Albert Bernard O’Brien
Albert Bernard O’Brien, commonly known as “Johnny O’Brien,” was born on September 12, 1917, in Ettrick, a town near Kyogle, New South Wales. He was the youngest son of James Joseph O’Brien and Lena Noonan, who were share farmers that had relocated from the NSW South Coast in 1908. Due to his father’s struggles with alcohol, the family frequently moved around, residing in places like Boorie Creek near Lismore and Upper Mongogarie near Kyogle.
Despite the challenges posed by his family’s frequent relocations, Johnny was a hardworking individual and held various labouring jobs, including at the Broadwater Sugar Mill, during his early working life. In 1935/1936, the family finally settled in a house at 21 Kyogle Street, South Lismore, which remained in the O’Brien family for the next 50 years.
During his early years in South Lismore, Johnny met and fell in love with Bertha Ann Dunn, who was also known as “Betty” or “Toby.” It is said that he initially dated Bertha’s sister, Eunice, which led to their introduction.
Bertha Ann Dunn
Bertha Ann Dunn, known as “Betty” or “Toby,” was born on February 7, 1922, in Bombala, a town in New South Wales. She was the eldest child of Charles Henry Dunn and Bertha Rixon. Charles, who had fought in the First World War, worked as a linesman for the Post Master General in different locations, including Orange, NSW.
As a child, Bertha had the opportunity to see snow on the ground, which she fondly remembered and recounted to her family as one of her earliest memories.
In the mid-1930s, Bertha’s family relocated to Lismore on the North Coast of New South Wales. According to electoral rolls, they lived in various locations in the area, including 37 High Street in Lismore Heights, 8 Baillie Street in North Lismore, and Ballina Street in East Lismore. However, they finally settled at 13 Union Street in South Lismore, near the railway viaduct, around 1941.
Johnny O’Brien and Bertha Ann Dunn met, fell in love, and started a family of four daughters and one son. Their children were Margaret (1940-2015), Gloria (1944-2010), Nancy (1945-2021), Lynette (1948-), and James (1965-). However, the family also experienced the heartbreak of losing a stillborn child, Joan Kathleen O’Brien, who passed away on July 9, 1953 (21816/1953) and was buried in an unmarked grave in the East Lismore Cemetery. As per the Lismore City Council website, it was customary to bury stillborn babies in unmarked graves.
Johnny and Bertha lived with their family in the O’Brien family home at 21 Kyogle Street, South Lismore. Lena, Johnny’s mother, also resided in the same house until her passing in 1953.
1954 Lismore Flood
The family has several compelling stories, many of which revolve around floods. One of the most memorable recounts the events of the 1954 flood. At that time, the family, along with Bertha’s mother, sought refuge on the roof of their low-set house as the floodwaters surged below. As there was no State Emergency Service in place, everyone had to fend for themselves. Initially, my mother and grandmother perched on chairs on the kitchen table until the water rose too high, forcing them to find higher ground. However, they quickly realized that my overweight grandmother wouldn’t fit through the manhole leading to the roof. To solve this problem, they had to enlarge the manhole with a saw, which allowed my grandmother to climb through. For almost a week, my parents, uncle, four sisters, and grandmother waited on the roof while the floodwaters swirled beneath them.
During the 1954 flood, Lismore was completely isolated from the outside world. According to a media release by Telstra a few years ago, my Uncle Alf was recognized as “Bigpond’s Oldest Customer” because he provided the only communication with the outside world for telegraphs, police, and councils.
In 1959, Bertha’s mother, Bertha Rixon, and her brother Leslie John, who worked as a wardsman at St Vincent’s Hospital, moved into the family home on Kyogle Street. By the mid-1960s, three of their daughters had already married and moved away. Margaret relocated to Sydney, then Hong Kong, and finally Brisbane due to her husband’s job in the army. Gloria moved to Brisbane and later got married, while Nancy had stints of living in both Sydney and Brisbane.
On November 9, 1965, Bertha and Albert welcomed their youngest child, James Charles John, into the world – that’s me!
In the early 1970s, the land at 21 Kyogle Street was sold to make way for the construction of a weighbridge. To preserve the family home, it was relocated to 195 Casino Street, South Lismore, where it was raised to avoid the risk of future flooding.
There is a harrowing family story that stands out, involving the 1974 flood. The entire family, along with other residents, was stranded for several days. Fortunately, unlike the 1954 flood, the water did not penetrate the house. It was a Sunday night when South Lismore was flooded, and my father must have sensed that the levee bank was about to break. In anticipation, we spent most of Sunday afternoon securing everything under the house. We lifted the washing machine three or four feet off the ground and moved the family car to the higher block of land next door. With everything in place, we settled in to watch our usual Sunday night tradition, “Disneyland.” However, by the end of the program, almost six feet of water had engulfed our home. Both the washing machine and the family car were submerged in water, as the floodwaters had surged below. Despite the inconvenience, the family stuck together and waited until the floodwaters receded.
As our house was elevated on stilts, we were fortunate to avoid flooding in the house during the 1974 flood, only in the yards. However, our neighbors, the Jobsons, who lived across the street, had to be evacuated in the middle of the night. The floodwaters surrounded our house for several days, and once the waters receded, we walked around the neighborhood to check on our family and friends. In those days, telephones were not yet a household staple, and communication was limited. We were particularly concerned about my sister Pat and her infant child, who lived opposite a fuel depot. She recounted her fears during the night, hearing the floating fuel drums banging into each other while her husband was out volunteering for the State Emergency Service.
After checking on our loved ones, we walked across the Ballina Street Bridge to survey the damage in the CBD. Before the levee bank was built, many families, including Aboriginal families, lived along the riverbank. From the bridge, we saw the water rushing rapidly, carrying livestock with it. I distinctly recall a distressed cow mooing mournfully as it floated under our feet.
The floodwaters brought chaos and devastation to the town. Homes and businesses were destroyed, and the landscape was unrecognizable. It took months for the town to recover fully. In response, the government built the Wilsons River levee bank, which has since protected (generally speaking) the town from future floods.
I’m not exactly sure how long Albert worked as a plumber at the Lismore Base Hospital. In 1981 however, due to ill-health, he was forced to retire medically unfit.
Upon retirement, he performed some voluntary work for Meals On Wheels. Soon afterwards, he was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a form of cancer.
For the final twelve months of his life, he was weak and spent a great deal of time in bed. He spent almost all of the last month of his life in hospital. In the early hours of the morning of June 22, 1982, he suffered a stroke which caused his death . The indirect causes were Multiple Myeloma, Cachexia and Cerebral Atrophy . He was buried on June 24 at the Lawn Cemetery, Goonellabah. The funeral announcement appeared in “The Northern Star” on June 23 and 24, 1982.
In the following two years, Betty’s health deteriorated rapidly, as she battled heart disease and asthma. On November 7, 1984, at approximately eight o’clock in the morning, she suffered a fatal heart attack, and despite attempts to revive her, she passed away. The next day, she was laid to rest at the Lawn Cemetery in Goonellabah.