Patrick Dwyer – ‘a man of somewhat eccentric character’

Genealogy is more than dates and places, it’s about finding the stories that turn an ancestor into a real person. Here is a story about Patrick Dwyer, of Tipperary and Tumut.

On 1 February 1858, at the age of 50, Patrick Dwyer, ‘a man of somewhat eccentric character, and withal having rather more than an average of the ready mother wit of his countrymen – dropped dead. The excitement of our election and the consequent hilarity on such occasions no doubt had something to do with his unexpected and sudden end. Paddy’s sayings and doings will be long remembered among the inhabitants of the district.’ [Empire, 16th Feb 1858]

Ever since I discovered my fourth great grandfather Patrick, he seemed to be begging me to find and tell his story. Perhaps it was the parallel between his death and the unexpected death of my own father at the same age. My father was a bit eccentric too, with his banjo playing and his Spike Milligan impersonations. Or maybe it is just the strength of Patrick’s personality refusing to fade away.

Patrick arrived in Sydney Australia from Ireland on the ship the Andromache on 31 October 1837. He arrived before the ‘great famine’, but just like the other 30,000 Irish who migrated to Australia between 1832 and 1845 he was looking for a better life. Walker and Co, a London firm specialising in importing goods to Australia and wool to England, received a 10 pound bounty for bringing him to Australia.

irish immigrants

Finding Patrick in the immigration records was tricky – Patrick Dwyer is a common Irish name, plus there was the problem of his name being spelled incorrectly – as Dyer in the shipping records and Ayer in the index to shipping records on Ancestry.com. After systematically ruling out all of the convicts and other immigrants of the same name, he was finally identified because of his habit of getting into trouble with the law. His gaol records provided the name of the ship and the arrival date, his crimes connected him to his friends and family in Tumut, and his physical description in the various gaol records provided further evidence that all these records were referring to the same man.

I’ll get to the gaol story(s) in a moment, but there’s something else you need to know first, so you can see how we figured out that Patrick on the Andromache was my Patrick. On 21 February 1843, Patrick married Johanna Flynn (from Limerick in Ireland) at the Cut Road in Tumut. One of the witnesses to their marriage was Sarah Madden. Sarah Madden married John Ryan on 9 June 1843. And now we get to the incident that put Patrick in gaol for the first time.

Patrick and his mates threw a pre-wedding party for John and Sarah at Dodds’ house, which was operating as a ‘sly grog house’ (that’s an unlicenced pub / hotel). Patrick was in charge of the house at the time and when a group of government road workers became drunk and argumentative he tried to get them to leave. In the ensuing fight Patrick killed Michael Fogerty and was subsequently charged with his murder.

Newspapers latched onto the story. One article described it as ‘a most desperate murder’ and used it to argue for the abolition of sly grog shops. Another emphasised that Patrick Dwyer was ‘an immigrant’ and inaccurately reported him ‘murdering two men’.

A report of the trial presented a different picture to these news reports. Witnesses described the road workers as ‘drunk and quarrelling among themselves’ and told how Patrick was first cut with a knife and then had large stones thrown at him. Another witness told the judges that the fight was unequal, with four men against one, and that he had thought that Patrick’s life was in danger. As a result, the judges decided that he had been provoked and ‘on account of his excellent previous character’ lessened the charge to manslaughter with the ‘lenient punishment of six months imprisonment in Berrima Gaol.’

berrima gaol

Witnesses at the 1843 trial described Patrick as having ‘an excellent character for humanity, quietness, and general good conduct.’ However, he clearly had a bit of a temper and it was not the only time he ended up in gaol. In 1850 he received two months for assault (at another inn) and in 1854 he received eight months for an unspecified crime.

Patrick, Johanna and their children – Ellen, Winifred, Margaret, Patrick and William – lived on Gilmore Creek and Patrick worked as a labourer, finding no use for his previous profession as a baker. He bought three blocks of land in Tumut between 1850 and 1855. Ironically, it was these attempts to build a future for his family that led to their ruin. The loans he took out to fund his purchases remained unpaid when he died young, so his creditor took everything. Johanna and the children were left destitute by his death.

Like most of my ancestors, I have no photograph of Patrick. Not even a photograph of a headstone, although he is reported as having been buried in Tumut Cemetery. However, thanks to his tendency for bar fights, I do have a description of him from his gaol records.

Patrick was six foot one or two, with blue eyes and brown hair. He had marks of scurvy on his right arm and a scar on his forehead. When he married in 1843, he was unable to write his own name. Patrick’s ‘sayings and doings’ were sometimes recorded in the local newspapers. Because of this I know that he almost drowned when Gilmore Creek flooded in August 1851; and his best mates were Michael Quilty and John Ryan, though sometimes he fought with them too. I also know that during the election of a local candidate for the Legislative Assembly this ‘somewhat eccentric character’ got in trouble for flourishing his whip at a campaign meeting and that he decorated himself in ribbons and led a band of music in a parade about the town.

When he died, Patrick’s mate John Ryan presided over his burial. The story of Johanna and her children is for another time.

For more information:

Extracts of various newspapers from 1843-1858

Death certificate, Patrick Dwyer, NSW Registry Births Deaths and Marriages, 5502/1858

Marriage register, Patrick Dwyer and Johanna Flynn, V18431781 92

NSW Assisted immigrant lists 1828-1896, Ancestry.com

NSW Gaol description and entrance books, 1818-1930, series 2019, item 6/5430, roll 1873; series 2229, item 6/5430, roll 1875; series 2225, item 6/5425, roll 1874.

NSW Government Gazettes