My Irish Story

By Nonie Holman

My grandmother said we were all sons of Ireland. As a little girl this puzzled me a bit – perhaps she just meant my three brothers. She had polished off a few beers at the time.

In the corner of Grandma’s room sat George O’Reilly’s sea chest. This was a sacred item not to be touched by small children.

When years later my mother died, there amongst her treasures was George O’Reilly’s sea chest. I had no idea who George O’Reilly was but being retired I was determined to find out.

My grandfather was Joseph Reilly so it sounded like a connection.

The sea chest contained memorabilia including three letters from a Sister Mary Joseph written from the Convent of Mercy, Downpatrick, County Down in Ireland. Aha!

Sister Mary Joseph wrote news of her family in Ireland to her relations in Australia. Us!

The letters were written in 1889, 1903 and 1914. So we definitely have relatives in Ireland and my son Phillip, aged 28, travelled to Ireland to find them.

Phillip’s Story

I arrived in Downpatrick and found the convent. I stood before the large wooden doors and hesitated. What sort of reception would a young Australian chap get arriving at a convent? Would the nuns even speak to me? Well, I’d come so far. I took a deep breath and rang the bell.

Sister Mary Mercy answered the bell. She looked to be in her late seventies, but still wonderfully alert, active and welcoming.  We sat down in the entrance parlour and I told her the reason for my visit – to see where my great-great grandfather’s niece had lived during the time she had written letters to my ancestors in Australia.

Then Sister Mercy said something I never expected to hear. She said she had known Sister Mary Joseph. Sister Mercy had entered the convent in 1939 and Sister Mary Joseph died in 1942. Her recollections were of someone who had always given her a warm smile, comforting her and making her feel at home in the strange new surroundings at the convent. I was given a tour of the main passage, chapel and dining room, walking the same halls as Sister Mary Joseph. Then Sister Mercy showed me the graveyard where Sister Mary Joseph was resting at peace.

I was invited to sit down for a cup of tea. The ‘cup of tea’ turned out to be three cups, 12 sandwiches, fruit, tea-cakes and a bowl of ice-cream and jelly!

Finding the Living Relatives

Armed with Sister Mary Joseph’s birth name Mary Horan and her birthplace of Arklow, I travelled down to County Wicklow.

I arrived at the office of Births, Deaths and Marriages in Wicklow. To my dismay I was told the records were not for public viewing. However, my crestfallen face prompted some sympathy – Mary at reception said, ‘well perhaps if I help you, we can find it double quick.’

Mary was amazed to find I was looking for Horans as she was related to them and thereby related to me. It is wonderful how being related will open doors.

We researched for hours and came up with a complete family tree of the Horan family of Halls Lane in Arklow including Kevin Horan who was alive and well.

Left to Right: Phillip holding painting of Joseph Horan (Kevin’s father), Kevin Horan, Kevin’s son Joseph holding a picture of James Horan (Kevin’s Grandfather)


Armed with Kevin’s phone number from Mary, I timidly rang. A soft, confident Irish voice answered, ‘Kevin Hore-On speaking’. “
‘Hi, my name is Phillip. I’m from Australia. I have some letters written by Sister Mary Joseph and I think I’m related to you.’
Without a pause I nearly fell over when I heard the response,
‘Well you’d better be getting yourself over here then.’

Next stop Arklow. Timidly I knocked on Kevin Horan’s door. Kevin, a man in his eighties, answered.
‘Have you brought back the pot of gold then?’
Kevin had met his niece Sister Mary Joseph and had been to her funeral. He had five older brothers who all went to sea but Kevin became a carpenter. He married and raised four children, three daughters and his son Joseph seen in the photograph on the left.

So how am I, Phillip, connected to the Horans?
My research found that the Horans and my Australian relatives are descended from Joseph O’Reilly and Mary McDonald who married and lived in Arklow.

Joseph O’Reilly was born about 1810 and was a fisherman. My research found very little about Mary McDonald. Their son George O’Reilly also went to sea, but in merchant ships travelling world-wide.

[Here ends Phillip’s story.]

George O’Reilly

Papers left in his sea chest showed George O’Reilly sailed all over the world. He visited Melbourne as part of his job on merchant ships. He must have liked the country because on a later voyage he applied for and was granted permission to stay in Australia.

He settled in Williamstown and on his marriage certificate his occupation was labourer.

George and Jane O’Reilly, the writer’s great grandparents

He dropped the ‘O’ from O’Reilly, possibly because he felt (at a time when the Irish were treated like second class citizens) that it made him seem less Irish. I don’t think anyone was fooled.

