The Shanahans of Kangaroo Flat

By Ray Watson

My Irish orphan great-grandmother and her husband were both survivors of the trauma and grief of the Great 1840s Irish Famine, each trailing emotional sorrow in their wake on their individual trips to Australia: Jane McGrane, from Dublin, probably from a workhouse; her husband, James Shanahan, from Cork, possibly from mining and farming.

Jane McGrane arrived as a refugee in South Australia on 15 February 1849 aboard the Inconstant. She had escaped the ever-threatening hunger and disease of Ireland but must now live branded as an Irish Orphan. The goldrushes had yet to begin in eastern Australia. But they were already in full swing on March 29th 1853, when James Farrell MA presided at the marriage of this 18-year old Dubliner, in Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Adelaide South Australia.

Holy Trinity Adelaide.

Her groom was a 23 year old James Shanahan from County Cork. He and his witness signed their names. However, the bride and her witness signed with their ‘mark.’ Thus, Jane’s name was entered as McGrine, a precursor of the many other occasions throughout her life when misspelling of that surname would provide regular, if minor, pinpricks to add to the other more serious upsets she would experience.

Though the Shanahans’ wedding took place in an Anglican church, both Jane and James were Catholics. So, with South Australia abuzz with stories of the riches to be found in the Victorian gold fields, like many of their disrespected co-religionists, they soon trekked to the Bendigo goldfields in Victoria, following in the footsteps of Adelaide Catholic priest, Dr Backhaus. In 1854, their first baby, my grandmother, was born into the general chaos of a new goldrush camp at a time when her parents were still feeling the effects of their long trek east. Backhaus baptised the baby whom they named Mary Jane. The family would maintain an association with Backhaus for many years to come.

Old brick railway bridge at Kangaroo Flat.

Kangaroo Gully where they were located was developing into a rough-and-ready, wild-west kind of town. Life there would not immediately relieve any residual Famine trauma. It offered no quick entrée into a happy new world, not even after a slab hut replaced their first temporary shelter. Nor did James strike it rich. Then, a second child, their first son, died within a year of his birth.

Though the Shanahans had escaped the ever-threatening hunger and disease they had faced in Ireland, the same power elite which had lorded over their lives there was still in charge of life here in Australia.  The politicians, the journalists and the justice system would relentlessly pursue Jane and the other Irish Orphans. Even as late as the 18 July 1872, Melbourne Punch was still portraying the Orphans as rough, potato-faced, stupid maids.

Melbourne Punch, 18 July 1872, p.4

By midway through the 1860s the Shanahans had four additional young healthy boys. Yet the Strathfieldsaye Shire Rate Books indicate that the family was still accommodated only in a lowly slab hut.  Still, James was apparently earning enough for the family to survive, and their lives were probably now less miserable than they had been before their arrival in Australia.

As the 1870s began, James had accumulated enough cash to strike out for a more opulent future. The Victorian government Gazette on 4 November 1871 shows that, along with friend and family physician Dr George O’Donnell, James became a shareholder in the Golden Horn Mining Company. But like so many similar gold mining companies at that time, Golden Horn Mining appears to have soon sunk without trace. Nevertheless, though surface mining was now giving way to deeper leads, James was continuing still to make a living. His mining expertise was standing him in good stead, and it continued to do so throughout his life.

After the birth of my grandmother Mary Jane, her mother Jane went on to bear another nine children in all. Having such a large family ensured that, in one way or another, the 1870s would not be completely stress-free for her. Yet by the end of that decade, the eldest four surviving males were of an age where James could pass on some of his own mining expertise to them. Each in turn would head north to New South Wales to establish an independent life in mining or engineering. But Jane still had to cope at home with a trio of younger girls growing through their teens. In 1875 her last born son, like her first, died within a year of his birth.

For the Shanahan parents, the early 1880s were probably the most peaceful and fulfilling time of their lives. Though their eldest daughter remained single, the boys up north were marrying. Though personal interaction with these sons’ new families was impossible, James and Jane felt satisfied in hearing news of grandchildren being born in distant northern localities. This was also a time when James and Jane could enjoy a welcome interlude of comparative peace as they walked about the small orchard now planted beside what was by then a well-built dwelling.

That comparatively joyful phase in their lives peaked in 1888 when Mary Jane, their oldest daughter, married and settled in Bendigo with her husband Edward Watson. Having local grandchildren would be the icing on the elder Shanahans’ cake. Birth of a first Watson son in 1889, realized their dream of personal interaction with grandchildren.

Things started unravelling in 1892. One of the unmarried Shanahan daughters became pregnant and gave birth to a baby in South Melbourne. By mid-1892, physician friend, George O’Donnell, was telling the family that Jane was dying of cancer of the uterus. She passed away on 13 July and was buried in the Kangaroo Flat Cemetery. By now, James’ chronic bronchitis had him too pondering his mortality. To climax that terrible year, the unmarried Shanahan daughter’s son died in South Melbourne, just eight months old. Soon after, James’ death followed on 18 February 1893. He was buried next to Jane in Kangaroo Flat Cemetery.

Kangaroo Flat Cemetery chapel.

For a mourning Shanahan family believing that their anguish had ended, this July 1893 Memorial Notice in the Bendigo Advertiser might have represented a printed verbal representation of a loud, collective, and relieved exhaling of breath.

SHANAHAN – In loving remembrance of our dear mother, Jane SHANAHAN, who departed this life 13th July 1892 at Kangaroo Flat, also our dear father, who died 19th February 1893. Inserted by their loving sons and daughters. R.I.P.

Gentle in manner, patient in pain,
Dear mother left us, heaven to gain.
So loving, so faithful, forgiving and kind.
Hard, hard in this world her equal to find.
We laid her in her coffin, with hearts so full of pain.
For on earth her dear loved face we will not see again.

But for eldest daughter, Mary Jane, there was even more misery to come. In 1894 she gave birth to a third child, a daughter, who lived for only seven weeks. Then finally, this whole life and death Shanahan saga would reach its climax in1896 with life triumphing over death. After Edward Watson, Mary Jane’s husband, died on May 7th 1896, their new one and a half month old baby daughter would continue to live on for many years to come.

Ray Watson has written in various genres on many topics, especially ones from the fields of education and psychology where he worked for many years. His books can be found on Google books and on Goodreads or email His latest book, the autobiographical Chronicle of a Burnley Boy was reviewed in Tinteán in December 2021.