Monday, April 11, 2011

'Tin Trunk Hid a Story'- a $4 find.

A $4 Find in a Secondhand Bookstore

A Copy of the Diary

written by





Right: The Ship 'Great Britain' on which Mother Mary Paul Mulquin sailed to Australia in 1873.

Whilst rummaging through a secondhand bookstore recently, as I am commonly apt to do, I discovered a plastic sleeve containing a hard bound typed manuscript bearing the price tag of a mere $4. As I reached inside the plastic sleeve I felt my excitement growing as I saw a document entitled, 'A Copy of the Diary of Mother Mary Paul Mulquin' on board the 'Great Britain' 1873.' I can never resist an exciting 'find' and though I realised that this was only a copy of the diary, I made my purchase,already curious to discover what I could about Mother Mary Paul Mulquin and her Diary.

After a brief read through the copy of the diary, I could see that it appeared capably written and significantly, that it contained a great deal of interesting information about the 1873 voyage to Australia, of the ship Great Britain.

Right: The first entry in Mother Mary Paul Mulquin's Diary

Not wasting a moment when I arrived home, I began to read the diary in depth. Mother Mary Paul Mulquin's quaint style of writing proved to be a fascinating and most compelling story. The Catholic Sister's use of language was masterful and her entertaining and descriptive writing kept me reading late into the night. Such lovely use of words, as those I have reproduced in the diary excerpts below, transported me back in time, to the world in which Mother Mary Paul Mulquin and her fellow sisters lived, more than 140 years ago. Her words gave me more than a mere glimpse but rather, generously permitted me to share the every pleasure and pain of her meticulously recorded long voyage from Ireland to Australia.

The diary was fascinating and detailed, from the very first passage. The excitement felt by Mother Mary Paul Mulquin was infectious and one could not help but admire the courage of this nun and her fellow religious sisters as they embarked on their journey to a brave new world. Her emotions are conveyed through her every word.

'We started from our loved convent and sisters at 11 a.m. Oct., 22nd (Wednesday) and met at the terminus a throng of relatives and others, such as was rarely if ever, seen before on a like occasion.'

'we felt the novelty of the scene, and resolved at whatever cost, to brave every other danger after breaking ties so near and dear.'

On reaching Dublin, which was the first stop on her journey to England, (where she was to depart for Australia), Mother Mary Paul Mulquin wrote,

'Everyone was so kind, so like our own sisters at home...M Vincent served the sausages, while S.M. Clare who is remarkably like our dear sister Ignatius helped us to veal cutlets and at the end of the table stood a round of beef, after doing justice to all we had apple pie, jelly, wine of various sorts, in fact everything - served in elegant style.'

The more I read of Mother Mary Paul's diary, the more I was irresistibly drawn into her life through her poetic and wonderfully descriptive account of her journey. The following are just a few excerpts from the diary, which I found to be delightful anecdotes detailing the voyage on the Great Britain.

'We have a nice piano in the Ladies' cabin, and some very finished performers in singing and music favour us with their execution.'

'..the bell rang for dinner and we sallied through passages, ascended steep flights of stairs to the saloon a beautiful, lighted apartment, with mirrors all around and tables laden with every variety of viands - a range of every coloured glasses suspended from the ceiling, the seats covered with crimson velvet, and everything that luxury could invent to make the meal agreeable.'

Right: The Dining Saloon as described in the Diary with its crimson velvet seats.

'A harp gave forth its notes very sweetly on deck, the moon shone beautifully so our party took a turn after tea and a more delicious scene could hardly be imagined - all so still -'

The manner in which the author of this diary greeted every trial on board the ship Great Britain revealed her great strength of character, her deep faith and her marvellous sense of humour.

'Walking on deck today is difficult enough. Sliding to the edge at every step, and falling about in all directions, getting up and down stairs is a dangerous business, we sometimes fall back and again on our noses - so anyone to see us would think we were the worse for wear after dinner.'

'It is difficult enough at other times as the vessel dips on both sides - then it is a real novel sight - trying to keep your place. ....I was thrown from the end of the Ladies' cabin into the bathroom, on my back and could not rise for some time - the door burst open by the fall and M. Patrick thinking that I was doing it intentionally began to laugh at the disaster, but instantly she was taken off her feet and pitched to the opposite side while others were laid flat on the corridor - so to see us all getting into the saloon for meals, staggering and holding seats for balance would cause general merriment.'

Right: The deck of the ship 'Great Britain'

After reading Mother Mary Paul Mulquin's extraordinarily detailed account of the voyage of the Great Britain, I found myself compelled to find out more about this brave Nun who left Limerick in Ireland to travel to Australia in 1873.

