Michael Edward O’Neill (1907-1998)
Claire Walker (1906-1994)
Michael Edward O’Neill, known as Mick, was the second youngest of the 13 surviving children of John O’Neill & Amelia Crimmins. He was born on 21 Aug 1907 in Metz, NSW. Metz and Hillgrove were two small mining towns on opposite sides of a gorge about 30km east of Armidale. John and Minnie ran one of the hotels there, as well as other business enterprises. In 1910 they moved to Georges Creek, a mid-way point on the road between Kempsey and Armidale, where they ran a post office; they retained their liquor license and put travellers up overnight. Mary McQuade (a daughter of Mick’s brother Cyril) wrote an extensive memoire of her early life in Georges Creek.
John died in 1921 and Minnie 1922 when Mick was just shy of 15 years of age. A couple of years later, he and his 19 year old brother Pat made their way up to Queensland. Mick found a job on Goomally Station, just over 200km south west of Rockhampton. His visits to Rockhampton and elsewhere were often reported in one of the local papers. For example, on Fri 11 Sep 1936 The Evening News reported he was best man at a wedding held in Brisbane.
By 1940 Mick had moved to Kunwarara, just over 50km north west of Rockhamton. It was war time, and on 30 May 1940 Mick went to Rockhampton to enlist. The Morning Bulletin reported on Fri 31 May 1940 that he had stayed at the Grosvenor Hotel. His full service record can be viewed here. On his application, he wrote that he was a Station Manager at Bellbroughton, Kunwarara, Queensland; aged 32 years 9 months; and gave his oldest brother William O’Neill as his next-of-kin.
He sailed from Sydney on 26 Dec 1940 for the middle East, disembarking on 03 Feb 1941; he was wounded in action on 02 Jun 1941 (bullet wound in the head). He medically unfit, returned to Australia and was discharged in Brisbane on 23 Nov 1941
Mick was one of the men quoted in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail on Sun 14 Dec 1941:
He sailed from Sydney on 26 Dec 1940 for the middle East, disembarking on 03 Feb 1941; he was wounded in action on 02 Jun 1941 (bullet wound in the head). He remained medically unfit, returned to Australia and was discharged in Brisbane on 23 Nov 1941. Mick was one of the men quoted in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail on Sun 14 Dec 1941:
More Men Needed, Say Sick AIF.
Reinforcements are badly needed in the Middle East, according to most of the 45 wounded and invalided men from that zone, who returned to Brisbane yesterday.
“Reinforcements? Yes, they’re always welcome. We always liked to see another mob coming along,” said Pte. M. E. O’Neill.
He was in the advance to beyond Benghazi, and in the “mad gallop” back to Tobruk. Here, one night, a machine gun bullet broke his jaw and passed out behind his ear.
“When the going is tough the boys are at their best, and then the wisecracks come out,” said Corporal E. Toovey, of Torwood. He agreed with his comrades that reinforcements were wanted badly.
Corporal Toovey. whose right hand was shattered by a grenade, said the men of the Middle East had expected all along that Japan would enter the war. The events of the last week would cause them no surprise.
Captain E. G. Cramer, of the A.S.C., spoke admiringly of the spirit of camaraderie amongst all ranks of the A.I.F. Every man would go out of his way to help the other fellow.
“The crowd out there are doing a marvellous Job,” he added.
Bombadier L. H. Henrys served with the Royal Air Force in the last war as a flight-lieutenant. He served in the Libyan desert with an anti-tank unit and the heavy artillery.
Sgt. G. H. J. Le Marchand, motor ambulance column, was invalided after serving in Greece. His twin sons, two years of age, were only 12 months of age when he left.
During the journey to Brisbane, two brothers met after an absence of 11 years. Private Frank Nordheim, Callide Valley, who was wounded in the leg at Tobruk, was taken direct to a military hospital on arrival in Australia. He sent a telegram to his brother’s last address and the adjutant also sent an urgent message, but the brother was away from home. On his return late in the afternoon, the brother hurried to the soldier, and reached him half an hour before the train left. The Nordheims are Norwegians, who came to Australia several years ago and became separated.
On arrival at the Exhibition Grounds the returned men were welcomed on behalf of the people of Queensland by the Minister for Mines (Mr. O’Keefe), and entertained at tea by the ladles’ welcome home committee of the Returned Soldiers’ League, under Mrs. L. Petrie.
Before embarking he had visited his family in Georges Creek; here are a few of the photos from that trip:
Mick O’Neill married Claire Caroline Walker in Tewantin, Queensland, on 20 Jan 1942, soon after he returned from the Middle East. Claire was born on 22 Nov 1906, her parents being Edward Emery Walker & Martha Mary Middleton.
Four years later Mick became the station manager of Chatsworth, a 2,500 square mile (650,000 ha) property in the far west of Queensland; From the Queensland Country Life reported on Thu 19 Apr 1945:
Mr. and Mrs. O’Neill and their child have taken up residence at Chatsworth station, Cloncurry, where Mr. O’Neill has taken over the management, formerly held by Mr. Eric Barnes, who recently resigned.
