The Story of a Cat

I should barrack for Richmond.

 

If I understand family history correctly, my paternal and maternal grandfathers were both born in Richmond. I believe my maternal grandfather was born on Swan Street (not far from the Corner Hotel), and my paternal grandfather was born in Mary Street. These births occurred circa 1905 or 1906. Struggletown was a long way from pulling its socks up.

 

My paternal grandfather was a Tiger supporter, as was my father. However old Jack (grandfather) bought a newsagency at 201 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy in September 1945 which is just a few doors down from the Builder’s Arms Hotel; a pub that I am reliably informed required hosing out on Saturday mornings after Friday’s six o’clock swill. Knowing my paternal grandfather, he would have been right in the middle of all the frivolity.

 

My father’s whole family lived above the shop. I was recently in the area and stopped to peer in the window, hoping that the walls might talk to me. They did but I couldn’t understand the language. These days Gertrude Street is a postcard for trendy Melbourne, where the cafes are decorated with designer peeling paint and populated by well mannered boys and girls from Canterbury taking respite from their burgeoning careers as futurists and media consultants; and socialist millionaire refugees from North Fitzroy who know a little too much about coffee and have their legs crossed just so.

 

One of my father’s many tasks was to sell and deliver newspapers around Fitzroy’s (then) seedy streets. Those were his formative years (he was 12 years old in September 1945) so it’s perhaps no surprise that he changed from following Richmond, to supporting Fitzroy. The switch may also have been aided by the fact that the legendary Butch Gale was a very prominent figure around the Fitzroy streets. Butch was at the peak of his football career in the late `40s and no doubt impressed my old man. Countering this triumphant view of Fitzroy via the vision of its VFL captain would have been the regular sights of drunks brawling on the streets and punching each other’s teeth out (whereupon the fight would momentarily cease whilst the teeth were retrieved from the gutter), and the crumpled ladies of the night plying their trade in the dark and dank lanes around Gore Street and George Street and Napier Street.

 

My father describes that district around Gertrude Street as being the backside end of Fitzroy, though he isn’t certain that Fitzroy had any other end. On many occasions I’ve heard him mutter,

 

I don’t understand you Moderns (a ‘Modern’ is anyone under about 50 years old). I spent my whole life getting out of Fitzroy and you all want to get back in!”

 

Sadly for him the mighty Lions were snuffed out with the same energy and enthusiasm that GWS and the Suns were snuffed in. He didn’t follow them to Brisbane and he didn’t re-acquire a love for the Tigers either. Instead he began following the career of a bloke called Gary Ablett (senior) who delighted him no end. These days he’s an honorary Geelong supporter and gets his footy enjoyment from the antics of Johnno et al.

 

On my maternal side the predominant team is South Melbourne/Sydney Swans. The Selleck uncles and cousins are mostly Swans supporters. The connection is somewhat uncertain. Whilst my maternal grandfather grew up in Richmond, and Richmond supporters existed in other parts of the Selleck tribe, it seems that my great grandmother (maiden name was Cullinan), who was born in South Melbourne, may have had the greatest football influence on the young Selleck clan. The Bloods reign across that family.

 

It’s fascinating when and how allegiances are formed and when consciousness develops. I have no great recollections of footy before the 1970 grand final. The early 70s were a golden time; Jezza, Syd Jackson, Royce Hart, Kevin Bartlett, Neil Balme, Ian Stewart, Bruce Doull. I loved watching Big Nick smash his way around the ground and a few years later was glued to the TV when Barry Cable and Arnold Breidis and Brent Croswell were on the stage. I still have the full colour lift outs that The Herald published after each Grand Final at that time. But I didn’t follow these teams.

 

It was a hand-me-down Geelong jumper with a torn, black plastic number 1 precariously sewn onto the back (Wayne Closter’s number as I recall) which captured my imagination. It was a thick woollen jumper with full length sleeves and a floppy, heavy collar. Doubtless it was woven from the very finest wool nurtured on the life giving volcanic plains of Victoria’s Western Districts. It had the sweat and the odour of countless previous owners ingrained into its fabric and was swollen by the water of numerous winters past. But it was mine. My football consciousness was awoken.  There was just something alluring about the hoops. At Primary School footy training there was only one other kid who wore the same guernsey; brothers in arms.

 

The jumper had been passed down to my older brothers from our cousins, the Daltons, and in turn handed unceremoniously to me in the late 60s. There was no conversation. It just appeared in my washing pile one Sunday morning as we ate ham and eggs in front of World of Sport. Johnny Famechon might have been battling Fighting Harada at the time. Memories collide.

 

Bill and Leo Dalton were like mentors to the younger O’Donnell brothers; mentors for all things boyish and risky. On occasion we stayed at their place overnight where we were taught how to smoke Benson and Hedges cigarettes right down to the butt whilst dangling our legs out of the bungalow window that was their bedroom. When the cigarette had been sucked into extinction it was expertly flicked onto the roof and out of sight.

 

But they were also Cats men. Bill the pensive nail biter, Leo the more boisterous barracker. They didn’t just pass on Geelong jumpers, they passed on the Geelong spirit. Leo’s words “they can’t hurt me anymore” after the Cats won the 2007 Premiership are etched into my memory.

 

On Saturday night I’m going to watch the new Cats. Gregson, Murdoch, Lang, Kersten. I feel like the wheel has turned the full 360 degrees since I was given the Geelong jumper back in the late 60s. That was the start of my journey; a journey that saw cellar dwelling teams, brilliance beyond description (but without reward), then culminating in a flourish of flags that was almost too much to comprehend. It took half a lifetime. Now we are back at the start. At least I feel like we are.

