Ghosts of Irish-Australia

Michael Lee

I was born near Nenagh, Co Tipperary in 1850. The Famine was still real, if not as bad as two years earlier and I’m sure that if I was able to understand what adults were saying, there would have been much talk about that terrible tragedy. My parents were among the many people who were leaving Ireland when we joined the Marco Polo from Liverpool to Melbourne in 1852.

I don’t know why we left Nenagh or how the trip was paid for. I know that landlords were paying for tenants to go to America, but Australia was a bigger ask and anyway my impression gained many years later was that the family paid our way. Also, we now know that Australia was particularly favoured by people from Co Tipperary and its neighbour Co Clare. There was a gold rush in Victoria at the time and that was attractive to many, so of course that was relevant for the Lee family.

The Marco Polo had 840 passengers and 60 crew and was the biggest ship going to Australia at that time. Most of the passengers on this particular trip, its first, were Highland Scots. I was one of the 327 children, of whom 52 died during the voyage, mostly from measles. I was only 2 years old and I have vague memory of being kept close to my parents and not allowed to play with the other children. The voyage took 78 days. On her return trip, the Marco Polo brought back gold dust and a special gift for Queen Victoria from the colonial government: a gold nugget, valued in today’s money at more than $20 million US and some change. On that return trip, it also bore the banner ‘Fastest Ship in the World.’

My early years in Australia were spent in Eganstown, near Daylesford. As an adult, I began business as a builder and contractor at Blackwood, a once prosperous mining town south of Daylesford. I moved to Bacchus Marsh, where I married my wife Margaret O’Connor of Blackwood. Together, we raised our family of five sons and four daughters.

In about 1915, we moved to Werribee to live on an irrigation block on the Duncans Road Settlement. I continued my work as a builder and contractor; among the several works we completed were the Corporation saleyards, which were still used as shearing sheds into the 1950s, the Exford bridge, the farm jetty and the Mechanics Hall at the Metro Farm, which I believe is still standing today, a hundred years later. I would be proud of that, except that we are not allowed pride up here.

I had to retire from work about two years ago and my heart gave out eventually in 1925 at the good age of 75. The local paper identified my family as follows:

            ‘Left to mourn the loss of a devoted husband and a fond father were his wife and the following family: Mary (Mrs Denis Phelan, Werribee), Johanna (Mrs A Ashby, Kyneton), Michael (Alexandra), Elizabeth (Werribee), Joseph (Terang), John (St Kilda), Francis (Werribee) and Phillip (Terang). One daughter is deceased.’

The paper pointed out that my funeral cortege was large – ‘ten motor cars and nearly four times that number of horse drawn vehicles’, it wrote – and added that several of my schoolmates from Eganstown and Mt Blackwood were in attendance also.

A number of my sons and several grandsons were top sportsmen, particularly at Australian football, which we all believed at that time was descended from Gaelic football. One of them, Bernie Lee, played for many years with Footscray and was full back on the team that was beaten in the Grand Final of 1961.

Bernie Lee takes a one-handed mark against St Kilda.

A number of my friends up here are keen to tell their stories also. I’m sure that if they sent some details to Tintean, the good folk there would look after them.

Michael Lee