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Ellen Mary O’Collins of Swallow Street

In 1887 a young seamstress in Limerick watched as other young people emigrated from Ireland. Ellen Mary Fitzgerald decided that she did not want to marry and have children in Ireland only to see them leave her for ever. Instead she decided to emigrate herself. Her first choice was North America but her mother refused to allow her to go. Still determined, she secretly decided to go to Australia since she could travel with a woman she knew from her parish in Limerick. So one Sunday she packed her bag and hid it in the Hawthorn bushes outside Rock Lodge [her family home]; after Mass she kissed her mother goodbye and set off with Mary McMahon for Australia.[1]

Swallow St near Edwards St. State Library of Victoria.

In Melbourne, Mary introduced Ellen into a group of Irish women who presently began to look about for a suitable husband for 22 year old Ellen. They introduced her to Patrick James O’Collins who had also migrated from Limerick a few years before. Ellen and Patrick were married at the Sunday Mass in St Brigid’s Church North Fitzroy on 13th February 1890. As a honeymoon they took the paddle steamer Edina to Geelong for the day.

At first they lived at 5 Bridge Street Port Melbourne, a short walk from the South Melbourne gasworks where Patrick was employed as a meter maker. Patrick saved to build a house in Swallow Street where they brought up their family of five boys and three girls. As her son Jim recalled, it was a great location for children, the beach in front and the wild area of the Bend to explore. After the birth of their daughter Mollie,  Ellen purchased a cow to give her fresh milk. The cow was such a good milker that Ellen decided to buy a few more and ran her small herd of 14-25 cows free on Fisherman’s Bend. Patrick, who attended Mass every morning before work, delivered the milk on his way to church, and later the boys did this before school. With their savings Ellen and Patrick built several more houses in Swallow Street.

Ellen with Madge in her arms and Mollie outside her Swallow Street home c.1898

Although her formal education was limited Ellen read widely including daily reading The Age. She devoted herself and her resources both personal and financial to bringing up her family and to their education. All of them eventually gained a secondary school qualification and six a university degree, a most uncommon outcome in their time for a family in Port Melbourne. Her grandson said of her she had an uncanny ability to get to the heart of matters, and her judgments were shrewd and careful. 2

A quick summary of the lives of her children demonstrates just how successful she was in stimulating and enriching the lives of their children: Will a Jesuit priest and educator; Jim a bishop in Geraldton and Ballarat; Frank lawyer, businessman and patron of the arts; Mollie a Novice Mistress in the Brigidine Order; Madge who was widowed in 1938 just before the birth of her fourth son yet was always seen by her siblings as the one to whom they could turn for support; Gerald a member of the St Columba’s Missionary Society who served most of his life in China including spending the years of World War 2 in a Japanese internment camp; Alice, a Brigidine who taught in primary schools and was seen as the quietest of the family; and finally Joe who practised as a GP in Balaclava.

While her large family was growing up Ellen must have had a heavy load of house work. All of them were keen on sport: tennis, football, cricket and boxing, no doubt bringing home  lots of mud bespattered washing. It is clear from such comments as (when Pat retired from the gasworks) his wife sent him overseas to visit their sons in Rome, that Ellen was the family organiser.

Ellen was a great traveller and passed on her interest in exploring to her children. In 1924, when all the children had finished their education, Ellen travelled to Rome to visit her eldest son Gerald then studying at the Propaganda College; from there through a number of European countries to London; on to see her brother a priest in Manchester and finally  to Ireland to visit her family members in Dublin and Limerick before sailing home. Her second son, Jim who became Bishop of Ballarat and was knighted in the 1980 Queen’s Birthday Honours, gives a hint that Ellen retained strong views when he doubted if she would have approved of this honour.

In 1914 Ellen and Patrick built a house at 40 Beaconsfield Parade Albert Park and it was there that Ellen died in 1947.

[1] The O’Collins Story: a Melbourne Family, Willima J. McCarthy. ‘Motion Press’, 2002 p 23

[2] ibid p 26

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Acknowledgement of Traditional Custodians

We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and work, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.