 

Last season, leaving the finals in straight sets, was something of a full stop. We’d reached the end of that road, and turned onto a new one with a new beginning. There is no telling where this team will take us. I’m actually really excited because a win or loss is of relatively minor importance. Either one will make up but a part of the story that will be told until the Cats win their next flag. And doubtless it will be a rich story of turmoil and triumph.

 

I was thinking of all this stuff recently having just re-read the diary my great grandmother, Mary Egan, kept on her journey from Cork in Ireland, to Australia in 1895. She left her home, her family, her place of peace and certainty, and trekked to Australia to live on a rudimentary farm just outside of Wangaratta. Her last entry (the final part of her diary has been lost) explains the trip by horse and cart from Port Melbourne where her ship docked, up a dusty track called Sydney Road (now the Hume Highway) and eventually to her new home:

 

“We packed up our goods, got into Uncle’s trap and started for “home”. We travelled up an unmade, heavily corrugated road called Sydney Road in the hot Spring weather. After a time we swung eastward onto what I was told was the Samaria track which skirted the south side of the Warby Range. It was such a rough journey.

Further on we were heading towards the high country. In the distance was Mount Buffalo. These miles were quite easy travelling until we pulled northward again and onto the little used Lurg track which climbed into the treed hills and over several sharp pinches before rolling down into the quiet Wattle Creek valley. It was so nice driving the roads…………”

 

Her travels were monumental compared to my footballing one. She never saw her immediate family again. But I am forever grateful to her because she married a bloke called Bill Dalton, and it was the Dalton cousins who passed down that Geelong jumper. What a story.

About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.

Comments

  1. Fantastic Dips. Great recollections of your youth and loved the family history lesson. How great it is to have a 120 year old diary as part of your family’s story.

  2. Great yarn, Dips, particularly the reference to your grandpa’s dalliance with Fitzroy. Loved your comment “… hoping that the walls might talk to me. They did but I couldn’t understand the language”. I’m sure the different branches of the family are queuing up to get you to write the extended family history.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Brilliant Dips a real trip down memory lane and the O Donnell history thanks for sharing your story,Dips

  4. Cat from the Country says

    Great story. Thank you for sharing with us.
    Go Cats

  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Loved it Dips

    Whatever happened to that jumper?

  6. Michael Howard says

    Great storytelling Dips,. We could all do well to look backwards more often. The line from Leo Dalton after the 2007 flag is the best summation of how cats supporters felt I have heard. I think we all stil feel a ittle numbed by it.

  7. Dips with your wonderful heritage you need to reclaim your birthright and join us Tiges on the dark side….it won’t be pretty but I promise you won’t get sick of singing the song…not like some Geelong players reportedly did…?

  8. What a story Dips.
    So damn good I re-read it.
    Cheers

  9. Thanks for the comments.

    I’m not really sure what ever happened to that old jumper.

  10. Mathilde de Hauteclocque says

    Great tale, Dips and so beautifully told, rich with such precious detail.

    ‘There was no conversation. It just appeared in my washing pile one Sunday morning as we ate ham and eggs in front of World of Sport.’ I think a tear sprang into my eye.

    May the Cats take you to a place of peace and certainty again … but not before my Swans are finished … on this road at least.

  11. A king’s ransom to the man (or woman) who finds the lost volume of Granny Egan’s diary. They brought a tear to my eye. Well played,
    Have you ever checked out the Eagles (no plug intended) song Doolin-Dalton from Desperadoes:
    “Well, the towns lay out across the dusty plains
    Like graveyards filled with tombstones, waitin’ for the names
    And a man could use his back, or use his brains
    But some just went stir crazy, Lord, ’cause nothin’ ever changed
    ‘Til Bill Doolin met Bill Dalton
    He was workin’ cheap, just bidin’ time
    Then he laughed and said,”I’m goin,”
    And so he left that peaceful life behind”

  12. Love it PB! Who wrote that song?

    Great Granny Dalton (nee Egan) ended up on a farm at a place called Baddaginnie with her hubby and children (just south of Benalla on the Hume Highway in northeast Victoria), which was Ned Kelly country. There are a few family tales about that interaction which I might articulate one day. Unproven tales I might add.

  13. Luke Reynolds says

    Fantastic Dips. That first jumper is pivotal. And memorable.
    Great stories well told.

  14. Michael O'Donnell says

    Excellent read, Dips, I thought the number on the old jumper was 5. But my memories of Petrie park are getting a bit unreliable. I suppose if we may have barracked for another team, Richmond would not of been too bad.

  15. I grew up thinking you had to actually be from Geelong to be a true Cats supporter, but it seems that you can also choose to belong, despite having roots from elsewhere. Maybe it’s a bit like being Australian.
    Those of us who endured the long years at Kardinia Park between premierships truly know the deeper meaning of victory in 2007, but we gladly embrace those who have adopted Geelong, without a geographic connection.
    We are defined by both our circumstances and our decisions in life. Well done Dips, to overcome the disadvantages of growing up in a place other than Pivot City.

  16. Mike – controversy! You say number 5 and I say number 1. The only way to sort this out is to have a three round, World Title fight on the back veranda.

    My memory says number one, mainly because of the Wayne Closter connection. It is possible that the number was changed?

  17. Therese Black says

    Hey Dips,
    Love the story – and really love the way you write!
    We are heading up the Hume on Monday – will think of Mary Egan on the way…
    Triz

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