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Father Timothy McCarthy 1829-1879

The Priest and the Bushranger

“Father Tim”, Rev. Timothy McCarthy – a mighty hunter, for he hunted the soul of men

By M.V. SHEEHAN.

The glory of spring was sweeping over the little town of Ballinhassig, near the city of. Cork, in Ireland. In the garden of his home sat a handsome, strongly-built young mail named Timothy McCarthy. For three years he; had ‘patiently followed his legal studies. He had made. his decision. To-morrow he would commence his studies; for this priesthood in preparation for the missionary work he intended to undertake in the then strange country, of Australia. 

The years slipped away on velvet feet until his ecclesiastical training, was completed at Carlow College. In 1852 at the age of twenty-three he was ordained priest and in October of the same year he sailed for Australia. The voyage was long and tedious, so that it was not until March 2 that the ship anchored in Port Jackson. For a short time he was stationed in Sydney. Then came his appointment to missionary duty with Armidale as his headquarters. His parish was extensive enough to daunt the bravest, for this same parish now comprises the two Dioceses of Armidale and Lismore. The parish embraced all the territory to the Queensland border and extended to the Pacific Ocean. When on his periodical visits, which lasted three months, he would travel from the Tweed to the Richmond, thence to the Clarence and on to Walcha; then across the Liverpool Plains to the Gwydir and back by way of Glen Innes and Tenterfield to Armidale. Only a man of exceptionally fine physique could have successfully managed such a parish, for the horse was practically his only conveyance. But he was a fine horse man and wherever a soul was to be found, no matter how far away or isolated from civilised centres, the priest would come. Over the silent, lonely plains of the interior: in the heart of the brooding bush; along the shelves of tracks which skirted awesome precipices; round the bases of lofty mountains which nodded to valleys, whose floors were thick with forest growth; across creeks swollen by recent rains; along tracks which led to the ethereal beauty of far distant ranges and on to the grey horizons, he rode, bearing his triage of spiritual hope.

