south.

We bounced past the dilapidated Hamilton farmhouse. I wanted to stop and peek inside, but I couldn’t interrupt Les, who was expounding about the value at auction of the Cremona-fed cattle. I strained to picture my pregnant grandmother and her two baby boys on the verandah, but could barely see the abandoned home through the overgrown garden.

The next day we drove back to Melbourne, where my sister Anna listed the few meagre facts that she had picked up about our grandmother. Hannah had left Tipperary with a brother and found work as a chambermaid in a guesthouse in the Blue Mountains. It was there that she met Charles, who was on holiday with his mother.

Two Saturdays later I woke up in Dublin’s Westbury Hotel, exhausted from speaking at a television industry conference. I was due to fly back to New York the next morning. I decided to lie in my luxurious bed linens and watch the Ireland vs South Africa rugby international.

Suddenly, destiny kicked me out of bed. I would go find Borrisnoe. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bookend my grandmother’s life in less than two weeks.

There was a basic problem. Borrisnoe didn’t seem to exist. No one in Dublin had heard of it. I checked the car rental map as well as several detailed tourist maps of Tipperary, but there was no Borrisnoe.

I drove out from Dublin to north Tipperary, and in the old market town of Roscrea I asked directions from a policeman, a hotel receptionist, a museum attendant, and many others. They guessed that Borrisnoe was once ‘town land’, but that it was probably long forgotten. They had heard of several other Borrises, but definitely not Borrisnoe.

It was mid-afternoon already, and the winter light was already beginning to fade. I came across a tiny library in Roscrea’s historic Damer House, and after leafing though a dozen reference books, I nearly gave up. But then a volume on Irish megaliths caught my eye. I half-heartedly flicked though the index. Bingo! There was Borrisnoe. A hand-drawn map marked a stone ring fort located near the headwaters of a river. I laid the crude map next to my road map, and guessed that the river was probably the nearby Saur.

I had an idea. The butcher would know every little village because that’s where he would buy his meat. I was wrong. The Roscrea butcher seemed to order from a Dublin wholesaler, but a lady waiting in the queue suggested that someone in the nearby colonial town of Templemore might be able to give directions.

With the light fading, I sped down into the Golden Vale of Tipperary, Ireland’s richest agricultural land. But Templemore turned up a lot more head shaking. As I sadly drove out of town, I noticed a butcher loading a meat tray into an Audi station wagon. He was my last hope. I turned the car around and approached him. He said that he knew of Borrisnoe, that it was somewhere past a nearby road junction called Kilkea, and that I should ask there.

Kilkea was a pub, a church and a farm. The church was locked, and two teenage boys fled from the pub when I knocked on the window. The farmhouse was dark, but as I drove by, a rusty Ford Escort pulled into the farmyard. I followed the driver, an elderly farmer, and, in the approaching darkness, described my search for Borrisnoe.

‘Well, Peter,’ he said, becoming deeply philosophical. ‘Isn’t life a wonderful thing. Here you are, coming all the way from Brooklyn and Melbourne, and looking for your grandmother’s footsteps in Borrisnoe. And after I send you on your way, we’ll never meet again!’

He sent me down a meandering lane bordered by stone fences, but I couldn’t follow his directions. I distracted myself by guessing that the conquering English had pushed the native Celts off the Golden Vale and up into these scrappy hills. I caught myself in a ‘Balkan moment’, embracing a 400-year-old national grievance. In my tiredness, it was if ‘we’ had been savagely wronged yesterday. But what a twist of the Imperial order that Hannah Costigan, one of the least of Her Majesty’s subjects, had briefly found a distant home on the best property in Victoria’s own Golden Vale!

At that moment, lost in a maze of stone-fenced lanes, I was confronted by the dismal thought that Hannah’s promising future at Cremona was made possible only because the native population had been driven out of Central Victoria’s river valleys. They had been routed by the two-hit punch of imported diseases and white men armed with guns and poison. That disaster for Australia’s natives hadn’t occurred half a millennium ago, but in the decades immediately before the Hamilton family and their Irish cousins took up their selections.

As darkness set in, I snapped myself back to my present situation—tired and vaguely lost near the headwaters of the Saur. Resigned to finding my way back to Dublin, I edged my car into a lane to make a U-turn. Two tractors loaded with hay slowly squeezed past. I caught up with them as they turned into a yard next to a plain grey farmhouse. I noticed a farmer standing in the yard, pulled over and approached him. He was a grey-haired, fit-looking man in his sixties—not at all unlike Les Ridd back in Molesworth. His name was Dan Greed and I told him I was looking for Borrisnoe.

‘And Peter, why are you looking for Borrisnoe?’
‘Because my grandmother Hannah was born there, and she died in Australia.’
‘Peter, what was her name?’
‘It was Hannah Hamilton.’
‘No, Peter. What name was she  born under?’
‘That was Hannah Costigan.’
He paused, and then held out  his hand.
‘Peter, she was my grandmother’s sister. And you’re me cousin!’

I was stunned and elated. I had done the right thing for my grandmother. Relatives were phoned, and we all stared at one another in the Greeds’ kitchen, puzzling over the complete lack of family resemblance.

After a while, Dan’s wife Kathleen left the kitchen and fetched a studio photo. It was a portrait of one of Hannah’s sisters who had emigrated to Texas, where she entered a teaching order of nuns. From beneath her habit, a modern face gazed with superb confidence into the camera lens, looking for all the world like our own Grace in dozens of photos.

Borrisnoe and the site of the demolished Costigan farmhouse were a short distance away in the darkness. We decided to postpone my visit until next time. It was very late and long past time to drive off to Dublin.

Dan wished me well, and asked me to promise to write next time I came to Tipperary so that he and his wife Kathleen would have a proper dinner ready for me.

Peter Hamilton is a New York-based consultant who specialises in the international television industry.



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My ancestors also were from Borrisnoe and I would like to contact the author. Can you point me in the right direction. Thank you!

Katherine Ogilvie | 18 March 2010  

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