Ten years ago, my friend Mary Latham and I were talking about places we’d travelled overseas, and she mentioned Ireland. I asked her where in Ireland she’d visited. She listed several places, then added, ‘Oh, and I went to this tiny little place no one’s ever heard of called Cappoquin because my family used to run the local pub there.’
I did a double-take. ‘No, my family used to run the local pub in Cappoquin,’ I said.
Turns out we were both right, both of us descended from Maurice Walsh, owner of The Cats Bar in Cappoquin, and Mary Morrisey (or Morrison), of County Waterford. In 1887, two of Maurice’s daughters, Mary Ann and Margaret, migrated to Sydney, Australia, with their respective husbands, Thomas Francis O’Brien and John Joseph Whelan. Mary is descended from Mary Ann, and I am descended from Margaret.
Mary and I were friends for four years before we discovered our shared ancestry, a discovery which only deepened our friendship. Over the years, our unique story has made for wonderful dinner party conversation.
Only it turns out that our story is not so unique.
A couple of nights ago, I was having dinner with Dimity, a friend of twenty years. She has done considerable work on her family history and was talking about her ancestral links to Mudgee in New South Wales. I said, ‘We must try to figure out at some point whether our ancestors knew each other. My great-great-great-grandfather brought Chardonnay to Australia via Mudgee.’
Dimity looked at me and said, ‘No, my great-great-great-grandfather brought Chardonnay to Australia via Mudgee.’
Talk about déjà-vu.
Turns out Dimity and I share great-great-great-great-grandparents in Johann Friederick Kurz (b 1760) and his third wife, Margaretha Benz, of Mannshaupten (now part of Schorndorf) near Stuttgart in Germany. I am descended from their fifth child, Andreas Kurz (b 1816), and Anna Rosina Keorzinger (b 1827), who emigrated to Australia on the Commodore Perry out of Liverpool, arriving in NSW in 1855. Dimity is descended from their sixth child, Joseph David Kurz (b 1817), and Christina Barbara Ahles, who emigrated to Australia in 1856. Both brothers settled at Pipeclay Creek northeast of Mudgee, where Andreas established his vineyard. According to Dimity, Joseph was a master shoe-maker in Germany, though it is believed that he and Andreas worked on the vineyards together; at least one of Joseph’s sons had his own vineyard in Mudgee later on.
As well as the bragging rights that come from being part of a family that brought Chardonnay to Australia (see this article that identifies Mudgee as the cradle of Australia’s Chardonnay), I believe Andreas — though it might have been his brother, Joseph — makes an appearance as ‘farmer Kutz’ (sic) in The Days When We Went Swimming, a poem by Mudgee’s most famous literary son, Henry Lawson:
And you’ll remember farmer Kutz –
Though scarcely for his bounty –
He leased a forty-acre block,
And thought he owned the county;
A farmer of the old world school,
That grew men hard and grim in,
He drew his water from the pool
That we preferred to swim in…
(In his defense, Andreas and Anna made the trip from Germany with the two surviving of their first four children, only one of whom was still alive by the time they reached Australia. ‘Hard and grim’ indeed. Australia must have seemed like Paradise by contrast, all four of their children born here surviving into adulthood).
So, twice now, my friends have turned out to be (distant) cousins. What are the odds?
No, I mean really: what are the odds? Maths isn’t my strong suit, but I would love to know the probability of chancing upon common ancestors in one’s social circle. Then the likelihood of it happening twice.
Does the fact that I have two distant relatives (so far) among my close friends merely reflect how young Australia’s immigrant population is?
Are me and my relatives more likely to recognise each other when we meet by virtue of being interested in — and putting time into — researching family history?
Are we drawn together by subliminal genetic and/or psychic forces that make us more likely to share interests, divulge information and ask the kinds of questions that enable us to uncover the ancestral links?
Or is this all proof, as British novelist Barbara Trapido once observed, that ‘random life is full of coincidences too unlikely to use in a novel’?
Whatever the case, I’m following the advice of award winning author and historian Clare Wright to post family history information online to facilitate more of these connections, wondering which of my friends will turn out to be a long-lost cousin next…