Sunday, November 6

Your money or your life; your life or Australia?



Patrick Byrnes- highway robber, convict & cedar getter
Guest blog post by Rachael Byrnes.


They were a strange and wild set... of desperate ruffians .They are certainly the most improvident men of the world” (John Henderson, Pastoralist, 1840s).

As I read the above quote about the cedar cutters of the Nambucca region in the 1840s, I can’t help but think that it could easily be a description of me: a wild ruffian living hand to mouth!! Perhaps that’s going a little too far, but knowing that this small community was home to my great great great great grandfather, I can’t help but wonder... is there a little bit of Patrick Byrnes in me?

My name is Rachael Byrnes, my father, your usual blogger here, is Lindsay Byrnes and his great great great grandfather was a Patrick Byrnes; a highway robber, convict, cedar getter and tavern owner. Boy! Is that a tough infamous bill to live up too!? I can’t claim to be a cunning thief or frontier opportunist but as I read Norma Townsend’s book Valley of the Crooked River, I am amused by little clues that provide some insight into who I am and why.

Patrick Byrnes, a brief background
Patrick Byrnes was born in Tipperary, Ireland in 1816. He was convicted of highway robbery in 1836 and sentenced to death, a sentence then revoked in exchange for transportation to Australia. Patrick was just 20 years old when he was convicted of highway robbery. It is likely that he resorted to crime to survive as many poor and oppressed Irish of that era did.

Patrick was transported on the Captain Cook, and sailed for 187 days to reach Australian shores. After several years of convict labour he was granted a ticket of leave. There is no information about Patrick’s time as a convict but there is no doubt that it would have been a gruelling and unforgiving period of tough labour.

In 1848 Patrick married Emma Howell in Sydney before moving to the Nambucca region in northern NSW, an area rich in unexploited cedar wood. It is suggested in Norma Townsend’s book that Patrick and a friend by the name of James Cook moved to Nambucca, as part of a joint cedar getting plan. Howell’s family were also cedar cutters which may have provided extra incentive to move to this remote area.

Cedar wood was known as Red Gold as it was one of the most important Australian exports of the time. A dramatic rise in price in the 1850s made cedar getting, even in treacherous frontier areas like the Nambucca, more attractive.

Life on the Nambucca in the 1850s

Patrick, Emma and James were part of a third wave of cedar getters to the area. The early getters had left much of the cedar trees untouched and had not settled in the area. Poor access and laws preventing land selection left early cutters with no incentive to build communities along the Nambucca.

Even when Patrick, Emma and James arrived in the area, crown land was not available for sale and at best could only be held under pastoral lease. A timber licence permitted occupation of Crown land but none was held on the Nambucca until 1864. In the 1850’s economic development in the Nambucca was somewhat crippled. Sawyers lived from hand to mouth and dealers spent much of their profits outside of the valley. Most settlers, like Byrnes and Cook, eked out a precarious existence initially and struggled in the most primate conditions. There was little point, for example, in putting up but the most flimsy shelters or making any improvements without title to the land.

The history of European settlement during this period is somewhat lost in the mists of time but we can only imagine the struggles and hardships that men like Patrick would have endured deep in these wild subtropical rainforests.

The scenes surpass all description. Men and women lying day and night on the bare grass in a state of intoxication and only recovering to renew their orgies” (Clement Hodgekinson, Pastoralist, 1840s)

Although the above quote, from a middle class pastoralist refers to a period just before Patricks arrival, growth in the area was very slow at first and so the culture would have remained much the same until the late 60s. Perhaps this is a biased and derogatory observation, yet we still muse over the wild drinking sessions that might have taken place.

Selecting and settling

In 1861 the Robertson Land Acts established in NSW allowed those with limited means to acquire land, with the stated intention of encouraging closer settlement and fairer allocation of land by allowing 'free selection before survey'.

Initially Patrick established his family at Boat Harbour, an isolated spot on Taylors Arm with its cedar untouched. In about 1864 he moved downstream and selected land near a ford on a sweeping bend of the river. He shrewdly chose his site; well watered, flat but not marshy, suitable for farming if cleared and ideally located close to established tracks and river transport. Patrick named his house and land “Congarena”. It was probably corrupted into, or was a corruption of “Congarinni”, said to be Aboriginal for “bog.” It’s strange then that his property was one of the least marshy of the area! Perhaps Patrick had a sense of humour or else the word did in fact mean something to him or the local aboriginal population.

