by Jenny Golding
Updated: 4 November 2022
DARDANUP’S MUCH LOVED MID-WIFE “GRANNY” O’NEILL
A baby is coming, an elderly resident is dying, a family needs comfort — in the early days of settlement in Dardanup, this so often meant the call went out for “Granny” O’Neill.
Teacher, wife, mother, nurse, mid-wife and eventually “Granny” to a grateful community, Mary Jane O’Neill came by horse and trap, day or night, swaying side lamps lighting the way, a distant glow that brought a promise of relief to a household needing help. Sometimes those pinpoints of lights were competing with moon and starlight, too often they were giving just a shadowy way in storm and squalls as her pony trekked quietly and stoically along ill-made, muddy roads.
Mary Jane was born into the prominent Maguire family in Dardanup on 10 April 1859, eldest daughter of Irish pioneers and settlers, James and Elizabeth (Carberry) Maguire, and she married Irishman William O’Neill in the Dardanup Catholic Church in 1882.
Dependable and much loved, “Granny” O’Neill, lived with her husband and family in a charming old home, unfortunately no longer standing, almost next door to the old State School and close to where the Post Office is now. The couple were both deeply involved in attending and caring for their church (now the Thomas Little Hall) directly across the road.
Grand-daughter, Eileen Rodgers, said that her grandfather, always known as Bill, had been a policeman in York and in the Kimberley before settling in Dardanup. He had bought the house in which he and Mary Jane lived from her brother-in-law, George Hedley, who had built the home.
Prior to marriage, Mary Jane had been a school teacher at Australind, riding her horse side-saddle and cross-country to board with the Dunne family.
Rather in awe, Eileen told of her grandmother and her grandmother’s friend, Ellen Brennan (later Coonan and Skipworth) who was eventually to become owner/licensee of the three successive Dardanup Wayside Inns, riding from Dardanup to Augusta. From an early age both young women showed spirit and courage.
Eileen also spoke of Mary Jane telling her that, as a child, she and her siblings had knelt in a circle with their mother saying the Rosary and praying for their father who had ridden his horse quietly into the night.
Many years later the children learnt that he had been dangerously involved in the hiding of Irish political prisoner, John Boyle O’Reilly, in thick scrub in the Buffalo area, just north of Bunbury, prior to aiding his escape on the whaling boat, “Gazelle”.
Mrs Frank Richards, interview long ago, described “Granny” O’Neill as “a lady with almost auburn hair, usually in a bun, strong-willed, strong-minded and she walked with a stick which she used to probe walls and floors for white ants”. “Anyone with first-aid problems went to her”, she said. She also spoke of her kindness and her generosity. “No-one ever went away empty-handed”.
“You’d hear her little pony trit-trotting up the road at two in the morning. The dearest little lady and I loved her very much.”
Seven children were born to William and Mary Jane: Elizabeth Ann, born in 1883 married Jack Gray, sadly killed in World War 1; Rosemary, born in 1885 married Felician Philip Craigie, of Waterloo, in 1910; Michael Joseph, born in 1867 married Irene Green; Harold James, born in 1869; Kathleen Mary, born in 1892 married Graham Hall; Eileen Mary, born in 1889 married John George Foster; Mary Francis, born in 1900 married Cornelius Baker.
Great-granddaughter, Carole Frisina, said, “Granny was proud of the fact that she never lost a mother or baby from all the births she delivered. That is why she took the death of her daughter so badly. I don’t know why Mum was born in Bunbury”.
Tragically, Mary Jane’s second youngest daughter, Eileen, died in childbirth on the 30 June 1922, aged 23 years, in Bunbury at the home of her widowed sister, Mrs Gray. The little girl, christened Eileen for her mother, was raised by her O’Neill grandparents.
George Fee wrote in his diary on March 6 1910 that Dr Flynn had been called to ill Mrs Fee from the telephone at the railway station. “I drove over and brought Mrs O’Neill back with me. She stayed while Dr Flynn was here”. Mary Jane spent the following day in the home too.
George Fee’s diary April 8 1910: “Mrs Robert Fee gave birth to a son this evening. Mrs O’Neill was here”. It was not unusual for a mid-wife to stay for many days to help a family after child-birth.
Mr Alec Strachan said that all five children born in Dardanup to his Scottish-born parents, John and Lillian, were delivered by “Granny”. “She was a lady and she always went out when she was called”.
Sometimes her nursing skill and care was needed at home. George Fee recorded in his diary: “Death of Mr. James Maguire Senior. One of the oldest pioneers of the South West passed away at 6 o’clock this evening Wed. 13th. of January 1915 at the residence of his daughter Mrs. William O’Neill. Mr. Maguire who had been in indifferent health for many years gradually became worse during the past couple of months and was lately confined to his room altogether. He came to Western Australia with his family in 1842 and settled in Dardanup 65 years ago where he has lived ever since and was one of Dardanup’s principal agriculturalists and public men.” George goes on to say James was 81 years old and lists many of his accomplishments.
Loving care was given too to Mary Jane’s daughter Elizabeth and her six children, the eldest just fourteen years of age, when news came on November 16 1917 of the death of Private Gray. George Fee writes: “Mrs Fee and I called at Mrs. O’Neill’s tonight where Mrs. Gray is staying at present”.
A Venn daughter, Jenny, said of Mary Jane O’Neill: “Granny was the sweetest little woman. She was small and her hair was pulled up into a little bun on top of her head. She was always kind, never growled, always busy and bustling, kept her family together always and made others welcome. Venn children loved to visit from school, just down the road, and were always sure of a biscuit, cake or piece of homemade bread. The bread was baked in a large oven, central in the big, old homely kitchen”. Warm memories.
William O’Neill died January 27 1931, and Mary Jane O’Neill died on September 20 1946. They are buried in the pioneer Catholic Cemetery in Dardanup.
- Flynn, N (ed.) Fee’s Dardanup Diaries: George Alexander Fee 1886-1942 of Roseland, Dardanup, WA (2002) in 2 volumes, Milligan House. Transcribed by Marilyn Jones, Patsy A. Middleton and Lyn Adams.
- Granddaughter Eileen Rodgers interview
- Great-Granddaughter Carole Frisina interview
- Jenny Venn (Money, Cullen) interview
- Alec Strachan interview
- Mrs. Frank Richards interview
- Photos of Mary Jane and William O’Neill from Carole Frisina.