Today we are all immensely proud of our Irish heritage.

He married Jane Taylor in St Mary’s Catholic Church in Williamstown in 1880. They raised three sons together.


Jane Taylor

She was the wife of George O’Reilly and she was my great grandmother.

Born in Williamstown, Jane was the daughter of an English convict named Richard Taylor and an Irish dairymaid named Anna White from Limerick.

In the early days of photography it was common for photographers to call on houses door-to-door and encourage the occupants to have their photograph taken in front of the house.

The older of the two little boys is my grandfather Joseph Reilly.

Ann Taylor

Mother of Jane Taylor and my great-great grandmother

Ann Taylor was an Irish dairymaid. She arrived in Australia on the ship Argyle on 1st March 1841, when she was aged 22. The Argyle docked at Williamstown.

The Argyle’s records show her registered as

NameJohanna White
ProfessionDairymaid, unmarried female
ReligionRoman Catholic
Native PlaceCounty Limerick, Ireland
Bounty£19 ($38)  

Also on board the Argyle was Georgiana McCrae following her husband to Australia. The Victorian seaside town of McCrae is named after Andrew McCrae. Georgiana was a member of the aristocracy, talented and well educated. She wrote a journal of her life in Australia including the voyage of the Argyle. So we have a record of what Johanna White’s voyage was like.

It is a very precious thing to have an account of an ancestor’s voyage to Australia.

In her wonderful book “Georgiana’s Journal” we find this reference

Steerage Folk

Such groups you see clustered
Of these merry emigrant wretches,
With clothes made to let in the weather;
O, for Cruickshank, to make a few sketches!

There’s no end of striking and biting;
There’s no end of bawling and squalling;
Love-making, scolding and fighting;
Cly-faking ——— and eke caterwauling.

(cly-faking: pickpocketing. Cruickshank was a passenger on the Argyle)

The Argyle sailed from Gravesend in very bad weather on Sunday 27 October 1840. There were about 50 bounty emigrants on board. On 30 October the Argyle anchored off Plymouth. Georgiana writes, ‘Late in the afternoon, to our dismay, no less than 150 emigrants swarmed up our sides, a drab and ugly crowd, who had been waiting for several days, insufficiently provided for; this is spite of the fact that we had been assured that although she would carry Bounty emigrants they would be so few as to be hardly worth mentioning.’

(Poor Johanna White was in this group of ‘drab and ugly emigrants’.)

Johanna married Richard Taylor at St Francis church, the first Catholic church in Melbourne, in 1845. They lived and raised their family in Williamstown. Today, Richard Street is named after Richard Taylor; the parallel Rosny Place was originally called Anne Street, after Johanna, before authorities decided that streets should not be named after women.

The photograph shows Ben Lovitt, Megan Holman and Sarah Lovitt, great great grandchildren of Richard and Anne Taylor, standing under the sign for Richard Street in Williamstown in 1999

Johanna (Anne) died in 1890. Her death notice read:

Taylor – on 14th March, at her own residence, Ferguson St, Ann Taylor, an old colonist of 49 years standing, native of Limerick, aged 71.

Another old identity has gone
Ne’er shall we see to us her like again.
Naught but a kindly mother – this aged one,
This loving, patient, faithful ancient dame,
A dame whose age topped life’s appointed span
Young in her age was she – her heart was young:
Loving and strong, to kindly deeds she ran –
Our generous care has joined the heavenly throng
Rested for age Angelic hosts among.

The Current Generation

Our Irish relatives Joseph Horan and his wife came to stay with us in Melbourne. It was spooky how alike Joseph and my brother were in looks, characteristics and outlook on life.

We have had two visits to Ireland staying with Joseph in Navan, County Meath where I especially enjoyed a tour of Newgrange. On another visit we stayed in Dublin enjoying a tour of the historical sites of the Easter Uprising. There are still bullet holes in the Post Office columns!

It was deeply satisfying to meet all of the living Irish relatives and be shown around their wonderful country. We especially enjoyed meeting Kevin Horan in Arklow and seeing the home where my great grandfather George O’Reilly grew up.

Photograph shows Bernard Reilly, cousin of the writer, in his robes as Mayor of Sunshine 1990/1991

Nonie Holman is a retired teacher and the three-times great granddaughter of Johanna White and Richard Taylor. Her book Looking Over My Shoulder. A family history, a convict, a dairymaid and a sailor was published in 2015. She can be contacted at