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Rediscovering Ginninderra:
Jane Susan Cavanagh

Born: c.1805; Died: 1857; Married: Thomas Cavanagh

The story of Jane Cavanagh is a mix of tragedy and triumph. She was born Jane Susan Meade in Galway, Ireland, around 1805. In c. 1827 at Tynagh, she married Thomas Cavanagh, with whom she already had two daughters - Ann and Hannah. In 1831 the young couple were to have their third child, Patrick Cavanagh.

The following year was one of great tragedy for the family. Her husband, an Irish patriot, was arrested on a charge of insurrection. He had been a 'white boy', i.e. a rebel fighting for the rights of the rural poor and tenant farmers. Thomas received a life sentence and was transported to Australia.

Somehow, Jane managed to join him in the colony with their three grown children in 1849 on the Panama, seventeen years after being separated from her husband. Thomas' family was lucky to have survived in these circumstances. The wife and two children of another 'white boy' transported to Australia with a connection to Ginninderra, John Casey, all died while their rebel father was trying to win his freedom in New South Wales.

Nevertheless, life on the Limestone Plains must have been a struggle for the family. Just eight years after arriving in Australia, Jane tragically drowned. It is assumed that her death was by her own hand, as the priest at Queanbeyan tried to deny her burial on consecrated ground.

Samuel Shumack relates the story of her death in his Autobiography as follows.

One evening in the spring of 1857 ... we heard that Mrs Cavanagh had been drowned in the Canberra River. We could see a crowd on the bank and we hurried to the scene and arrived just as her son Patrick took her body from the water. His father, Thomas Cavanagh, was in a state of collapse. My cousin, Peter Shumack, was the last person to see Mrs Cavanagh alive. He spoke to her as she passed him on the way to the river and thought it strange that she did not return his greeting. A sensation was caused when the priest would not allow her to be interred in the Roman Catholic burial ground in Queanbeyan, and after some delay Patrick and a few friends buried her there. The priest had the body removed and buried outside consecrated ground, but Patrick and his friends re-interred the body within the cemetery and mounted an armed guard at the graveside, declaring that they would shoot any person who disturbed it.

Eventually, her brave family forced an agreement with the church authorities to have her corpse remain at peace in the cemetery and they also erected a headstone in her memory. Her husband Thomas Cavanagh died in 1871, aged 63.


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