Monday, November 30, 2009

The Surviving Coonan Children: 1. Margaret Coonan

Above: Margaret Coonan Butler, known as "Aunt Butler" in the Meehan family.

Margaret Coonan was born in Melbourne 1845, and was the eldest child of Irish parents Michael Coonan and Margaret Gleeson. She witnessed much tragedy in her life, and grew up to be a woman of great strength and determination.
Her early years were spent in Melbourne where her father was a carter.She was only two years old when her only sister, Catherine, died several days after her birth in 1847, but would definitely have been touched by the deaths of her brother Daniel in 1852, when she was 7, and as an eight year old when measles claimed her brothers Patrick and Daniel in 1853.

Perhaps the biggest effect on young Margaret's life would have been the death of her mother in early 1855. Margaret was in her tenth year when this tumultuous event happened, leaving her not only without a mother, but with brothers aged seven years and eight weeks to help care for. The circumstances of her mother's death also would have made the event even more traumatic...she died in the Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum after being diagnosed with Puerperal mania and insanity. She died only seven days after being admitted, so one can only imagine the circumstances in the Coonan home that led to Margaret Gleeson Coonan being institutionalised around New Years Eve 1854. Violence, refusal to eat, extreme paranoia, erratic behaviour and self-harm can all be symptoms of Margaret's diagnosed condition, and her daughter Margaret would have witnessed it all.
Margaret's father married again the following year, this time to an Irish girl much younger than himself. Lucy Nihill was only 18 as compared to her husband's age of 34...she was only seven years older than her step-daughter Margaret.
Nothing is known about the details of this marriage, except for the fact that it resulted in no further children, and that it ended after five years when Lucy absconded from the family farm near Epping in 1861.
At this time Margaret Coonan was sixteen years old, and most likely considered well and truly old enough -and capable enough- to run her father's home and care for him and her two brothers. Jeremiah was 13 and Michael 7 when their stepmother did a runner.
For the next twelve years Margaret Coonan remained on the family property and cared for her father and brothers.Jeremiah left to select farming land near Euroa, but Margaret and her brother Michael remained.
In March of 1873, yet another tragedy struck the Coonan family, when Michael Coonan Senior ordered Margaret and Michael from the house and swallowed strychnine.He had been displaying signs of mental instability, so it would have been terrifying for his children-even though by then they were adults- to be sent outside, wondering what they would find when they were allowed to return.
What they did find was a father who had taken strychnine in order to kill himself.He said he was sorry and blessed them both, and died thirty minutes later. It would have been a terrible death to witness...symptoms include terrible convulsions.High doses of strychnine cause muscle spasms within 10 to 20 minutes of ingesting the poison. They start at the head and neck and spread to all muscles, and there is a feeling of impending suffocation. The contractions become uncontrollable, and the back arches so severely that only the head and heels rest on the floor. The eyes remain open and the mouth is drawn aside.
One can only imagine the horror of witnessing somebody die in this agonising manner. Somebody would have had to go for assistance or a doctor-it is a terrible prospect to think that Margaret may have been left alone with her father in this state.
With both parents dead and herself aged 28, Margaret remained on the farm at Wollert, which continued to be farmed by her 18 year old brother Michael.
Her brother Jeremiah Coonan married in 1876 22 year old Margaret Mellon from Woodstock, the daughter of Mooroopna farmer Joseph Mellon and his wife Mary Ann Thompson. He continued to farm near Euroa.
Margaret's other brother Michael married in 1881, at the age of 27. His marriage certificate stated that his usual residence was Yea...Flowerdale, where the later Coonan farm was located, was about 45 km from Wollert where Michael grew up. Michael most likely also ran the Wollert property, as there is evidence that he and his family lived at both locations.