In the dark of night when the stars were his only companions; when the castellated crags were lit by the flashes of lightning and the thunder stumbled among the hills “like a breaking stick,” he brought the sweetness of Christ to the sick and anxious of mind. He was a mighty hunter, for he hunted the souls of men. People of all denominations loved and honored him. A contemporary Anglican gentle man writing some years ago said: “Father McCarthy was familiarly known as ‘Father’ Tim.’ He was everybody’s friend— to the smallest urchin in the gutter as well as the stateliest dame— he was Father Tim.” As he moved about on his pastoral duties he was generally supplied with horses from the different stations, the Protestant squatters vying with each other in treating him with uniform kindness. Wherever he was needed Father McCarthy came. His generosity was on the big side. The following true story was characteristic of the man and helped to explain his wonderful popularity. One day he was riding over the plains to pay a friendly call at a station. It was a time of drought. The sun swept down from a cloud less sky and flamed over the stricken country. The cracked earth, tortured with its awful thirst, crept away into the thin line of stunted scrub: the mirages danced with feverish allure and over everything hung that terrible silence which adds so much to the horror of drought. The miles slipped away and the station homestead appeared as a tiny speck on the horizon when the priest met a swagman painfully limping over the scorched earth. He was without boots, but had tried to charm the heat from his feet by wrapping them in dirty rags. It was obvious that the man was nearing the limit of his endurance, and the nearest town was 20 miles away. Without question or sermon Father McCarthy dismounted and made the swagman put on his new boots, which proved a comfortable fit. He then gave the man some money and finally placed him on the horse he had been riding, with the request, “When you reach town, leave the horse with Mr. Black. I shall get it later.” The priest then painfully walked along over the hot earth in his socks to meet an astonished host, who was told that his guest had met a man “whose need was greater than mine.” In 1863 he was transferred to Carcoar in the Bathurst Diocese. He had plenty of extra work in this district for the bushrangers roamed over the countryside. The gold discoveries of the 50’s had spread like a plague over the State. Everyone was anxious to make a fortune at the diggings. Others were content to take it from the diggers at the point of the pistol. Some of the bushrangers who preyed on the diggers, gold escorts and travellers were complete villains. Others were young bushmen who had been attracted by the tinsel of romance which helped to cloak the evil of bushranging life. The priest was responsible for stopping a number of young men from joining the various bushranging gangs and was able to help others to retrieve the early steps they took as outlaws. While he was stationed at Carcoar many gangs and their friends were operating in the district, but none of them ever interfered in any way with the priest. One day he was riding along a rough bush track that led to the Abercrombie Ranges when he met a young man named Vane who was a prominent member of the Ben Hall gang. Although Vane and his people were Presbyterians they were well acquainted with the priest. As the two men rode along Vane opened his heart. He had recently quarrelled with the other members of the gang after the attack on Mr. Keightley’s place at Dunn’s Plains near Rockley. Burke’s death and the insecurity of his own life had fanned his dissatisfaction. The priest talked and showed what the end of his hunted existence would be if he remained an outlaw. He urged Vane to amend his life. On the same day Mrs. Vane met her son and urged the entreaties of a mother with that of the priest. Vane once more met the priest and promised to accompany him to Bathurst and surrender. So at eleven o’clock the two horsemen set out on one of the most unique rides in our history. As they rode through the night the priest spoke encouragingly, and as Vane said later, “The advice and good counsel then given me by Father McCarthy sank into my mind and heart, and had a marked influence on my future life, both while I was in prison and after my release.” They reached Bathurst in the early morning and rode up Keppel-street to the Deanery where Dean Grant, the priest in Bathurst, lived. Their knock was answered by Mrs. Looby, the Dean’s housekeeper for many years, who died several years ago. Before her death she told the writer of the Incident. Evaded Police “Vane,” she said, “was a nice look ing young bushman, and appeared al together different to the wild look ing man everyone thought he was. It was hard to realise that this young man evaded all the police for so long. He was looking very thoughtful as he walked down to the church (the present Catholic Cathedral) with Father McCarthy. “They met the Dean at the church and had a long talk, after which Father McCarthy and Vane rode down to the police headquarters. The officer at the station thought Father McCarthy was joking when he told him that his companion was Vane. In fact he took quite a lot of convincing.” Although Vane received a long sentence he served it, and later became a good citizen. He was more fortunate than his companions who came to a miserable end after a hunted life. Mr. C. White, in his “History of Australian Bushranging,” writes of this surrender: “It is right that a word or two should be said concern ing the subsequent action of the good priest through whose instrumentality the district was freed from the presence of this member of the notorious gang. Father McCarthy was en titled to the reward of £1000 which the Government had offered for the capture of Vane. “He did not accept that reward. In his ministerial capacity he had effectively preached repentance to the sinner, and the consciousness of hav ing done his duty was reward sufficient. In another case in which a bushranger not connected with Hall’s gang was concerned, he was instrumental in recovering for one of the banks some £2000 in notes which had been stolen from one of the Western malls. “The bank had offered £100 reward for the recovery of the notes, but Father McCarthy refused to accept that reward also. The act was characteristic of the man who in his priestly office labored for something more precious and more enduring than earthly treasure.” In 1865 he returned to Sydney and was appointed senior priest at St. Benedict’s Church. After five years there he was promoted to St. Mary’s Cathedral, of which he was appointed Dean early in 1874. The strenuous years of working in the country parishes soon exacted their toll. His health failed, and he was ordered to leave Australia on a health trip. It was then found that owing to his boundless charity he was penniless. When this fact became known his friends of all denominations held a meeting. Within a few days £1000 was subscribed to pay his expenses to the old country and back. As the address read at the presentation of the gift said, “During more than a quarter of a century you uniformly succeeded in fulfilling the duties of your sacred office without wounding the religious feelings or impugning the conscientious convictions of those who do not belong to your communion; and hence men of all shades of opinion and of conflicting political views, have joined in paying this tribute to your enlightened and un-sectarian philanthropy.” He reached Ireland, but his health did not improve. After all his adventures by fire, water and drought in Australia, and his experiences with the outlaws of the bush, he came home to die in 1879 in his native town, in, which, years before, he had nobly resolved to dedicate his life to God.

Source: The Priest and the Bushranger (1933, November 12). The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954), p. 41. Retrieved February 28, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article230201833