Catherine Mulcahy – the Irish wife to the Swiss Italian

Barb Mullen, AustraliaFrom Barb Mullen, Australia

Catherine Mulcahy, wife to Alessandro Mattei, was an extraordinary woman.

Conditions on the goldfields, especially in the first decade, were not easy. Men outnumbered women 3 to 1. It was an man’s world indeed, while there was a sense of equality in some communities, husbands and fathers were to be obeyed.

Keeping ‘tent’ was more appropriate than keeping house. There were dirt floors and cooking outside over an open fire. Cooking was a special challenge; there were few fresh fruit and vegetables. Finding  clean water was a daily trial and in summer was particularly fraught.

By 1860, children began to outnumber women. In Ballarat in the early 1850’s, one in four recorded deaths were children under five.

Catherine MulcahyThis was the world that greeted Catherine Mulcahy when she stepped ashore here.

Catherine’s greatest achievement in life was her 5 sons and 7 daughters who lived to adulthood.

The Oral Tradition
Stories handed down to us are usually romantic or scandalous. The story surrounding Catherine is more romantic than scandalous.

Alessandro was working on the goldfields and befriended an Irishman, some suggest his name was Patrick. As I heard this story the first time, Alessandro lamented the lack of a wife and Patrick said his sister was just the right person for the job. So, Patrick arranged to have Catherine come out from Ireland. (Interestingly, church records show no siblings for Catherine)


Rear from left: Easie, Alex, Hannah and Quill Mattei. Middle row from
left: Catherine, Mary Dunbar nee Mattei, nursing Jimmy Dunbar with Rita
Dunbar standing next to Alessandro. Front from left: Frank and Peter Mattei.

Now, finding individual Mulcahys on the goldfields is nearly impossible, but there were a number of Mulcahys in the Daylesford area at the time. That Catherine had her family around her would have been expected. When people are refugees, they try to leave with their families. And Catherine was just another refugee from famine and oppression.

Catherine endured much hardship and heartbreak in her life. In the family photo of her at Rovana, she has her daughter  Easie on her left and her eldest son, Alex on her right, both with their hands on her shoulder. These photos were a thoughtful recording of a family, and this tells us that Catherine was deeply loved by her children.

At this stage in her life, Catherine would have felt a great sense of satisfaction. They had a home at Rovana, the lush carpet at their feet attested to a good level of comfort and her eldest daughter was settled into married life.

History, her story

Catherine’s world was a man’s world. A woman was expected to obey her father and her husband. If she didn’t, the consequences were dire. A man was considered to have a right to hit his wife.

There were two choices in life for a woman: to be either a wife and a mother, or a whore. There was no contraception readily available, except abortion and that was a very dangerous, desperate thing to do. Social expectations were rigidly set. For a woman to break the rules was to bring shame to herself and the family.

The record of the marriage of Catherine and Alessandro is yet to be found. Public records have been diligently searched, church records also. That the couple gave different versions of when and where they were married has not helped either.

Catherine had 12 children with Alessandro, and they all lived to adulthood when infant mortality at the time was 1 in 4.  Catherine’s story was one of raising a family and this means that her life was not in the public domain and the only records of her life are the birth certificates of her children.

We look to the photos to help tell her story. She sits straight, taller than her husband by a head and her family surrounds her. She was a strong woman with intelligent, keen eyes.

If you look closely at the extract of her death certificate, you can see she died of  exhaustion, pneumonia after chronic Bright’s (a kidney disease).


A woman should work

Catherine’s older daughters all worked in hospitality at least at some stage in their lives.

The financial insecurity in her own life would have reinforced for her the importance of a woman having financial independence and she was an active supporter of this for her daughters. Here she is, in her mid fifties at Matlock with, from her left: Taresa, Kit, Carlo Monighetti and another daughter, probably Sophia. Note, she still stands strong, hair not grey and ready for work.

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