Despite her brothers moving on to other farms, Margaret Coonan was still living at Wollert when she finally surrendered her spinsterhood in 1892 at the age of 46 or 47 years. Her marriage certificate states her age as being 43, most likely because her husband, Thomas Butler, was thirty five years old.
The couple were married at the Catholic Church, Coburg,on June 29, 1892, by Father Hayes.Witnesses to the ceremony were the groom's brother, John Butler, and Margaret's sister-in-law, Mary Meehan Coonan.
Thomas Butler was a farmer from Woodstock (Woodstock is about 6km from Wollert), and had been born there, the son of Tobias Butler and Anne Lane.He was one of four brothers- the others being George, John and Tobias- and two sisters- Julia and Anne.Tobias Butler Senior had died in October 1871 and left Thomas the family farm.

Not surprisingly, considering that Margaret was in her mid-forties when she married, there were no children born to the couple.However, in 1893, two years after Margaret's marriage to Thomas Butler,her brother Michael was killed after an accident fractured his spine. He left a young widow and three small children...Michael Patrick aged 9; Margaret aged 7 and Thomas aged 3 months.
Mary and her children moved to live at nearby Dairy Creek with her aged father,Patrick Meehan. When Patrick died in 1895, he overlooked his only son Michael in his will, leaving everything instead to his daughter Mary and his eldest grandchild,11 year old Michael Patrick Coonan.

Margaret Coonan would have offered all of her support, both emotional and financial, to her sister-in-law Mary Coonan and her young niece and nephews, and had to go one step further when, in 1900, Mary Coonan died of a heart condition that left orphaned 16 year old Michael Patrick,14 year old Margaret Frances and Thomas Emmet aged 7.
At the time of her death, Mary Coonan and her children had been living with Margaret Butler at 'Womblano', Garnet Street,South Preston, and it was in this home that 40 year old Mary died.
Known by her Meehan relatives as "Aunt Butler", Margaret adopted the three children, and took over the estate of their parents until the eldest, Michael, came of age.

It is difficult to trace Margaret Coonan Butler's movements in the 1920s through electoral rolls as there were so many 'Margaret Butlers'.When her brother Michael died in 1893, a funeral notice in the Argus stated that the funeral procession would leave the residence of his sister, Mrs Butler, Wattle Park, Epping.
When her sister-in-law Mary Meehan Coonan died in 1900 it was in Margaret Butler's home in Garnet Street, South Preston. Margaret Butler's electoral roll entries are as follows:
1903: Margaret Butler, Garnet Street, South Preston, independent means (Note: there was no Thomas Butler living at this address)

1909: Margaret Butler, Garnet Street, Preston, independent means
Margaret Francis Coonan, as above, home duties

1914:Margaret Butler, Glenburn, Via Yea, home duties
Thomas Emmett Coonan, Glenburn, grazier

1919: Margaret Butler, Glenburn Via Yea, home duties
Thomas Emmett Coonan, Glenburn, grazier.

The 1924 electoral roll had only Thomas Emmett Coonan living at Glenburn...I can't locate Margaret Butler, who would have been in her late seventies.

Margaret Coonan Butler died on April 25, 1930, aged 84 years. She died at the "Convent of Good Shepherd", Albert Park, Melbourne, and was buried in the Coonan family grave at Melbourne General Cemetery.
Sadly, the youngest of her Coonan adopted children, nephew Thomas Emmett Coonan, died the following year, aged only 38. He died suddenly the day after the first anniversary of Margaret Butler's death.

I have no idea what became of Thomas Butler, Margaret's husband.He did not die until 1930, in Heidelberg, at the age of 72 years, so it appears that he and Margaret had separate addresses for many years prior to their deaths.


Pauline said...

This has been great reading and research! I am a descendant of Margaret's husbands brother, George Stephen Butler, who went to New Zealand.

Vicki Sparks said...

Hi there, I am a descendant of Michael Coonans brother Thomas Coonan of Beaudesert/Logan area in Qld. I'd love to get in contact and also wondered if you knew of Linda Coonan Bracken who wrote a book titled "The Coonans in Early South-East Queensland 3rd Edition'. I have a fair bit of info on Thomas and his sons. His son Michael who was about 2 yo when they came from Ireland is my grandmothers grandfather. I am currently writing a book myself of all the family lines in my family. The Coonans form a big part of that. Hopefully someone will see this. My email is and I live near Brisbane Qld.