The Cloncurry Advocate reported on Fri 20 Oct 1944 that the property had changed hands :
CHATSWORTH & NORANSIDE STATIONS SOLD.
Chatsworth and Noranside Stations in the Boulia district have been sold. The properties were offered at auction on behalf of John Collins and Sons by Moreheads Ltd. When bidding reached £50,000 they were passed in and sold soon after at a slight advance. The name of the new owner is not yet available.
From the Cloncurry Advocate on Fri 02 Sep 1949:
NEWS FROM OUTSIDE
On Sunday last, the store-room at Chatsworth Station, was destroyed by fire. This building houses the station office, general store, and Noranside post office. All the station records were destroyed. The fire had a good hold on the building before it was noticed by one of the employees: Mr. O’Neill, manager of the property was absent inspecting a paddock at the time of’ the outbreak.
. Claire, at Chatsworth
Mick passed away at Noosa Heads, Queensland, on 07 Sep 1998, Claire on 10 Feb 1994.
Mick & Claire’s family:
01. John Edward (b. 28 Nov 1943)
02. Hillary Clare (b. 29 May 1946 in Gympie, d. 28 Aug 2008 in Newcastle)
The O’Neill family at Chatsworth
Mick, lying on the ground digging for water, John watching
Mick & Claire at John’s property Nyanda, 1981
Mick with son John and granddaughter Nadine, 1995
Mick at his grandson Gray’s wedding at Nyanda, 1994; and Nyanda, 1984
Mick, Christmas 1989 and 1995
Mick with great granddaughter Caitlin
Mick on his 90th birthday
Eulogy to Mick (Pop) O’Neill
by Nadine O’Neill
Tall. Lean. Strong. Courageous …
Determined. Stubborn. Adventurous. Witty …
Prone to rascal behaviour. A storyteller …
A larrikin. The recipe of a true blue Australian Bushie …
Attributes of my grandfather, and when one adds 91 years into the mixture, you discover that Pop had plenty of time to fine tune and perfect the recipe. He epitomises the characters from Lawson’s and Paterson’s ballads. Pop is a ballad. He’s bigger than Clancy of the Overflow and The Man From Snowy River.
Pop has always claimed that the key to his long, energetic life was his Irish blood. That he came from good, solid convict stock. We grandchildren were told many a time that he had full blooded flaming red haired Irish Aunts named ‘Eileen’ and ‘Kathleen’. This is despite the fact that both his parents were born in Australia, but when you’re eight years old, you never doubt a convincing storyteller. I personally believe Pop inherited a lot of his father’s attributes. His father, John O’Neill, pioneered, built and owned a good part of the township of Metz situated on the Macleay River in New South Wales. It was here Pop entered the world, and being one of 11 children, he learnt to become a survivor.
As a wee lad he was stuffed into a rusted bucket by his siblings and tossed into the Macleay River. They claimed that it was part of a science experiment, to consider light and heavy objects. Pop told a very different story. However, if it weren’t for his older sister who scooped him up a little way downstream, he may have made it to ‘them fair Irish shores’. The only time I heard Pop warble a song was after a nip or two … or three … of rum, and it was always an Irish ditty.
Anyhow, after surviving the journey down the river, among other things, Pop proved to be an athlete and batted and bowled his way to become a cricket star at Georges Creek. He vowed and declared that he was run out of town because he dethroned the long standing champion, hailed to be a second Bradman. But many say it was the wayward spirit in him that urged him, at age 17, and his older brother Pat, to throw a swag over their backs to seek adventure further afield.
They eventually arrived at the outpost of Rockhampton and I’m sure it was with an easy gait that Pop rolled up at Goomally Station near Bauhinia Downs declaring “I’m handy with the ropin’ pole, I’m handy with the brand, and I can ride a rowdy colt, or swing the axe all day.” He got the job and before long both his skill and personality landed him the role of head stockman.
Goomally proved to impact largely upon Pop’s life. It was here that the rowdy larrikin met his future wife, the demure, softly spoken, well educated Claire who was the governess. Sounds a bit like the odd couple but don’t get me wrong. My grandfather was a gentleman through and through. Whenever he saw a lady, he tipped his hat, bowed, winked and kissed her hand with a grace I have seen in no other bushman. “Keep in sweet with the women,” he said, “it doesn’t take much – and jeez life is a whole lot easier!” His sisters obviously had a charming effect. Or perhaps it was Claire? In fact, he was gracious to all men, women and children.
He worked hard and played hard. And took up a dare to knock off the top cock in the local boxing ring. Pop never backed down from a challenge, and with gritted teeth, a three day growth and rolled up sleeves, he feigned, ducked, weaved and jabbed his way to earn himself another title – the King of Duaringa. He never agreed to a second challenge. “No bloody fear – you just might lose and one should never lose his dignity. Go out on a high and let your reputation grow,” he always said.
