Tuesday, 24 April 2018



A few years ago, I had the opportunity to wander through Gore Hill Cemetery, in Sydney. A fascinating, sad, but totally amazing repository of history... It is under the care of Northern Cemeteries...

Gore Hill Cemetery History - Northern Cemeteries | Northern Cemeteries

"Gore Hill Cemetery was established on 19 May 1868 by the New South Wales politician William Tunks. The first body was interred in 1877, and until its closure in 1974, 14,456 burials took place. ... The last burial in Gore Hill took place in 1974, but the cemetery is still open for the deposition of ashes."

You can see some of my photos at
Some Irish Graves, Sydney, Australia 53 photos · 386 views

One grave in particular held my attention.. and I've often wondered about the story behind it... I knew a little, but decided to explore some more.. 

Many of you will have heard of the young man that rests there... better known as Barney.. or simply Kieran. You will see some references to him as Keran, as that is the name he was registered as in error.

His mother was Annie Mackin, who arrived on the "Surrey" in 1875 from Co Louth, Ireland, along with her sister, Rose.

Image courtesy of State Archives, NSW.. click to enlarge
She married Patrick Kieran .. Bernard, known as Barney, was their sixth child, born on 6 October, 1886 in Sydney.

Just five years later,  Patrick, seaman and labourer,  was killed in a train accident... 17 April, 1901.
Inquest result..

NRS 343 Reel 2925. The verdict of the inquest: death was caused by the: ‘Effects of injuries accidentally received through having been run over by a passing train.’

Image courtesy of State Archives, NSW.. click to enlarge

By 1900, Barney was giving his mother and family a hard time, so much so that she looked for help. Barney was admitted to the Sobraon school in the hope that it would help him.

Proof of Baptism needed for entrance to Sobraon entry..
Letter from Father Piguet of St Patrick’s Church certifying he baptised Barney in St Patricks Church Sydney, the sponsors being Michael Maggin and Louisa Baker. This confirms the correct spelling of KIERAN [he was registered as ‘Keran’ (NSW BDM ref: 3702/1886) and he was admitted to the Sobraon under ‘Keran’.]

"Sobraon entrance book, 1900 (note spelling of name). His mother stated the boy will not go to school, that he stops out at night and that she has no control over him. After being committed by the Water Police Court on 1 March 1900 Barney was sent to the Sobraon. NRS 3902 [8/1747], page 475"

Images courtesy of State Archives, NSW.. click to enlarge
"Naval Officers and cadets on the N.S.S ‘Sobraon’, 11 Aug 1893. Digital ID 4481_a026_000966"

 As you will have seen, the Sobraon school was a school with a difference, it was actually on a boat, a boy's delight...

From the Sunday Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1903 - 1910), Sunday 3 May 1903, page 8...
This Article Tells How the Sobraon Boys Live.
A. party of 250 boarded the training shlp Sobraon. Some of us were rather distinguished — from an Australian point of view. Some were not. The category in which I stood does not matter.
Two little fellows, In white sailor costume, ran down the steps and stood bolt upright-one on each slde of our steamer's gangway. Members of the Sobraon |tralnjng staff came to the top of the steps and welcomed us as we ascended. Oh the top-deck a squad of 50 boys were shouldering arms and standing at attention in our honour. We were flushed with pride. 
THE SOBRAON SINGERS. We descended the grand staircase, or companion ways, to the lower parts, where we inspected and admired the mess deck, and the sleeping deck. We were next led into the schoolroom, where on the sides were hung pictures, maps, art specimens,, and teaching paraphernalia, similar to all that is to be found in the best of the superior public schools on land. Here 240 boys, from little to big, were standing between the desks, and they remained erect until we were all seated around them. Mr. A. Matthews, the chief schoolmaster, was ready with a conductor's baton. The boys sang a number of part songs in excellent style, a portion of the ship's band accompanying. The lowness of the ceiling made the singing sound a little loud, but if the boys could have been heard in the Sydney Town Hall the volume of sweet sound would have been just grand! These boys, unfortunately, are not allowed to take part in public competitions, or to show in public what they can do. It may be truly said, however, that in listening to their voices the visitors had a rare treat. It was certainly one that they had not expected. The boys seem to sing with pleasure; and certainly they sang with spirit. 
A COMING CAVILL. From the school we were taken through the engine-room, the recreation hall, the library, and the museum. At every stage expressions of surprise, pleasure, and admiration were
heard. In the museum were pointed out all the medals that had been won by one of the boys for swimming. He was 14 years old, and was said to be the fastest swimmer of his age in Australasia. On the Sobraon they look on him as "the coming rival of Cavlll." A Mauser rifle was pointed out as a trophy captured from the Boers by an ex-Sobraon boy, who was a trooper In the war. Out of affection for his old home and gratitude to his old school he had sent the trophy to the museum. We saw hundreds of other trophies in glass cases. In addition there were hundreds of geological and botanlcal specimens furnished by the Education Department. 
PHYSICAL DRILL. We poured into the hospital, which is in charge of Mr. N. Pickett. He is an enthusiast, and merits much praise. The whole place looked clean and cosy.. We reascended the companion ways, and got up on the poops — fore, aft, and amidshlps — to watch a full muster of the boys go through naval and military evolutions. The large band, consisting of boys, some barely old enough to go to school, and others who were nearly young men, played a big part in the drill and exercises. Mr. J. Bourke is a capital bandmaster. The physical exercises were carried out under the direction of Boatswain S. Thurston. He is amiable Instructor. He was assisted by a number of divisional officers and seamen, who are all experts in drill. Gymnastics and sailor exercises were followed hy military drill and evotutlons. The marching was delightful. Rifles, sabres, and bayonets played a part, and In the handling of them the boys evinced great skill. The "Phantom Guard" in "Dirk Whittington" was recalled by the Sobraon evolutions. The public schools are not equal to such a display. 
A MARVELLOUS CONVERSION. We made some speeches while the boys squatted in rows on the deck. We praised the boys heartily, and eulogised Captain Mason and his staff for the evidences of good work and excellent training that had been witnessed. He modestly replied, but while he spoke it was clear from nearly half a thousand beaming faces that the boys regarded him with affection. Altogether there are 422 hoys on the ship. The Instructors number 19. Including the officers of the commissariat department there are all told 22 officers. The band consists of about 30 members, and though many of them are very young boys, they are by no means poor players. We were struck by the re markable cleanliness of the vessel all over. The decks were as clean as any of the floors in the Sydney Hospital. The boys were clean too — not only their faces and clothes. Their eyes were bright and merry, and their faces cheerful. They seemed to have great respect for their Instructors. We got the impression that the staff were not taskmasters, but "big brothers." How different those boys were when they stood before Messrs. Wilshire, Smithers, Payten, Donaldson, Macfarlane, and other stipendiary magistrates to be rescued from the perils of bad homes, bad parents, and bad companions! How sad it made one to think that some of the boys will have to return by-and-bye to their old environments — to the same old haunts, to the same worthless unchanged parents, and to the same bad companions. Many will prove superior to the temptations of their earlier days. Let us hope that the proportion of the reformed will be overwhelming. There is not an Institution to equal the Sobroan for bringing about a mar-vellous conversion. 

