Mary Josephine Sheehy left Plymouth on the 2000-ton immigrant Royal Mail Ship (RMS) SS Almora on 12 March 1884. After calling into Queensland’s northern ports, Thursday Island, Cooktown, Townsville, Bowen and Mackay, the steamer dropped anchor off Rockhampton seven weeks later. Along with blacksmiths, carpenters, farm labourers and more, the eighteen year-old was but one of 336 immigrants, 57 being Irish like herself. Most of the single women on board were Irish and ‘nominated’, indicating that someone in Queensland likely organised her free passage. According to family lore, Mary quarrelled with her parents, setting in train a sequence of events that would see her leaving family, friends, and everything she had ever known and held dear, crossing to the other side of the world completely alone.
The SS Almora was owned by the British-India Steam Navigation Company, the same line who owned the ill-fated RMS Quetta, which struck an uncharted rock off Cape York in 1890, sinking with a loss of 134 lives. In the late 1800s Cooktown was receiving up to three ships a month, crowded with migrants looking for a better life in what was a relatively new colony, having separated from New South Wales in 1859.
Within four years of arriving in Queensland, Mary was in domestic service on Salisbury Plains station, north of Bowen. During her time there she met William (Billy) Hallam, a stockman who worked on the neighbouring Inkerman station. The couple celebrated their marriage in Bowen’s Holy Trinity Church of England on 1 March 1888. Bowen is where they started out on their married life, which in time would include nine children.
This is where Mary’s history becomes surprisingly obscure. Her background, and what she must have imparted to the minister who married her and Billy, was that her father, Michael Sheehy, was a farmer, her mother was Catherine Hogan, and that she, Mary Josephine Sheehy was born in the village of Shanagolden, County Limerick, in 1865. These facts are borne out on the Hallam’s marriage certificate. But despite more than 40 years of research by my Aunt Lila, who was our family’s self-titled genealogist, and more years added to the quest by myself, no record of Mary’s birth to such parents in that parish in that year or thereabouts exists. Aunt Lila travelled to Shanagolden in October 1983. Her postcard back to my mother and her other younger sister reads:
Well here I am in Shanagolden at last! It’s quite remote and I had to walk a mile or more from where the bus dropped me off at the main road.
The parish priest was most helpful and let me read the old registers, but our Mary Josephine Sheehy wasn’t mentioned anywhere. She wasn’t in the Records Office in Dublin either. They tell me she may have been born in an adjoining parish but I can’t go off and find anymore, and am giving up on her.
With Civil registration in Ireland only commencing in 1864, Mary was supposedly born the following year however there is no guarantee her birth was registered in those early days. She was Roman Catholic despite being married in the Church of England, but Mary’s baptism does not appear anywhere. There is an Ann Sheehy born to Michael Sheehy and Mary Hogan, who was baptised in the Roman Catholic parish of Croagh, Country Limerick in 1863. Could my great grandmother have invented a new identity? It seems unlikely unless there was a dark secret to warrant such an act.
I did find something interesting however, a baptismal record for N.R. Scanlon born 1 January 1853 in Killahan, County Kerry. The parents of little N.R. Scanlon were John Scanlon and Joanna Harmon. The two baptismal sponsors/informants noted in the record were Michael Sheehy and Catharine Hogan. I couldn’t believe it. Seeing those two names on the same record was so exciting. From memory these people lived relatively near each other as the crow flies, but not at the same address and I haven’t found them as a match anywhere since.
Another tantalising clue to Mary’s Irish family is her brother, Martin. It is strange how events collide, but in 1983 while my aunt was in Ireland sleuthing around Limerick for evidence of her grandmother’s identity, her Aunt Dorothy (Doll) wrote Lila a letter. She was moving into a nursing home since her husband John Wackett had passed, and in her possession was a letter from her Uncle Martin, dated 30 September 1892. Martin wrote to his sister, Mary, saying that if she needed to get in touch, she could write care of USS Atlanta Navy Yard, New York. The letter was so faded and torn Aunt Doll lamented how it was very difficult to handle. Doll died in 2002, in NSW, and as she and John had no children, no one knows what happened to her possessions nor the letter.
Billy and Mary had a difficult time as young marrieds with Billy trying his hand at any job that came along. May, one of their daughters, recalled that as a child she took her dad’s lunch out to him while he worked on the Bowen jetty or the boats. In March 1903, the family lost everything in cyclone Leonta which also saw approximately 14 lives lost in Townsville and Charters Towers. Everything changed though in 1907, when an opportunity came up to put in for a land ballot. Billy and Mary Hallam’s children vividly remembered the slow and rocky journey as they left Bowen to take up cane farming in Cannon Vale. The Hallam children were amongst the first pupils enrolled in the district’s new school.
Billy Hallam died on 25 August 1940 in Sydney, and Mary died in Brisbane on 8 July 1946. I have not found any records or family anecdotes that note Mary Hallam’s actual date of birth other than the year 1865. Mary Sheehy Hallam was a character. She never drank water, protesting: “Water rots your boots. Imagine what it does to your insides!” But a cup of tea was another matter entirely.