Patrick died October 17 1886 – aged 46 years
Alice died June 28 1887 – aged 41 years
John died January 3 1886 – aged 14 years
Ellen died April 25 1886 – aged 12 years
Gerald died November 3 1887 – aged 13 months
Erected by their son and brother Richard
It was John that went first, in the middle of that long hot summer. In life he was their bold young man with a job in town, bringing in that little bit extra to help make ends meet. But death revealed him to be just a boy, forevermore.
Was it a random accident – an ill-fated kick from a runaway horse, or a misstep that sent him tumbling down the hillside to the deep gully below?
‘As the Lord wills’, said the priest, and they buried him in the cemetery on the hill. Life went on. Come April, Alice realised she was pregnant again. She’d thought – hoped – that Matthew would be her last.
‘Life in death’, said the neighbours, but their well-meant words brought no comfort with Ellen now taken ill. And was that the fever that was spreading through town? God knows, it was hard to keep clean and you couldn’t trust the water, even after boiling, what with the shit and rubbish of 4000 bodies all ending up in the creek that was the only source of water for the town.
By the end of April, Ellen was gone too, and did Richard watch his grieving parents, not coping, as Alice’s belly swelled again? And what of Young Patrick, with a brother on one side and a sister on the other – both gone? Did he feel the weight of responsibility rest heavy on his 13-year-old shoulders?
That winter was long and harsh, like the summer before it, bitter cold of grief replacing the life-sapping heat. Paddy worked the mine; he had a good job there, he was manager now. But his days were long, and little of the wealth he saw dragged from that hard ground came his way.
Did he dream of finding that one lucky nugget, secreting it away from his boss? Did he dream of taking his remaining children, his pregnant wife, and leaving this cold remote valley? Did he dream of buying some land in the broad fertile plains of Latrobe? Buy some cows, buy some chickens, till the soil, plant and grow; not dig through it in desperate hope and fear.
The child within his wife grew large, taking all the sustenance Alice’s grieving body could give. Her pale face and sad eyes belied the health of the life inside.
And what was it that took her husband, her precious Paddy? Did he start coming home late from the mine, lingering in town, finding ease for his sorrow at the bottom of a bottle? Was it an October storm and the spring thaw from the mountains turning Stringers Creek into a raging torrent that caught him out, swept him away, with his body only found days later, far downstream?
Did Paddy ever see his last child, or was baby Gerald born in that same storm? Did the midwife attend Alice as 11-year-old Margaret watched on, or was Margaret sent from the room with instructions to attend to little William and Matthew? And what of Richard and Young Patrick? Were they sent out into that dark night to find their father – and failing – coming home to the wails of a newborn?
Or was Patrick Walsh Gilsenan a stoic man: dutiful, attentive and loving, doting on his wife and many children? Was it an accident in the mines – no fault of Paddy’s – that snuffed out his life?
‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away’, said the priest, but that was cold comfort for Alice. The warmth of a suckling babe couldn’t take the chill from her bed as Paddy had done.
She named the babe Gerald John, after his lost brother.
Now Richard was the head of the family, and Patrick his only lieutenant. How did they cope, at 17 and 15, with a nursing mother lost in grief and four younger siblings? Did they remain in the town or strike out to find work, sending what they could home to their family?
Was their absence the last straw for Alice, with a suckling babe drawing all strength from her ailing body? Did she grow thin and then thinner, as she tried to care for her brood? Desperate, did she wean baby Gerald too early, and too late, as the cold settled in her chest and the hacking cough turned to pneumonia?
She died in the depths of yet another dreary winter, and really, what hope was there for baby Gerald after that?
And what of the children left behind, both fatherless and motherless now. Did the neighbours take pity, show compassion, take the little ones in? Did they grow up hale and hearty, despite that terrible two years of loss? Did they stay in that cold narrow valley where the sun only shines for a few short hours, even in the height of summer? Or did they venture out, find enough love and fortune to outweigh their sorrow, leaving their lost loved ones to weather as names etched on a headstone on a steep hillside of a valley that remains remote and lonely to this day?
NB My respect and apologies to the descendants of Patrick Walsh Gilsenan and Alice Marion (nee Quinn) for my musings on the lives of their forebears, but coming across their ancestors’ gravestone in the old cemetery at Walhalla moved me to imagine their lives during those two tragic years.
My research uncovered the names and birth-dates of their eight children – the close dates of the births juxtaposing against significant gaps between the 5th and 6th child and the 7th and 8th child leads me to suspect that Alice had more pregnancies but suffered several miscarriages.
Interestingly, historical records show Gerald John as being born in 1887, which doesn’t fit with the record of his age-at-death as shown on the gravestone. I suppose that Gerald’s birth wasn’t officially recorded until some months after – not surprising considering the close proximity of his birth to his father’s death.
The Victorian Police Gazette for the quarter ending March 1886 lists ‘Gilsenan, Patrick Walshe, larceny as a bailee from 93, 101,109’ – I’m not sure what the numbers mean but the listing certainly adds to the drama of the Gilsenan family’s life at that time.
Records from the Walhalla Heritage and Development League reveal that Margaret Kathleen Gilsenan (b. 1875) married William Keirnan and the couple had two children. I presume they remained in Walhalla.
Other research revealed that on the 8th of May 1894, Richard Gilsenan (son of the late Patrick Walsh Gilsenan, miner and mine manager, of Walhalla) married Kate Edwards, the daughter of Charles Edwards (manager of ‘Fortune’s Hustler’, a goldmine in Bendigo). Richard obviously struck out from Walhalla at some stage, but remained on the hunt for gold…