As children, my brother, sister and I were always told by our mother (Norma Elizabeth Lees- nee Brennan) that our grandfather (James Valentine Brennan) was a sort of a hero. Though, it turns out she was only passing on the story, as he died when she was two years of age.
The saga goes that he was a drover and was killed while going to the rescue of a horse that was being badly treated. It was a wonderful tale of support for the weak against the strong and the payment of the ultimate price. We were all proud of our grandfather. From our point of view, that was the end of the story as nothing more was ever said by our mother, aunty, (Dorrie Brennan) or grandmother (Mary-Ellen Brennan nee South).
The life and death of our grandfather remained a mystery for years. It was only eventually revealed as a result of a passing comment from daughter Emma who developed an interest in the family tree. I simply Googled – James Valentine Brennan, and he jumped out of the computer. There he was, lost to our family for over 100 years and he was just sitting there waiting to be discovered. Isn’t the internet amazing?
On second thoughts, given what I know now, it is quite possible that our grandfather may have been quite happy for the story of the animal protector to remain in family folklore. The real story could have remained hidden in cyberspace forever.
On 27 August 1911, James Valentine Brennan was head drover of 1200 cattle that were travelling from Lawn Hill in far North Queensland, down into the Hunter region of New South Wales. They were camped near Shamrock Wells, which is located about 90 Kilometres due East of Cunnamulla in South West Queensland.
Early on that fateful morning, our grandfather went out to check on the horses. On his return, he accused one of the drovers (William Shannon) of doing something in relation to the hobbling or staking of the horses. (A creamy mare in particular) This bit of the story is not really clear, but it was obvious he was not a happy man. William Shannon protested his innocence. It is at this point, as in all potential conflict, that decisions are made to either escalate or de-escalate the situation.
The verbal exchange developed to the point where William Shannon decided to give a week’s notice as it had become obvious that our grandfather was not happy with his explanation. Following the relative calm of breakfast, the fire was further fueled by the exchange of “offensive” names and Shannon decided to leave camp that morning. He did however, just happen to throw in further ignition with a statement in relation to whether he would get paid at all as (according to Shannon) our grandfather had a history of shortchanging other drovers. I have since learnt that in the early droving days of Australia, wages were always a hot issue.
I think that at this stage, our grandfather may have lost the plot. The statement about the wages was possibly the last straw. He threw a set of chain horse hobbles at Shannon and then said he would shoot him. This is now starting to get very serious. He then headed towards the dray where the rifles were stored. Shannon ducked out of the way of the hobbles, grabbed a shovel and hit our grandfather over the head. That was the end of James Valentine Brennan. He was 31 years of age.
Up until this point, Brennan and Shannon had been mates. Isn’t it amazing how situations can quickly get out of hand. On realization as to what he had done, Shannon pleaded with the other drovers to shoot him.
It just so happens that our grandfather had a brother. Now that’s new news. His name was Kenneth Brennan and he was also a drover and a witness to the whole event. Kenneth Brennan stepped forward in true brotherly fashion and…….SHOOK HANDS WITH SHANNON OVER HIS DEAD BROTHER’S BODY SAYING THAT HE DID NOT BLAME HIM AND HE ALSO DID NOT REALISE THAT OUR GRANDFATHER HAD SUCH A TEMPER. WOW!
What happened then is a bit confusing. Some reports state that the drovers tried to revive our grandfather at the location of the incident, but he died an hour and a half after the blow with the shovel. Another states that Kenneth Brennan hurried towards Cunnamulla (90 kilometres is a long way in a horse and dray) with his injured brother, but he died at Shamrock Wells. This infers that the incident may not have taken place directly at Shamrock Wells itself?
However, what is known is that Sergeant McHugh of the Cunnamulla police brought the body of our grandfather back into Cunnamulla two days after the event and that the police charged William Shannon with willful murder. The post mortem examination stated that our grandfather died of a fractured skull. Kenneth Brennan took charge of the drove and continued on into New South Wales. Our grandfather was buried in the Cunnamulla cemetery.
The Surpreme Court case against William Shannon commenced in Brisbane on Thursday 16 November 1911. Much of the information on the incident contained above has been gleaned from the newspaper reports of witness statements at the trial. On Friday 17 November, the papers reported that William Shannon was found not guilty by the jury and he was discharged. It was not a lengthy trial.
William Shannon had been a drover since the age of fourteen. At the time of the incident, he was in his early thirties. Nothing more of him is known.
Our grandfather had a brother. Kenneth Brennan may have had a family. We possibly have close relatives that are out there somewhere.
At the time of his death, we always thought that our mother, aunty and grandmother were living in Normanton in North Queensland. That is where the children were born. However, the newspaper reported that they were living in Leyburn, near Toowoomba?
Recently, Karyn and I travelled to Shamrock Wells. It was hard to find and we needed the wisdom of locals to help. It’s in the middle of nowhere, in a region that looks as dry as an old boot. But it does have water and lots of it. Ah, water, the vital ingredient as a campsite for all droving teams of the day and a possible indicator that this is where the incident actually occurred.
We also called into Cunnamulla and our first stop was the local cemetery. We found the grave site of James Valentine Brennan and took photos.
I said to my grandfather, “You had a choice – escalate or de-escalate and you made the wrong decision. My mother went without a father for her whole life and they did it tough. I went without a grandfather and I always thought you were a hero”.
He said – “You had to be there at the time”.
Now of course, I made that last bit up. But, he is possibly right. Who am I to pontificate about what he should have done in those circumstances. It was a different time and a different place. These were tough men and life was cheap.
Then again, maybe nothing much has changed. Our news is full of stories of alcohol fueled violence that climaxes in death via a fractured skull on the concrete path outside the pub.
All life must end. But when it ends for those who are still so young, with so much to offer, it’s such a waste.