My first Internet search was of the National Library of Australia's website to find out whether its holdings included the original diary written by this Catholic Sister from Limerick in Ireland. It was immediately obvious to me, that Mother Mary Mulquin must have been a person of considerable interest, as amongst the library's holdings I discovered 'Biographical cuttings on Mother Mary Paul Mulquin, Limerick nun sailed to Australia in 1873, containing one or more cuttings from newspapers or journals.'

A biographical entry in the online Australian Dictionary of Biography (author Kathleen Dunlop Kane) informed me that the sister's name was Katherine Mulquin, that she was born in Limerick in 1842 and died in Australia in 1930. I also discovered several articles written about Mother Mary Paul Mulquin on a site dedicated to the Friends of St Kilda cemetery as well as the Presentation College, Windsor, Melbourne Victoria.

From these websites, I learned that Presentation Convent Windsor, a school in Melbourne, Victoria, was established in 1873 'on the arrival of seven Presentation Sisters from Ireland.'[1] The governments of Australia in 1872, deemed it financially impossible to continue to support Catholic Schools, thus rendering them unable to survive whilst staffed by lay people. The Parish priest at St Mary's, East St Kilda, one Father Corbett quickly wrote a letter to the Presentation Convent in Limerick requesting urgent assistance with the education of Melbourne's growing population of Catholic students. The letter began, 'Dear Reverend Mother. From the ends of the earth I write to you for help....'[2] Along with six other nuns, Mother Mary Paul Mulquin embarked on the long journey to Melbourne, Australia leaving Liverpool, England in September of 1873 and arriving in Port Melbourne on December, 21, 1873. Mother Mary Paul spoke French and Italian fluently and being very fond of music, introduced her pupils to a curriculum which favoured the arts, manners, letter writing and social graces. When the emphasis on academic education for women became essential with the University of Melbourne allowing the admission of women in 1881, Mother Mary Paul, was able to adapt to the change in educational trend and 'examinations began to take precedence over accomplishments.'[3]

On a personal note, I discovered that Mother Mary Paul Mulquin was born, Katherine Mulquin, in 1842, in Adare, Limerick, Ireland, to parents John Mulquin, a farmer and his wife Catherine (maiden surname Sheehy). John and Catherine Mulquin were comfortably well off enough to provide their daughter with a good education at the Faithful Companions of Jesus Convent, Laurel Hill, Limerick. In 1863, aged 21 years, Katherine was professed in the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a nun, adopting the religious name of Mary Paul.

Having discovered information about Mother Mary Paul Mulquin, her family, background and place of origin, I then conducted a google search to find out more about the sister's life in Australia, with the group of the Sisters of Presentation from the Limerick Convent. My very first find was a most exciting discovery on the Trove website. A feature article published in the Australian Women's weekly regarding the 100 year Centenary of Presentation College,a school in Windsor, Victoria, in 1973, not only included much biographical information about Mother Mary Paul Mulquin but significantly, revealed the amazing circumstances in which the original diary was discovered.

Right: The Presentation Convent, Windsor, Victoria. Now known as Presentation College.

The diary written by Mother Mary Paul Mulquin, is amongst a collection of letters, photographs and newspaper cuttings which the Presentation College, Windsor now holds in its archives. Some years after the death of Mother Mary Paul, in 1930, two sisters at the presentation Convent were given the task of cleaning out an old tin trunk. As Sister Mary Kavanagh sorted through the contents of the trunk, she became increasingly more fascinated.She described the trunk as 'a miniature museum.'[4] Amongst the items discovered in the trunk which had belonged to Mother Mary Paul Mulquin was the diary which described her voyage to Australia in 1873.

Right: The clipping from the Women's Weekly, from the Trove website, dated November, 28, 1973, which tells of the accidental discovery of Mother Mary Paul Mulquin's Diary.

Right: Eva Anderson who died at age three. her father was unable to remain in the family homeand sold it to the Catholic Church. The house became the first Presentation School in Australia.

From all accounts it is obvious that Mother Mary Paul Mulquin was an intelligent and deeply spiritual woman. Her strength of character, her courage and conviction is evident through her dedication to education and her willingness to leave her homeland to travel a great distance to found a school to educate catholic girls. Mother Mary Paul remained as Superior of the College until 1899 and remained at the Windsor Convent where she died on February, 10 th 1930.


  2. Australian Dictionary of Biography - online Edition (Mulquin, Katherine (1842-1930), Biographical Entry.




  1. What a fantastic story. It is worthy of the "Not just Ned" exhibition in Canberra.I am surprised at how 'luxurious' the ship was with its velvet benches and mirrored walls.

  2. Thanks so much for a great story and background information -an excellent find. Like Geniaus the luxury fittings surprised me too.