After selecting his property, Patrick quickly established a successful store and pub called “The Shamrock Tavern” and ran a punt at the crossing. Not much is known about the pub or the small community that would have frequented it. Certainly, selection and growth in the area was slow with only seven selections in 1865, 20 in 1866 and 45 in 1867. Still this was enough to enable Patrick Byrnes to carve out a living and raise 12 children!

Personality and values – a peppery opportunist, protestant and catholic?

There are only small clues available about what Patrick Byrnes’ personality and values might have been like. We could easily “jump the gun” and suggest Patrick was an immoral man, committing crimes of terror against innocent highway travelers. However, if we consider the poverty and oppression that existed in Ireland the 1830s and how a large majority of the convicts sent to Australia were poor and illiterate, we can suggest that Patrick was simply a victim of circumstance. More than likely, he was part of a highway robbery gang that stole for survival or to access a lifestyle beyond backbreaking farm work and the common diet of potatoes and milk. Also, from the 17th through to the early 19th-century acts of robbery in Ireland were often part of a tradition of popular resistance to British colonial rule and settlement and protestant domination.

Perhaps Patrick was part of the last wave of resistance robbers, claiming loot as revenge. With a name like Patrick and the Gaelic surname Byrnes, Patrick was almost certainly born Catholic and the fierce tensions between Protestants and Catholics are well documented.

It’s interesting though that he then denied his Irish roots later in life. In Townsend’s book it’s noted that Patrick was “known as a peppery Irishman, he claimed to have been born in Rochdale Lancashire in 1820.” Perhaps it was religious tensions between his wife Emma Howell, who he married in the Church of England that led to this false claim. It’s interesting that Patrick and Emma were married protestant but some of their children baptized catholic. Were there ongoing religious tensions they could never fully resolve. Whilst Emma’s Protestantism prevailed for the marriage Patrick was buried a catholic in 1883. Perhaps religion wasn’t greatly important to them at all, happy to switch between denominations at their whims.

My bet is that Patrick lied about his origins for cultural and business advantages; to appeal to the sensibilities and judgmental middle class cedar buyers. In Townsend’s book it is noted that middle class observers thought poorly of ticket of leavers and the working class. Cedar cutters received the harshest of commentaries such as the extracts below from the Sydney Morning Herald

The cedar grounds are the resort of the runaways and other bad characters who flock to these places where they are almost beyond the pale of the law...the scenes of infamy and vice that are to be witnessed there are ...horrible to contemplate” (Sydney Morning Herald, 1837)

Patrick may have concocted all kinds of embellishments for monetary gain or may have simply been embarrassed by his past. It’s interesting to note that most convicts granted a ticket of leave were still under legal observation and could have their ticket revoked if bad behavior was conducted. Perhaps this explains the incentive to move to such far off places as the Nambucca. Did Patrick want to be “beyond the pale of the law” ... simply to be free, to have a chance at making a better life for himself or did he find himself at home amongst the scenes of infamy. One can only guess!

There’s no doubt that Patrick was an opportunist willing to do what it took to carve out a lifestyle that was a step above wretched! Perhaps that meant lying, embellishing the truth, moving to remote places, dancing between catholic and protestant, making shrewd business decisions and being “peppery” if it got the job done.

It has been noted in Townsend’s book that Patrick Byrnes was perhaps a more ambitious and a more successful entrepreneur than his contemporaries. Emma and Patrick raised 12 children which were still considered a large family even for that era. Certainly it mustn’t have been easy both practically and financially to raise that number of children. He must have had his wits about him or else that Shamrock did bring him good fortune. Perhaps it was a little bit of both.

Patrick Byrnes lives

Without Patrick Byrnes, his highway robbery and cedar business, I myself would never have come to exist. Whilst it’s only one ancestor of many that make up my genetic code, I still wonder what pieces of Patrick Byrnes are in my genes today? Did I get my peppery tendencies from him? A keen interest in building my own business; of being self made? A desire to live in the middle of nowhere and try something new? Or did I simply inherit a few physical genes like dark hair and small features. As I write this I notice one of my recent gig posters. Rachael Byrnes with cedar wood guitar and shamrock emblem at the bottom for good luck. I can’t help but see the coincidence and wonder is the ghost of Patrick Byrnes leaving its mark?