By Xavier O'Shannessy
Edited by Elizabeth Flux
Val would pack her kids into the car and visit her mother-in-law, Kathleen, most days. Dad has visions of the car pulling up at the homestead, the kids bursting out the doors and running down the path, past the old kitchen, into the back entrance of the main house.
“…and Nana would come out, and we [would] nearly knock her over jumping into her arms.” Dad’s eyes twinkle as he talks and I’m taken aback by the tenderness of the memory.
“A large part of my, um, confidence in dealing with the world comes from Nana,” Dad laughs. “I thought that I was the most important person in the world.”
My father and I are in the sitting room of his house, our house, the house I grew up in, the grand house he and my mother built. He sits on the leather upholstered sofa, cradling beer. Behind him a huge bookshelf is jammed full. Photos of our family smile at us, decorative Catholic-themed plates, old knick-knacks and genuine antiques share space with law books, classic novels and pulp fiction.
The thick summer air is fitting, given that so many of my memories of Swanwater involve the baking Wimmera heat.
The Swanwater homestead has been in my dad’s family for over a hundred years. When I was younger we used to ride our motorbikes there from what we called the Home Paddock. It sounds comfortable, but ‘home’ was a tin shed with a dusty, cobwebbed toilet in the corner and one power outlet.
Even back then, when I was seven or eight, I noted the vast chasm between how we lived when we visited my dad’s hometown, and how grand the old homestead must have been.
It was a ruinous site, and you could feel the pain in the air. At once peaceful and tortured, it was a rumbling assortment of half fallen-down walls and chimneystacks.
But even in its decayed state, there was an undeniable grandeur; bluestone floors, quartz inlaid into the outer walls, and an impressive scale.
Dad remembers the homestead being a house full of warmth and hospitality. There’s a particular armchair he used to fall asleep in by the fire while his grandfather Toby played the fiddle and his aunt Sappy played the piano.
He closes his eyes, and starts tapping his foot as he sinks into the chair.
“Such a beat … with the violin and the piano, it was just … It was just heaven.”
The old place, as it was often called was the centre of family life, and an important part of the social fabric of nearby St Arnaud. Nana’s hospitality was legendary and Toby was a huge, charismatic character.
My father remembers stumbling across a cupboard bursting full of violins, later learning that one of them had been chased for forty years and bought in the early fifties for the price of three new Holden cars. There were racing cars and horse stables, guns, and bicycles. It was a very exciting place to be.
When he got to school age, Dad, sometimes with his younger brother, would often go to the homestead rather than home. Nana would always have a cup of tea ready and loved to chat about his day. Then he’d spend languid afternoons wandering around the trees, the creek bed, the cemetery, imagining that he was in a Secret Seven or Famous Five novel.
In the North West of Victoria, Swanwater sits in the traditional lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung people.
The first squatter in the area was Cpt John Harrison, a retired merchant sailor with a colourful history. He took up, or stole rather, a 70,000-acre run with two lakes on it called Swanwater.
The Harrisons built the first European house on the land. If you visit, you can see the hand-adzed timbers that make up the structural beams.
By 1850, after an unsuccessful five or so years, Harrison moved off the land and the Swanwater run was divided in two.
The southern half of the old run was purchased by the Moggs, a family of carpet makers from Bristol. By 1856 Valentine Nott Mogg had moved onto the land and began building a grand estate.
On one of his childhood jaunts around the estate, Dad came across an enormous old draught horse. He was stunned and elated: he’d been desperate for a horse, and here one was, lazing around a half-forgotten paddock. Dad convinced his father, Laurie, to bring it home.
She was called Old Doll, and she was gentle and quiet. Dad would ride her to the homestead, hoping that the gates were open along the way, because she was so huge that he had to get an adult to help him on and off.
In telling this story Dad gets drawn back into a tune playing in his memory, he mentions again that sometimes he’d walk in and the house would be awash with music.
Dad rubs his face, leaning forward. We’ve talked around and around, and we can avoid it no longer. He sighs.