Naval cadets from N.S.S. ‘Sobraon’ receiving swimming instruction, 11 Aug 1893. Digital ID 4481_a026_000977
Images courtesy of State Archives, NSW.. click to enlarge
Cockatoo Island Sutherland and Fitzroy Docks. Photograph by Janette Pelosi. Barney Kieran did much of his early training at Cockatoo Island where the Sobraon boys were able to go on land. The Fitzroy Dock (472 feet = 144 metres) was used as a venue for swimming races watched by Barney Kiernan and he used the Sutherland Dock for his swimming training. The Sutherland Dock, completed in March 1890, was 638 
feet (194 metres) when built."

Images courtesy of State Archives, NSW.. 

Swimming Certificate (reproduced with permission from the Powerhouse Museum)

There are numerous articles on TROVE re Barney's successes, and his trials.. some readers will have heard of Dick Cavill, a brilliant swimmer, who was ahead of all others. However, it wasn't long before B.Kieran was challenging him and being listed as a very close second to Dick in many races... as in this report.. 

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner's Advocate 25 Jan. 1904

Note the use of the name, Keran in lieu of  Kieran. 

Soon the roles were reversed...

Following a number of such successes, an invitation was issued.

Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), Monday 27 March 1905, page 5
The full article can be read here...

This is an excerpt...

Money was raised to get Barney to England, through swimming carnivals, public  subscriptions and any way possible. Australians were keen to show off the prowess of their home grown super star, yet it wasn't without controversy as to whom should accompany him. Eventually, it was agreed that his long time trainer and friend, W.  Hilton Mitchell, should be the one.
After the "Grand Farewell Concert", they were on their way..
Image courtesy of State Archives, NSW.

Many positive headlines told the story of Barney's success in England...

He returned home to a hero's welcome... and was soon racing again, this time in Brisbane.


To quote from the Australian Dictionary of Biography, " After winning three Australasian titles in Brisbane he became ill on 8 December ..."

Wagga Wagga Express (NSW : 1879 - 1917), Tuesday 12 December 1905, page 2


B. B. Kieran, the champion swimmer, who was taking part in the championship matches at Brisbane last week, became ill on Thursday, and on Saturday night his medical attendants pronounced him to be suffering from appendicitis. He was removed to a private hospital and an operation performed yesterday. Although not out of danger, Kieran is improving.

 Among numerous publications, the Sydney Morning Herald kept reader's informed... Their notice on 23 Dec 1905, was poignant to say the least... as it had been updated over days...

Their next notice even more so...

Please click to enlarge...

Australians weren't prepared to let their hero be forgotten, so a public subscription was mooted once more and the money raised to ensure a lasting memorial was erected in B.B.Kieran's honour.

Kieran Memorial Concert invitation, held on board the ‘Nautical School Ship ‘Sobraon’ on 19 January 1906. NRS 3905, [8/1753.1]. This was one of the events organised to raise money for the Kieran Memorial Fund. The Fund was set up to perpetuate the memory of the champion swimmer. The money raised was used in part to defray the family’s medical and funeral expenses associated and to erect a suitable monument over his grave (L.J Fromholtz, The Sobraon Wonder: a biography of Bernard Bede Kieran (Barney) Kieran, 1991).

Australian Star 19 Jan 1906

©Bob Meade

"Monument at Gore Hill Cemetery. Photograph by Bob Meade. Inscription: Erected by the public as a tribute to the late Champion Swimmer of the World. He won his laurels by courage, self denial, and patient effort. His achievements and manly qualities will long be remembered in this, and other countires in which his victories were gained."

Many of the photos are from the State Archives NSW, unless otherwise noted. You can find even more here...

The site above is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
As such, attribution is give to  © State of New South Wales through the State Archives and Records Authority of NSW 2016.

Thanks to TROVE and also to Australian Dictionary of Biography


  1. Retry. A wonderful article Chris, such detail, wonderful images. Such a sad tale a young man turning his life around, only to be taken young by appendicitis. Well done

  2. Thank you, I can't let go of the story, so much to learn about this amazing family... and the times they lived in. I appreciate your comment.


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