Albert Bernard O’Brien
The youngest son of James Joseph O’Brien and Lena Noonan, Albert Bernard O’Brien (known as “Johnny O’Brien) was on September 12, 1917. At the time of the birth of Albert (and his twin-sister Annie who died at or soon after birth) (13582/1917), his parents were living at Ettrick, near Kyogle, NSW.
His parents were share-farmers who had moved from the NSW South Coast in about 1908. It’s said the father, James (known as “Jock”) “liked a drink or two” and the family moved around a great deal. They continued to farm at Ettrick until the early 1920s, but over the next ten years, the family also lived at Boorie Creek, near Lismore and at Upper Mongogarie, near Kyogle. A more permanent base came in about 1935/1936, when the family moved into a house at 21 Kyogle Street, South Lismore which remained in the O’Brien Family for the next 50 years.
In his early working life, Johnny worked in a number of labouring jobs, including at the Broadwater Sugar Mill. At about this time, he met and married Bertha Ann Dunn (also known as “Betty” or “Toby”). According to anecdotal family history, he was initially dating Bertha’s sister, Eunice, and that’s how they met.
Bertha Ann Dunn
Bertha Ann Dunn was born at Bombala on February 7, 1922, the eldest child of Charles Henry Dunn and Bertha Rixon. Having fought in the First World War, Charles worked as a linesman for the Post Master General in a number of locations, including Orange, NSW. Mum told me once, one of her earliest memories was seeing snow on the ground.
By the mid-30s, her parents were were living at Lismore on the NSW North Coast. According to the electoral roles, they lived at 37 High Street, Lismore Heights, 8 Baillie Street, North Lismore, and in Ballina Street, East Lismore, before finally settling at 13 Union Street, South Lismore (close to the railway viaduct) in about 1941.
Albert and Bertha met, married and raised a family of four daughters and one son: Margaret (1940-2015), Gloria (1944-2010), Nancy (1945-), Lynette (1948-) and James (1965-). They also had a still-born child, Joan Kathleen O’Brien who died July 9, 1953 (21816/1953) and who is buried in the East Lismore Cemetery in an unmarked grave. A document on the Lismore City Council website notes, “In times past, it was customary that babies who were stillborn were buried in unmarked graves.”.
Albert and Bertha lived in the O’Brien Family home at 21 Kyogle Street, South Lismore, and Albert’s mother, Lena, continued to live with them until closer to her death in 1953.
1954 Lismore Flood
There are many family anecdotes relating, in particular, to floods. One of the most memorable family anecdotes concerns the 1954 flood. The story goes the broader family, including Bertha’s mother spent a few days living in the roof of the low-set house with flood waters underneath. In the days prior to the establishment of the State Emergency Service, individuals had to look after themselves. Famously, mum and my granny sat on chairs on the kitchen table until the rising waters forced them into the ceiling. When they soon realised my overweight granny couldn’t squeeze through the manhole, they took a saw to the man-hole to allow her through. Thus, my mum, my dad, my granny, my uncle and my four sister spent close to a week living in the roof-top of our house, with flood-waters swirling just below them.
It’s hard to imagine such a thing occurring today. But at the time Lismore was a genuinely isolated locality. A media release issued by Telstra a couple of years ago, recognising my Uncle Alf as “Bigpond’s Oldest Customer, notes that during the 1954 Lismore flood he provided the only communication to the outside for telegraphs, police and councils.
In about 1959, Bertha’s mother, Bertha Rixon and brother, Leslie John (a wardsman at St Vincent’s Hospital) moved into the house with them at Kyogle Street.By the mid 1960s, their daughters had begun to marry and three of the daughters and three of the four moved away for a period of time. Margaret moved to Sydney, Hong Kong and then Brisbane (because of her husband’s job in the army), Gloria moved to Brisbane and later married; and Nancy had periods of living in both Sydney and Brisbane.On November 9 1965, another child, James Charles John – that’s me – arrived on the scene.
In the early 1970s, the land at 21 Kyogle Street was sold to make way for the establishment of a “weigh bridge”, and so the house was relocated to 195 Casino Street, South Lismore. The house was also “raised” to avoid further risk of flood.
Nonentheless, another memorable family moment concerns the 1974 flood where the family remained isolated, along with others, for several days. Water didn’t enter the house this time, though, as it did in 1954. As I recall it was a Sunday night when South Lismore flooded. Although due to an expected failure in the levee bank, dad must have known something terrible was going to happen, as we spent much of Sunday afternoon securing things underneath the house. The washing machine was raised three or four feet off the ground and the family car had been moved to the higher block of land next door. With everything secure, we came back upstairs and sat to watch “Disneyland”, as was the Sunday night family tradition. By the end of Disneyland our house was surrounded by almost six feet of water. Needless to say, both the washing machine and the family car were covered in water.
As our house was on stilts, we avoided inundation this time. The people who lived across the road, however, the Jobsons (their daughter Wendy was in my year at school) were evacuated in the middle of the night. The flood-waters surrounded our house for three of four days, as I recall. When they finally subsided we were able to walk around the neighbourhood to visit family and friends to see how they had fared. These were the days before telephones were common in households, and communication was therefore limited. In particular, there was concern about how my sister, Pat had fared with her infant child. A she lived opposite a fuel depot (she still does), she told us of her late night fears (while her husband was out volunteering for the State Emergency Service) as she heard the floating fuel drums smash against each other.From there we walked across the Ballina Street Bridge to see how people who lived in the CBD had fared. Long before the establishment of the levy-bank there were a number of families living on the riverbank, many of them Aboriginal. Standing on the bridge we were able to look down to see the water just a dozen feet or so beneath our feet. Rushing rapidly, and carrying livestock with it, I remember, in particular, seeing a distressed cow mournfully mooing as it floated underneath our feet.
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.
For the next two years, however, Betty suffered increasing ill-health due to a combination of heart disease and asthma. She died from a heart-attack on November 7, 1984 at about eight o’clock in the morning, with attempts at revival unsuccessful. She was buried the next day at the Lawn Cemetery, Goonellabah.