“So, it all gets very traumatic then.”
Nana had to go to Melbourne for an operation he tells me, “and she was a bit histrionic when it came to illness” – so she needed to take some keepsakes for comfort, to remind her of her beloved homestead. She was sure some tragedy was going coming for her.
On a Saturday afternoon in 1967, Toby visited Nana in Melbourne before driving back home. “And Toby, being Toby, he may well have stopped in a pub here and there.”
Dad was asleep in bed, and remembers being woken by an almighty bang on the front door. He heard his father’s heavy, rushed footsteps. The swing of the door.
“The old place is on fire.”
A neighbour had seen the flames from the highway and sped to get Laurie.
“I remember the banging and the hullabaloo, and my father jumping into the car and [he] zoomed down there.”
Meanwhile, two volunteer fire fighters were on their way home from a dance. They saw the blaze from the highway and headed into the property to see if they could help.
Laurie arrived moments after them and leaped out of his car, rushing towards the house. “Toby’s in there!”
The whole main house was an almighty blaze, the roof on fire from end to end, parts falling in, and thick, deadly smoke streaming from every gap.
“And they said, ‘well you can’t go in there,’ and they tried to stop him. And he’s just knocked them away and charged in there.”
Laurie disappeared into the thick smoke and blinding flames.
The boys knew that it would be impossible to survive the smoke and heat, and resigned themselves to a second loss of life.
“And then a couple of minutes later… he comes out with Toby over his shoulder.”
But by the time Laurie found his father collapsed in a hallway, he had already died.
The intense flames tore through the entire main house and licked a few of the outbuildings. Everything was lost. The violins, period furniture, family heirlooms, photos – all the hard work and love and care incinerated in a matter of hours.
All that was left were charred brick walls, warped iron bedframes, and the sad remnants of the piano, now just a collection of surviving metal parts and a melted frame.
There’s a sense that the shock of the loss still reverberates today. It’s not just a house that was gone, not just a father and a grandfather, but the spiritual life of the family, the sense of having somewhere to go, the social and emotional security of a true family home. What they lost symbolically seems to weigh as heavily as the man who perished.
The cruellest irony of the situation is that Toby, a part time insurance agent, thought that home insurance was a waste of money. He used to say that brick houses don’t burn.
Dad visited soon after the night of the fire in a blur of tears. “A veil of grief” he calls it. “The entire place was like a mausoleum… it was like visiting a grave.”
I tell Dad that that’s how I used to feel, amongst the excitement of exploring, that this was a place of great tragedy, a place of reverence.
He would ride his horse down a few years later, a proper horse this time that he could canter on. He remembers standing amongst the ruins and thinking, “I can do something here.”
My father’s namesake, Pat O’Shannessy, was an Irish migrant who as a young man worked on a railway line through the Wimmera, up to Cope Cope. The story goes that while labouring on the tracks he noticed the fertile black ground and decided then and there to take up a plot.
The selection acts of Victoria had passed parliament and large pastoral runs were being split up into 320-acre lots to encourage more intensive farming, and more population density.
“And there’s one interesting fact on Cpt Harrison’s lease” says Dad, “Right through Gooroc, stretching out towards Jeffcott, which we all know as the best black ground, it’s got written on it, ‘No Water. Useless.’”
Pat O’Shannessy, along with many other working-class migrants in the region, was highly successful in that ‘useless’ black ground. He eventually began buying up more and more land. By 1912 O’Shannessy bought the Swanwater Estate, but never lived there.
The stately homestead had been liquidated in 1899 and was empty and in disrepair until Dad’s grandparents, Toby and Kathleen, moved in as newlyweds.
It was the early 1930s and Nana Kath set about restoring and repairing the old homestead to her former glory with a grim determination and a fierce will.
She painted the dining room ceiling by balancing on top of a 44-gallon drum, which was sitting on top of the dining table. She’d have to paint a little section, then get down, move the whole thing, get back up again and continue painting.
