Three Degrees of Barrie Cassidy

Yes, I do have thoughts to write and share about my recent adventures in South America. No, that is not what this post will be about.

Today, we are going regional. Very regional. Today we’re talking about Merriwagga. Merriwagga: between Goolgowi and Hillston on the Kidman Way; home of the the Black Stump and the tallest bar in Australia,  population 169. And I’m related to most of that 169, on my father’s side.

The social heart of Merriwagga

Around about a century ago, give or take, my Nanna’s family packed up and travelled overland from Omeo in Victoria to their own slice of rather red dirt in Merriwagga, which they named Omeo Park. Nan was in charge of looking after what she referred to for the rest of her life as “that blasted goat,” while her younger brothers got to sit in the cart with her mother. Nan then lived there until she married my Pop when she was 28. She was one of the first students at the Merriwagga School, and made her way back out there for the school’s 75th anniversary. I have one of her book prizes from school on my shelf. There are boxes and boxes of family history info that she collected, that none of us have quite known what to do with in the intervening decade.

Not long after they arrived in Merriwagga, they lost their eldest son, Robert, and Nan became the de facto oldest child. Her three younger brothers, Kevin, Roy & Cec would all serve in the Second World War, and remarkably, all returned and lived to be quite elderly men. I have recollections of meeting all of them, but some are rather faint. Twenty years ago I went out to Merriwagga for a visit and was urged to go and see Uncle Kevin in a local nursing home, and I had to ask the staff which one he was, because I hadn’t seen him since I was a small child.

Our relationship with Uncle Roy was different. I have a very clear memory of Dad taking us to see Uncle Roy and Aunty Tid (yep, she’s tiny!) when I was in primary school, and of him being very excited. I also recall being about 14 and him being at my Nan’s house and suddenly addressing me in Japanese, which I was learning at the time. Turns out he’d been stationed in Japan during the post-War Occupation, a fact of which I was completely unaware. And that was my Uncle Roy – constantly surprising me with little snippets from his very interesting life. And he managed to get me a good one this week, almost seven years to the day after his passing. But more on that later.

Growing up, we were pretty nomadic. I was born in Western Australia; my brother in Queensland. After that we moved to New South Wales but my mum wised up. My mother had been born and raised in the same house in Bligh St, Wollongong, and so Wollongong became very familiar to me, and was a large part of the reason why I chose UOW when I came out of school. My father had also had a rather nomadic upbringing, because his father worked for State Rail. The place to which he returned and felt that sense of familiar belonging was Merriwagga. There are photos of him out there, looking young and tan and relaxed, with a bunch of much younger cousins climbing on him. When I did a family history project in Year 8, I included photos of my mother, young and beautiful, with very long brunette hair, very large sunnies, a massive smile and a very short mini skirt, posing next to the Black Stump.

Black Stump, no Mum. Must locate those photos.

Apparently Dad took her out there to get familial approval at some point quite late in their courtship. And she, the city girl, got quite the introduction to regional life; going pig shooting with the cousins and swimming in dams, among other things.


She also talks fondly of Aunty Tid taking her on a tour of the Letona factory in nearby Leeton, where Tid’s irreverent sense of humour took centre stage. In one area, so the story goes, there were massive conveyor belts in every direction. Tid reportedly decided that it was all a show for the tour groups, and the conveyor belts weren’t actually going anywhere but around the room, and challenged Mum to track one can and see where it actually went.

letonaCanning peaches in Leeton

So Mum speaks of Tid’s humour. Dad talks fondly of her cooking – how she would cook an amazing meal for around fourteen men, and wait to see who turned up at lunchtime. I always associate her with extreme kindness. Aunty Tid and Uncle Roy had a bunch of kids, some biological and some adopted. I couldn’t tell you who was who because I don’t know. It never mattered. In recent years, she passed along a message via one of her daughters that I was to keep sending Christmas updates, because she looks forward to them so — she has lost her eyesight, but makes sure someone reads them to her. Twenty years ago at my brother’s wedding I overhead her tell my Nanna conspiratorially: “Kimberley’s really lovely, isn’t she?” Now every time you visited, my Nanna would crush you in a a surprisingly iron-like, rather bony hug to show her affection, but like many in our family, articulating that stuff in words was not such a strong suit. To hear her agree with Aunty Tid has been a precious gift that I can call on in my roughest of rough days. That these two very amazing, very tough women thought I had value jolts me into remembering that when I need to.

So this week I saw a post on Facebook from one of Roy & Tid’s kids, my (second) cousin Jackie, who, like her parents, is just an amazing person, saying that the area around Hay, Hell and Booligal (the name of a book that was always lying around Nan’s house!) was being featured on Back Roads. I looked up from my phone and said to my husband, “Merriwagga’s going to be on Back Roads. Now.”

And he changed the channel. We were rewarded within about a minute and a half with Heather Ewart (wife of Saint Barrie of Insiders) announcing that she was heading to Merriwagga.

Ewart began to introduce The Black Stump Hotel, which has the tallest bar in the Southern Hemisphere. I said to my husband, “so you can ride a horse up to it.” The publican, onscreen, explained that there were two theories–one was to stop the railway workers jumping over the bar, but that locals believed another story. And in rode a bloke on a horse, to have a beer while still on the horse. I laughed and said to my husband: “See? I know the local story.”

tall bar

Lance and Heather.PNG
Heather’s look of shock mirrors mine a moment later

So they introduce a local, Lance, who tells the story of how his grandfather was droving stock and popped in for a beer without dismounting one day. And I’m not paying much attention–remember how I said Roy and Tid had a whole bunch of kids? Well some of them were girls, and I don’t know their married names or how many kids they had. And then it cuts to Heather introducing footage of said grandfather in a BBC movie from the early 70s, repeating the drinking at the bar on horseback stunt. And she introduces Lance’s grandfather as Roy Little.

I let out a bit of a squeal and burst into tears as I yelled, “it’s Uncle Roy” as my husband says, “I’ll record it.”

Seems the story about riding a horse up to the bar I was told as a kid was missing one major detail.


You can catch this brilliant piece of Australian television (and my family history) on ABC’s iView service.  I believe it’s also being replayed this week.

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