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Author: Public Record Office Victoria
When Catherine Toland (or Tolland) arrived on the "Lady Kennaway" with her sister, Sarah, to start a new life half a world away from her native Donegal, she could never have imagined the tragedy that would occur in her life.
Catherine married Michael Murphy, a Shepherd, in 1850 at St. Francis Catholic Church in Melbourne and went on to give birth to eleven children - only three of whom would survive to adulthood.
It is undeniably tragic to lose one child but to lose eight children - four of them in the one devastating incident - must have been unbearable and enough to threaten any parent's sanity and will to go on living.
Early one morning in 1863, Catherine left the family's slab hut with her husband and four children still asleep in bed, When Michael left shortly after, the children - John, William, Elizabeth and Michael James - were all still in bed. At approximately 8:00, smoke was noticed in the direction of the Murphy's hut and the landowner, James McDonald, was informed. On arrival, Mr. McDonald found the hut ablaze and partially collapsed and was unable to locate the children.
He went to where Michael Murphy was minding sheep and, on return to the hut, found that the fire had died down and they were able to retrieve the bodies of the four children - still in their beds.
All this information can be found in the Witness Depositions for the Coroner's Inquest into the deaths of the young children - how heartbreaking must it have been for Catherine to relate the sequence of events that resulted in the deaths of four of her children?
Catherine died in 1899 and left all her estate (which included a town allotment in Kerang) to her sole surviving child, Sarah Ellen Gleeson (nee Murphy).