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Saturday 19 January 2019

Lay of the Land: Mystery of Irish man who lost his head twice

Stock picture
Stock picture

Fiona O'Connell

'Beware the Ides of March." Shakespeare's soothsayer twice warns Julius Caesar of his impending assassination. While another great leader, Abraham Lincoln, dreamt of his assassination. All of which suggests that superstitions sometimes hold water - a compound that was at the core of Irish engineer CY O'Connor's life.

For water was as precious as the greed for gold that made so many gravitate to Western Australia. Leading its first premier, Sir John Forrest, to express concern about white prospectors ill-treating Aboriginals by excluding them from their traditional sources of water, known as "gnamma holes".

"Personally, I am not an advocate of chaining wild blacks to show water," he said magnanimously. Though this was partly pragmatic, as "experience has taught me that when under compulsion they will conduct white people to some rock hole not valued by the tribe".

But those were the days when nothing could thwart white gods; with Forrest declaring "it will be said of us, as Isaiah said of old, 'they made a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert'."

O'Connor was his white wizard who piped water to the gold fields, across 350 miles of hills and arid terrain. No wonder white folk felt invincible, with Forrest boasting that "natives, owing to their usual improvidence, filthy habits and want of brain power, in never looking ahead, cannot stand excessive thirst, like the well-trained white man".

Yet it was O'Connor who ended up in a watery grave this month in 1902, writing: "I fear that my brain is suffering... I have lost control of my thoughts" before riding into the ocean at Fremantle (close to where Aboriginal tradition says the spirits of the departed leave the coast to travel over the sea to the island of the dead) and shooting himself.

His suicide was blamed on stress and relentless criticism. But some claim that he was 'sung' to death by tribes who were angry because he destroyed their ancient fishing grounds to build Fremantle Harbour.

Of course, our civilisation considers such a curse to be nonsense. Certainly, many monuments in the region celebrate O'Connor; such as his bust atop a pile of rocks in a water feature that, alas, is bone dry. Or a hologram that tribes of his day might have found ironic, given the sign on it that reads "due to mechanical problems, CY O'Connor is out of order".

Perhaps most bizarre is what happened to the bronze statue of O'Connor that stands in the ocean where he died. For the head and torso mysteriously disappeared last month. It was eventually located and repaired, the sculptor commenting that O'Connor was looking "better than ever".

Is it a coincidence that the statue of O'Connor's first full day back at sea was on March 15, otherwise known as the Ides of March - the day in ancient Rome when debts were settled? Or did the tragic engineer have to pay his dues to the tribes he dispossessed by losing his head twice?

Sunday Independent

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