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'Last night, I watched my family history unfold on TV. The story was tragic.'

It is a strange thing. Suddenly, the mists of time clears before our eyes, and there on a distant hilltop, we discover our battered family tree, displayed in all its imperfection.

Last night, seated beside my mum, we watched our family history – filled with a seemingly unending litany of thefts, assaults, convict ships and tragically early deaths – on national television.

Let me explain.

Mum, journalist Lisa Wilkinson, was lucky enough to be part of season 11 of the SBS series Who Do You Think You Are?, which premiered on Tuesday night.

For one hour, our family watched, mostly horrified, as Mum went on a journey to follow in the fierce footsteps of our ancestors.

From a life of extraordinary misery and tragedy for a convict on Mum’s maternal side, to a chance-romance in India on her paternal side (with another tragic ending) we learned stories we never knew existed.

The most shocking of them was the story of Eliza O’Brien, Mum’s great, great, great grandmother – add another great for me – a woman originally from Ireland.

Put simply, she was a woman as resilient as she was rebellious, whose life was anything but simple.

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In 1828, Eliza O’Brien was single and uneducated when she was shipped to Australia as an Irish convict. Her violent crime was “robbing [a] person,” in all likelihood so she could just, you know, survive. She was 23 years old.

Before loading the convict ship, she was involved in a vicious riot of 200 women who were ill-disposed to get into the bowels of a ship to take them away from everything they knew, as wretched as it was. A journal from a doctor who dealt with the women reads: “I cannot describe in sufficient terms their proneness to filth and their savage disposition to revenge.”

Eliza O’Brien possessed a fighting spirit. Alas, she was thrown into the bowels of the said ship, only to emerge when they arrived on Sydney’s shores.

Eliza also had a penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Character references for her describe “drunk and disorderly” behaviour and frequently being “absent without leave”.

In 1832, still of convict-status, Eliza meets Edmund Duggan, a butcher.

The couple marry and in 1834, they welcome their first child, a son called Edward. The following year, another joy: the arrival of a daughter, Elizabeth.

But in 1835, catastrophe arrives on the doorstep of their cottage home on Sussex Street.

Edmund and Eliza were called in front of a coroner’s inquest, due to suspicions raised by the buried body of an infant – their infant – Elizabeth Duggan.

A neighbour recounted hearing a brawl between the mother and father.

“She came to the door with a child on her left arm, she called her husband a great many bad names, the husband came out with a stick and struck her on the right arm,” the coroner’s inquest reads.

“She had a knife in her right hand, the child was bleeding from the head or face… The woman was drunk.”

Ultimately, despite the horror scene, it was declared the baby died from severe syphilis.

“The jury immediately returned a verdict: died by the Visitation of God.”

Watch the trailer for Season 11 of SBS’ Who Do You Think You Are? Post continues below video. 

Video by SBS
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In 1836, nine months following the inquest into her child’s death, Eliza O’Brien was found guilty of larceny.

Given a three-year sentence, she was sent to Moreton Bay Penal Settlement in Brisbane. With her son still to care for, she wrote to the Governor:

“The purpose of this [letter], is that His Excellency may take it in to his humane consideration to grant me, Elizabeth Duggan, the indulgence of taking my boy, of two years old, with me. I having no one in this colony to take care of my poor child.”

The Governor granted the request, allowing Edward to live in the prison with his mother, Eliza.

Whilst there, documents show she was reprimanded for her “indifferent conduct”. It appears her rebellious disposition continued to live on, even in prison. And why wouldn’t it? Her whole existence to this point had been one of misery, mis-use and abuse.

In the end, though, there was only so much her body could bear.

By 1839, authorities decided to close down the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement and move the prisoners to the Parramatta Female Factory. Eliza died just three years later.

Mum, beside me, wept. As did I.

Eliza’s son, Edward, left “in a state of utter destitution,” was taken in by Parramatta’s Roman Catholic Orphanage School, and he lived on to keep our family tree going. But it was Eliza that hit us.

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She had endured a life of unimaginable hardship. Of course, she made mistakes that led to more misery, and as Mum said during the episode, “I really wanted her to make a go of it.”

Personally, I am just stunned she got as far as she did – and thankful for it. Never have I been more aware that my own privilege today comes from my ancestors’ prevailing over their own challenges.

I asked Mum about Eliza’s strength against adversity, and how that has lived on in our legacy today.

“In many ways, I began this process not quite realising how much I probably take for granted as a woman living in the 21st century,” she told me. “I’ve now started to truly appreciate what women living in those dark times had to endure. If you were poor and single, you had no chance.

“Eliza was a rebel with a simple cause – she was fighting for her very existence, and I can see that she tried as hard as she possibly could with the little she was given. Through it all I can see that she never stopped fighting for little Edward, and I love her for that alone.

“I really hope that in telling her story two centuries on, it gives a dignity back to her and all the women like her that they never enjoyed in life. Here’s to all the Elizas, who were strong and independent despite everything that was thrown at them. Long may that same spirit live on from generation to generation.”

I’ve always known I’ve been blessed to be born in this country at this time. Only now do I know how blessed.

Thank you, ancestors. And here’s to you, Great, Great, Great, Great, Grandma Eliza.

Who Do You Think You Are? season 11 screens on Tuesdays at 7:30pm. You can catch up on episode 1 on SBS On Demand now.


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