by Noeline Kyle
In the early 2000s I discovered that my Kyle ancestry was Irish. The story begins with two brothers, Henry, and Michael Kyle, born in Athlone, Roscommon. In their twenties they left Athlone to work in Nenagh, Tipperary finding work as farm labourers. In 1841, they made their way to Plymouth to sail to New South Wales as Bounty Immigrants.
The Kyle brothers had nothing to keep them in Ireland. Still, their widowed mother Mary Kyle, must have watched them leave with a heavy heart. In these pre-famine years emigration was more often due to forced evictions occurring mostly in the poorer northern and midland counties of Cork, Clare, Limerick, and Tipperary. Thus, Henry and Michael Kyle became part of the great population loss as emigrants left Ireland for what they believed would be a better life and greater economic opportunity in the new worlds of North America and Australia.
Henry Kyle with bullock team (photos courtesy of author)
The descendants of Henry Kyle, my father’s family, eventually settled along the banks of a small tributary, Nulla Nulla Creek, on the upper reaches of the Macleay River between Kempsey and Armidale. Only two things have survived that the brothers brought with them from Ireland, a violin and a stereotype edition of a bible printed in Dublin. The bible was lost but fortuitously found decades later by Mathew Carlton at a church fete in Lane Cove, Sydney. It was returned to the family by Mathew’s father Ken who had recently published his Dungog family history. Dungog is where the Kyle brothers had also first settled in the 1850s.
The violin and its music remained in the family with William Henry ‘Billy’ Kyle, the great grandson of the original Henry Kyle, becoming a notable fiddle player in the dairy farming community along the Nulla Creek. Many old-time residents remembered Billy Kyle and his music:
‘Billy Kyle used to play of a night…one of the greatest working men ever put on this planet, Billy Kyle…and at night time he’d have tea and he’d go out on the old verandah with his violin and there he’d play… ‘
Many of the other residents of the Nulla Valley interviewed by Rob and Olya Willn would also recall the unique musical talent of Billy Kyle. It was Billy’s love for his music and his rare ability to cherish Irish culture and tradition in his fiddle music. It was music he had learned at his father Henry Kyle’s (the son of the original Henry) knee, as Billy could barely read and write. He certainly could not read music.
Billy Kyle was the eldest son of eleven children working from a young age beside his father in the bush. When Billy married in Florence Mary Matilda Rose in 1905, they lived in a bark hut ‘their total possessions five cows, a horse, and an axe. 5 It would take at least two mortgages and grinding, relentless hard work for Billy to pay his debts and raise twelve children to adulthood. It would be his music that sustained him throughout his long life.
Billy Kyle played the same violin that belonged to his father, also Henry (Harry) and son of the original Henry Kyle from Nenagh, Tipperary. At the end of the day, and each day was long and hard whether on the farm or working in the bush, no matter how tired or worn out he must have been, Billy Kyle took out his violin and played and played. Every barn dance, local function, house party or family event was serenaded by Billy Kyle’s violin. It was, I think, his salvation. It was an expression of his creativity and provided, I am sure, nourishment for the inner man. Billy’s brothers Alexander and George, and his sisters Eva and Esther were musical also with Eva remembered by her niece Grace as having ‘The Singing Touch.’
The Kyle family lived next door to my mother’s family, David ‘Dave’ and Mary Kirkpatrick (née Everson). Dave Kirkpatrick was also a noted fiddle player with a fine singing voice. They were also the parents of David Gordon Kirkpatrick, better know as Slim Dusty. Slim’s love of music was influenced and nurtured by the Kyles, especially Billy Kyle and his growing family. Slim recalled:
Our next-door neighbours were the Kyles, and Billy Kyle, old Billy Kyle—he would play the fiddle all night. They had a knack for playing these old tunes and they could play for hours. The Nulla Nulla Valley was a close-knit community, and had strong musical traditions among the hardworking families dotted along the meandering banks of the creek. A large number of its residents, both men and women, could play an instrument or sing. However, the majority of the musical traditions of the Nulla centred on one family, the Kyles, and in particular, fiddler Billy Kyle. In addition, all of the younger Kyles were musical, and some were soon expanding into the new ‘Hillbilly’ music and it was from Jack Kyle (stage name Clem Rogers) Billy Kyle’s younger brother, that Slim purchased his first guitar.
The Kyles and the Kirkpatricks lived not far from the coastal town of Kempsey. And today Nulla Nulla Creek and the farm where Billy Kyle once lived, is a mere half hour drive from the town. But in those decades from the 1900s to the 1950s that tiny country place might just as well have been a million miles away. It was dairy farming country where struggling farmers did their best to survive. These families, largely cut off from towns and cities, were geographically and socially isolated, indeed even insular, and unaware of changes in the broader society. But in that bare social and economic environment there was a place, indeed a sacred place, for the preservation of Irish traditional music. Like a small warp in time, as though time stood still, here in this tiny community of dairy farmers, labourers, workers, children, women, men, musicians, singers and dancers was captured briefly the old times, the old songs, the tunes, the polkas, the jigs, the lilting ballads, the haunting melodies of the past, mostly forgotten now. Other influences did march in of course, especially American country and western music, the guitar, and different and other artistic influences soon arrived.
But time stood still just long enough to capture a few haunting and beautiful fragments of that Irish balladeer, the faint echoes of which we hear again when someone lifts a violin and plays those same tunes on the same violin that Harry played all those years ago. Of course, there are many other Irish-Australian musical stories that might be told—‘…about the use of the fiddle, the button accordion, the harmonica and the piano—and all have featured in family stories about country Australia.’ However, Rob Willis believes that the musical history of the Nulla to be a unique culture capturing in its isolation Irish ‘music, song, yarnspinning, dance and poetry.
Rob Willis Collection National Library of Australia
Graham Seal describes the Nulla Nulla as a ‘cultural and musical melting pot, similar in some ways to the Mississippi Delta area of the USA.’ A musical tradition found along the banks of the winding stream that makes up the Nulla Nulla Creek where my grandfather Billy Kyle lovingly nurtured Irish traditional music so that we too remember and indeed continue to cherish those songs and sounds today.
Dr Noeline Kyle retired from teaching education and history at university in the 2000s. She has been an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney since 2007 her research focusing on 19th century women’s professions. Her latest book Matrons, Manacles and Panama Hats: Women Working in NSW Prisons 1788 – 1969 will be published this year. Noeline researched the Kyle Family History with considerable help from Joyce Lawson who had completed research on related Kyles who settled in Murwillumbah. Noeline’s family settled along the Nulla Nulla Creek a tributary of the Upper Macleay River and it is their story that drew Rob Willis from the National Library folklore unit to interview the extended family of William ‘Billy’ Kyle a much-loved old-time fiddler whose Irish tunes and love for music are still remembered today.