Joviality came to a temporary end when my grandfather demonstrated true Australian courage and slipped into uniform, laced up the boots, promised Claire that he would marry her if he returned in one piece, and became one of the infamous Rats of Tobruk in 1940. He has rarely spoken about those horrific months as a Digger, and when he has, it has been in low, measured tones, commending the bravery of all those there with him – his mates. It was a recognition that mateship was a code of ethics with one main doctrine – that a man stick by his mate at all costs; and one basic virtue – loyalty.
He did return in one piece, underwent surgery on his jaw, and recovered at Noosa with Claire (Gran). They married in the front garden of the Walker House in Noosa, both of them in their mid 30’s. Pop worked for a bit north of Rockhampton at Bellbroughton. A son, my father, John, was born, and two and a half years later my Aunt Hillary arrived. The family moved to “Chatsworth” and for 29 years my grandfather stirred up the west.
Pop managed the two and a half thousand square mile station with resounding success. He was well liked, well respected and headed every prank. Stories abound of droving, boundary riding, horsemanship, the day to day mishaps, the work and amusements of family and neighbours. I have always secretly enjoyed his version best. They were told with great conviction, head rolled back in laughter, arms and hands waved erratically. But I must admit, his great friend Gordon Pooley, who lived on the neighbouring property of “Pathungra”, told some equally good ones. Splayed out in squatters’ chairs, boots pulled off displaying holey, odd socks, facing the expansive paddocks and big red sun, milk laced with rum in hand, or rather, rum with a dash of milk, the two friends bantered to all hours.
I particularly enjoy the tales of the picnic races. Although restricted for his winning rides at Duchess, Boulia, Dajarra and Camooweal – he won the Member’s Cup at Duchess once – Pop preferred to be a professional spectator, tip his hat to the ladies as he made his way to the bar where he’d shout a round, bullied the bookmaker and cut a deal or two. It’s the Consuelo Picnic Races that I remember. Pop and Gran came to live on “Nyanda” in 1972 and stayed there until they moved to ‘Riverlands’, Tewantin in 1990.
So for many years I witnessed first hand the long, arduous preparations. I knew something was afoot when a couple of feed bags of oats arrived, a young colt or filly and a couple of stock horses were run in. A vigorous training session ensured Then when Gordon Pooley arrived with hat askew, a crate or two, one realised that the great day was drawing near. Mr. Pooley would arrive each year in May for a fortnight to attend the event of the year – the Consuelo Races. And on the morning of the day Pop would emerge from the bathroom, scrubbed, polished, hair slicked back and smelling of after shave, dressed in his Sunday best.
And as his horse drew out from the pack and up on the rails, under the whip with the ears flat back, Pop would draw his body tall and taut, and while the yells and roars echoed across the track, Pop would breathe from under his hat, “Stick to it now for your breeding’s sake – stick to it you bastard!”. And with bated breath he and would watch, my face pressed hard against the fence. The horses drew nearer, the pounding hooves grew louder, Pop grew taller. Tension mounted. “Come on … “he’d say, “Come oh … ” then a bellow would erupt as Pop punched the air a dozen times with clenched fist and burst into song and an Irish jig. This was my cue to relax. I knew he’d won. Incidentally, it was by the race track that I learnt to swear … and bet!
But one of the best was the Jumbo event where the weight was big and the jumps were stiff. Rumour had it on this particular day that my grandfather stood aside in deep conversation with his two appointed jockeys, a strapping fellow from up the road, the other being my father. The crowd was buzzing and atmosphere was mounting for word had gotten out that the Calcutta purse was near bursting. A syndicate from out of town had raised the stakes.
It was well known that Dad and Pop owned the swiftest horses, had so rarely lost the first and second places, so betting was fast and furious, as a win was a sure thing. Dad mounted Number 1, the sure winner, the strapping lad on Number 2, and they trotted to the top of the track. With easy seat and nerve of steel, light hand and cheery face, the two riders held the rushing horses back and made the sluggards race. They gave the shirkers something to shirk at for they didn’t break away from the packs they closed in toward the winning post.
Then Dad raised his whip up high and Number 1 drew away. The crowd erupted and pressed in close and clapped Mick on the back. “Onya mate! he’s goin’ to do it! Yes she is!” When from out of nowhere Number 2 surged forward to pip Number 1 by a nose hair on the line. The crowd drew back in disbelief, their thunderous roar suspended. “Jeez – a dead heat,” was the verdict next to me, but the judge declared Number 2 had done it. And if one were quick enough, they’d have seen Pop quietly grin and nod slightly at Dad. He was the only one to walk away with a pocket full of dough!
These days had the makings of an ideal script for the Lawson’s and Paterson’s of the land. The larrikin from the back country. Prone to rascal behaviour. And I, like everyone here today, as well as so many others, have been so very privileged to have known this man. He was legendary. He is a legend.
And although he is one of wit and humour, Pop embraced a matter of fact philosophy throughout his life, and this includes his thoughts on death. Hence I would like to say a few words on his behalf.
“Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as I was. I am I and you are you and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of sombreness or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Smile, think of me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.”
Mick had another daughter late in life, Liz, married to Kristian Kebby; the couple have 4 boys.