Dad talks about Kath’s hard work and determination with bittersweet pride – he calls it her life’s work. She restored building elements, got the extensive gardens back into shape, collected antique period furniture. She was utterly devoted to her homestead.
“Now, of course, the disappointing thing was, by the time I got a chance to start repairing buildings, they’ll be falling down quicker than I can put them up. Gravity is an unremitting bastard of a thing.”
Decades of frustration simmer in my father’s voice. I do quick head maths. If he was 11 or 12 when he first wanted to repair the homestead, and he’s only been able to begin recently, that’s close to fifty years of watching gravity erode his grandparents’ legacy.
Nana moved to Melbourne. My grandfather farmed the land around the homestead for some years after the fire, leasing it off his mother to provide her with an income. Dad used to play in the shell.
It was still an exciting place for a kid with a ferocious imagination.
He’d notice, even then, the signs of decay, and lament at the received wisdom that it was all too hard to rebuild, too expensive. After all, there was no insurance money, and by this time any family wealth had dried up.
Laurie eventually moved the family into town. Another farmer took over the lease. My father grew up, moved to Melbourne for university, became a lawyer, had kids of his own.
In the early 1990s, Dad and his siblings began buying farmland in the area. They’d all left the land and dispersed across the world in professional jobs, but the older ones were nostalgic.
Eventually they bought a share of the homestead, and we kids would visit occasionally, always noting the further ravages of time.
We take a break, and as Dad gets up he blurts, “you can repair bricks and mortar, but you can’t repair flesh.” He thinks I haven’t heard.
Dad is avoidant when it’s time to go back to the sitting room, and I don’t want to push it. He flicks through the paper, does the dishes, takes out the rubbish, all of a sudden extremely fond of housework.
We finally sit back down. His whole demeanour has changed. He’s still answering questions but now he’s less forthcoming – he slumps in his chair, there’s an echo of a grieving teenager. He wants to talk, but he doesn’t want to talk.
The selfishness of my endeavour hits me. I knew he’d have to talk about this but I’d been ignoring it, and now it was here, looking at me, my father more exposed than I’ve ever seen him because I thought it would be a nice story.
Once verbose and easy, Dad is now withdrawn. He throws it onto me, “what’s your next question?” It’s almost an order. You take the reins. My inexperience begins to show but we fumble along.
“The thing about the fire,” Dad eventually offers, “is that it taught me that the unthinkable happens.”
I ask him to elaborate.
“[It] just taught me that really bad things happen randomly,” he adds with a resigned shrug, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“So it informed a world view,” I say.
“That’s kind of beautiful.” Dad looks at me like I’m a crazy person. He’s a little hurt by my glibness. We’re at the sorest point in his personal history and I’m calling it beautiful.
I want to say that I find it beautiful, because I’ve always known my Dad to live in the present. I learned from him that you can’t waste time worrying about what might happen. You must forge ahead and simply deal with what comes as it comes, not trying to control or predict. Simply being. It’s beautiful that such a gentle worldview is born of such devastating pain.
But I make a mess; I’m nervous and guilty. Dad moves on.
“And then… it’s only a few years later when Valerie dies,” Dad can’t bring himself to say ‘Mum’. He continues, “so just in case you thought that it was a one off, no, it taught you that bad shit happens.”
Dad was thirteen when his mother died, leaving Laurie to take care of the six children. Kath helped where she could. Extended family took care of the youngest ones. The family was shattered once again.
The homestead continued to crumble. It was very difficult for my father to see. To him it was obvious that something could be done. Or, at the very least, could no one else see this brick falling, or that wall leaning?
I bring up Dad’s offhand comment about not being able to repair flesh and bone. He pauses, not quite able or not yet willing, to see how his grief, projected onto this building is relevant to our conversation. He’s caught up in the seeming lack of logic in of the feeling – only one person died after all.
By the early 2000s Dad and his brothers were no longer leasing out the land around the homestead and were farming it themselves with the help of contractors and neighbours.
