Riordan Family history

John Keating: Maceitinn

According to AWR this could have been a portrait of Timothy Riordan
These recollections are taken from undated notes typed by my father, Adrian William Riordan.
Timothy Riordan was born on 9.11.1838 in Sydney, and died on 13.8.1908. He and his family lived in Salisbury House, Old South Head Road, Woollahra, NSW.

I have never heard anyone say a word of dispraise when they spoke of my grandfather. All who knew him agree as to his constant good-humour, his unfailing kindness, his honesty, courage, tolerance and strength of character. Nor did Timothy ever speak unkindly of man or woman; "If we can find no good in him" he used to say "then let us not speak of him".

All who worked for him liked and respected him. The maids in his house, most of whom came there as raw Irish immigrants, looked upon themselves as members of the family and I remember going to see one Dinny Browne, one of his 'retainers' (it must have been in 1916 or 1917) who was then living at Bronte and being made welcome by old Dinny and his grown up sons and daughters as Timothy's grandson.

As a boy the young Timothy had many pastimes typical of the day, one being leap-frog over the posts which fenced in the Tank Stream. On one unhappy occasion he and several other boys amused themselves by waylaying old women coming out of St. Mary's on a holy day of some kind and telling them that the blessed candles they were taking home should be carried lighted. A high wind was blowing and many were the false starts made by the bearers of the candles, to the delight of the religious minded young gentlemen, but after they had enjoyed this sight for some time they were caught by a priest, who turned their merriment to gloom.

He was a friend of a French priest who was in charge of the stonework at St. Mary's, spending much time in the crypt with the masons and trying his hand at sculpture.

For a time he was articled to a solicitor, who, unluckily for him, was a 'Protestant' - unluckily because his uncle Edward Coghlan, a bigot of the worst type, did not rest until he had persuaded his sister to remove her son from the contaminating company of a "heretic", much to the unhappiness of young Timothy.

I do not know if it were this that persuaded him to leave home to see the world but he is said to have taken himself off, at the mature age of fifteen or so, and to have sought fortune as cook to a party of gold seekers bound for Cooma. What came of this has gone from my recollection.

At eighteen he and a friend of the same age are said to have launched themselves on the world as contractors. Their first contract was for the filling of an old well at the Darlinghurst Gaol, which they later found to run into an undiscovered cave. His friend had himself released from the contract when this was discovered but Timothy stuck to the contract. He lost money over it but acquired a reputation for courage and honesty which stood him in good stead later in his life.

In his early twenties he became an overseer of a railway construction gang, taught himself surveying and was later, so it is said, offered £I,000 a year by the Brassey firm, who, after cornpleting their contracts in N.S.W. and Queensland were to build railways in Spain. Timothy, however, preferred to stay in N.S.W. and is next heard of as a building contractor.

Before long he and his partner had built up a large business and many of the pre-war buildings in Sydney were the handwork of this firm. I think he re-built the Stock Exchange; I certainly remember hearing a story of the great sandstone columns - the highest ever erected in Australia - of one of the old city buildings. On the morning of their erection he was in a state of great alarm because of the difficulty of putting these into place and his foreman is reported to have said "Now, sir, don't be distressing yourself. Go for a quiet walk in Hyde Park and come back in three hours time, when we'll have them up". Timothy took this advice and the columns were put into place without mishap).

His partner is said to have employed a man whose chief duty was getting sacked. Angry clients had this man brought before them as the cause of their imagined wrongs and after hearing their complaint the scapegoat was ceremoniously dismissed, whereupon he gave such a convincing display of distress that the author of this assumed sorrow was usually stricken into pleading for his reinstatement. If this ruse failed he had to wait until the client had gone before he recovered his job. This very Irish arrangement deceived no one and gave satisfaction to all concerned.

My grandfather had many adventures, most of which, worse luck, I have forgotten. Once, when he was on his way to Bathurst (or Orange ?) he overtook a number of men with a cart and dray who were camping for the night at a spring somewhere on the Blue Fountains and accepted their invitation to boil his billy at their fire. Something about them, however, awakened his suspicions and as he had a large sum in gold in a money belt under his clothes he decided not to spend the night there. Early in the evening he stretched himself on the ground under a tree and pretended to go to sleep, waiting until the mens attention was distracted before slipping quietly away and leading his horses out of sight before riding on some miles. Later in the same night a more trusting traveller was murdered and robbed by this party.

Timothy was very well-read and could recite almost everything Shakespeare wrote. Wherever he went he took with him a complete set of Shakespeare's works, which he read constantly by the light of his camp fire or of a candle.

He was a religious man but entirely free from the sin of bigotry and his respect for the church did not shackle his judgement. When my father and mother became engaged my Aunt Mary was loudly indignant that her brother should marry a "heretic" and threatened to leave the house if the marriage took place. Timothy heard her out and then said quietly "If those are your views you had better go". Mary did so and never again spoke to my mother. For Kitty (my mother) he had a very deep affection and the fact that he approved of her counted for more than the Churches threats, which he politely disregarded.

Timothy retired from business when one of his men, an ex-sailor who had been with him for many years, fell from the scaffolding in a high wind and died at his feet. He said that he did not like to feel even indirectly responsible for any man's death, and, having pensioned the widow, he sold his share of the business to his partner, who was later knighted. (The partner's name I have forgotten, unfortunately).

After his retirement he bought the sandstone columns from a building erected by his firm but later demolished and had these set up in Centennial Park to save their beauty from destruction. So far as I know the columns are still there.

In appearance he was not unlike the photograph of John Keating's painting "Mere Irish". I remember him as an old man, with a fine white beard, coming to see us in Orange, heavy laden with presents for us boys.

For several years he followed my grandmother home from mass, at a respectful distance, to make sure that she was not annoyed or molested by strangers on her way. He never spoke to her and she was supposed not to know of this distant escort. When he married her, as a young widow, he brought up her daughter as his own.

His tie, which was always black, was invariably worn with a gold tie ring round it. His clothes were neat, well-cut and in very good taste.

He died in 1910, or 1911, while we were living in Orange; I remember the arrival of the telegram and the grief in my father's face when he drove from the house in a cab to go to Sydney by train.

He kept every letter he received and at his death these filled four large trunks. Not liking to read them his family destroyed envelopes (some of the stamps were worth £40 a piece) as well as letters. I often think of that scene of destruction and wish that those letters had come to me. What a treasure house they would have been.1

In his safe my Aunt Rose found a small tin, in which was a rounded pebble I had given him as a child, while we were living at Beecroft. Years later she gave it to me and I have it still as a valued memorial of a very loveable man.

1. This action is probably explained by the dark secrets revealed in Family Skeletons
 © Roger Riordan 2004-2019

Timothy Riordan

Recollections of AWR