Pat Walsh has witnessed people at their best, worst and most vulnerable. But he needed to look no further than his own family to see the human spirit's capacity for resilience. JENNY McLAREN reports.
Maurice and Margaret Walsh were Pat's great grandparents. The recognised human rights activist, former priest and teacher, in his words, says they were "born losers"; illiterate Irish teens predestined to a life of poverty, inequality and neglect, who somehow managed to break free, forging a Western District dynasty that today spans 150 years over four generations and counting.
His family memoir, Milking Our Memories, 150 years of Walshs of Walshs Road South Purrumbete, tells their inspiring tale of success against the odds; "a lesson to us and future generations".
"These were two teenagers who stepped out into the dark and sailed on stormy seas on rickety ships into the great unknown," says Pat, a fourth-generation Walsh of the Walshs Road clan.
"I am immensely impressed by the human spirit and what people are prepared to do when they have their backs to the wall, as these people did."
Pat penned the memoir over the past few years in between his humanitarian work commitments in East Timor and maintaining the Northcote home he shares with his wife Annie Keogh in Melbourne.
At 78, it was a need to reconnect with his roots and to leave future generations with a sense of their history before it was lost, that inspired Pat to undertake the project.
An Order of Australia (AM) and Ordem de Timor-Leste medal recipient, he has written numerous books and submissions centred on his extensive international human rights work in East Timor, but Milking the Memories is his first foray into Australian history.
Since its April release, response to the memoir has "exceeded expectations", finding a much wider audience than the family demographic for which it was intended.
"I wrote it for my own family, but other people have related to it for all sorts of different reasons. A lot of people have a direct association with the Western District, others are interested in local history, some have an Irish background and then there are some who might be planning to write their own memoir," Pat says.
Providing a day-to-day insight into the Walsh family fortunes, the memoir also serves as a window to some of the key events and issues across their 150-year tenure. Aboriginal displacement, war, the Great Depression, illness and the loss of community all provide historical context.
Pat himself was a wartime baby, born in 1941, the fourth of Des and Ruth Walsh's eight children. Their South Purrumbete dairy farm, Kuringa Gai, was a stone's throw away from the first Walshs, Des' grandparents Maurice and Margaret's property Glengariff, on the edge of the Stoney Rises on Walsh Road.
His older brother John, now 82, and the 'strainer post' of the family dynasty, still lives on Kuringa Gai, and is the only current and remaining Walsh to call Walsh Road home.
Pat's research for the book was gleaned from the collective memories of his relatives, John in particular, whose talent for storytelling proved a fount of material.
"A lot of it came from sitting around the family table, listening to family stories," Pat reveals. Anecdotes were supplemented by valuable historical references from local newspaper reports.
"It was like weaving together a yarn that was also educational."
It was, he says, "a journey of discovery for me".
He had no idea that his great grandmother, Tipperary-born Margaret O'Brien and two of her sisters Mary and Bridget, were surrendered to a workhouse as children when the Irish famine left many families destitute.
Margaret qualified for passage to Australia under the Earl Grey welfare scheme designed to boost female numbers and address a servant labour shortage in the colony. Somehow, 11-year-old Margaret managed to sidestep the age criteria which was limited to 14 to 18-year-olds.
The scheme ran for just two years and Margaret and her sisters were on the last 'orphan' ship docking in Melbourne on March 31, 1850 after a three-month journey.
"She got through the eye of a needle and we descendants are the beneficiaries," Pat explains.
Margaret's father Patrick O'Brien, along with her brothers, William and Michael followed later, emigrating from Ireland to settle in the Koroit area.
Her future husband Maurice was 18 when he arrived in Melbourne from County Kerry in 1857. By all accounts he made good on the goldfields of Ballarat and New Zealand and when the pair tied the knot in St Mary's Church, Geelong in 1865, Maurice was already a landholder with 49 acres at Ondit to his name.
Illiterate they might have been, signing their marriage certificate with a cross, but the newlyweds' ambition to make good far outweighed their lack of formal education.
"It was a big surprise for me to learn that Maurice ended up owning about 1000 acres in the area," a stark contrast to the couple's lowly beginnings, says Pat.
By 1871 they had moved to South Purrumbete where the Walshs found their sense of place. Amid volcanic rocky outcrops of the Stoney Rises where Aboriginal tribes had also made their homes just decades earlier, they set up house and became substantial landholders of the surrounding fertile plains patchworked in the familiar drystone walls of Ireland.
Both passed away in 1916 in the shadow of war but life went on, their strong work ethic, faith and sense of community a lasting legacy for their seven children and subsequent generations.
Pat's grandparents, another Maurice and his wife Bridget, the 'second Walshs' of Walshs Road, took up the mantle, adding six more children to the family tree and cementing their ties to the then thriving South Purrumbete community.
Far removed as their lives seemed from world events, the Walshs could not escape the fallout when the world went to war for the second time.
Cyril Augustine Walsh was Maurice and Bridget's fourth and youngest son. He had studied for the priesthood and was a teacher when he enlisted in the air force in 1942, aged 27.
In his Bomber Command Lancaster, Cyril had survived 23 missions, mostly over Germany, when his luck ran out on September 3, 1943. Headed home after a successful bombing raid over Berlin, his plane was shot down by a German fighter over Denmark.
Cyril's remains were never recovered, but his memory lives on in his nephew and namesake, Pat's brother Cyril who was born just two months later.
Just two at the time, it's only in recent years that Pat has come to appreciate the impact of his uncle's death on the family and the enormity of the war generally. The Walsh farm even hosted an Italian prisoner of war, Ferrelli Pasquale, who become a 'much-loved' member of the family over his 18-month stay.
"When I started researching, I realized what a huge phenomenon World War II was, how it affected small communities and how much patriotism there was," Pat says.
Community spirit abounded in the little hamlet of South Purrumbete where church, sport, school and family activities thrived, more often than not, with Pat's parents Des and Ruth at the forefront.
It was that spirit and faith that influenced his adult career path, first into the priesthood and teaching, before following his passion for human rights.
Pat left the priesthood after 15 years, seven of them at Hamilton's Monivae College, to work as an adviser to a student movement and director of the human rights office of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA), now ACFID.
During his time in East Timor from 1999 to 2014, he was seconded by the UN to help set up the Timor-Leste truth and reconciliation commission (CAVR) and then became senior adviser to the post-CAVR Technical Secretariat.
Although still involved in human rights as a volunteer and consultant, these days the father and grandfather of six has turned to writing, hoping to ensure his ancestors' memories live on.
The clan aims to mark next year's 150-year anniversary of Maurice signing his South Purrumbete lease on May 1, 1871 with a reunion and history tour of its sacred sites.
- Milking Our Memories is available at Warrnambool, Colac, Cobden and Camperdown book stores, the Terang newsagency, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org