There were working bees. The extended family would head up to the homestead and we’d pull out a hedge here, straighten a wall there, clear decades of debris out of the cellar, repair a roof here or there – just nibble away.
I ask Dad how that felt and he concedes that it was extremely satisfying to finally be doing something. He’s quick though, to tell a story about how he fell off a high wall and somehow walked away unharmed.
In the past few years, serious repairs have finally been started at the homestead. I ask Dad what’s changed, why this sudden flurry of activity? Is it simply a matter of having the money to invest?
He pauses. “[it’s partly] money,” he begins thoughtfully, “Number one, Tony Tillig, number two David Chapman, and number three, money.”
Tony is an old family friend, and I get the sense that through his enthusiasm and positivity, he’s given Dad and his siblings more confidence that something can be done, that the family tragedy can have an epilogue.
David is a local bricklayer. Tony mentioned him to Dad, saying that they should give him a go at repairing the quartz inlayed walls that had fallen down. Of course Dad was sceptical – this is a technique that’s rarely used in Australia.
Thankfully Tony was insistent, and it turned out that David was, in fact, highly skilled.
There’s such glee in Dad’s voice at this, there’s a reconciling that is palpable.
There is a new period emerging in the history of the homestead and my father’s relationship to the past, a period where things are possible, where loss is not the final chapter.
The trouble with this incongruous trio is that they’re all over sixty and there’s urgency now, as they get older. David is the only one who can do the complicated brick work, and Tony’s enthusiasm along with Dad’s dogged determination are driving forces behind the repairs.
I ask what would happen if one of them has to retire, or gets injured, or simply runs out of steam.
“It won’t happen,” sighs Dad automatically. It’s a matter-of-fact observation that belies how painful the thought is – the grand old estate falling once again into decay and neglect. A lifelong dream abandoned just as it was crossing that cavernous divide from maybe to this is actually happening.
We talk about his plans once it’s finished, if it gets finished. He first says that it is more of the process than the end result. It’s the pleasure of doing it.
Then he stops and thinks. I can see him imagining a time in his life when he gets to see the homestead whole again. He doesn’t quite allow himself the joy of the fantasy, but it’s obvious that he’s touched.
“[It’s] both,” he adds, “the more you do … [the more] it becomes tantalisingly possible.”
So the motley crew, sometimes involving another brother or two, but always David and Tony, do little bits here and there. We often get pictures of the progress emailed to us. It’s extraordinary to see those neat farmhouses fully repaired, elegant slate roofs, and pretty quartz boarded by tidy red bricks. Slowly, slowly it’s becoming, once again, an elegant estate.
“Now when we get to the main building and start on that,” says Dad, “that will be a huge job.”
Still, there’s momentum and the pictures we get these days are weeks or months apart, not years. There’s a spirit of excitement and adventure.
I come back to Dad’s comment about repairing flesh. I venture that maybe, in his mind, the homestead, the decay of it and now the repairing of it, has come to take on great emotional significance. That he is, in repairing the bricks and mortar, making peace with an incredibly traumatic period.
In his stories, ‘before the fire’ usually means before the years of grief and upheavals, before that horrible moment in time when Dad discovered the cruelty of random tragedy dealt twice in a few years.
He hasn’t thought about it like that, not consciously, but he agrees that the process of repairing is emotional too.
“That’s part of it. And also, when you inherit something as…’ he fumbles, leaving pauses in odd places – he’s a little at sea with the emotional weight of the idea, “historically significant and architecturally splendid… you sort of have an obligation to look after it a bit, to leave it better than you got it.”
He’s lying back now, stretched out on the leather sofa, looking at the ceiling, thinking deeply.
“What happens when you’re gone?” I ask.
Dad lets out a hearty laugh, “your problem, mate!”
He lets the moment of levity hang, then continues, “oh, I hope it’ll just stay in the family.” The implication is clear; he’s asking would our generation finish it if he can’t.