About Leo and the McKern's
I only met Leo five times. The most remarkable
part about being a McKern is the story of the history of the McKern Clan. It
tells you a lot about how lucky one is to be alive at all.
Perhaps it might be best if I let Leo tell the story...
The only information about forebears I have
came from a very distant relative called Uncle George, who ended his days in
Buenos Aires at a great age and who spent many of the last of them constructing
a family tree which, unfortunately, I have never seen. George had gone to South
America when quite young as an engineer assisting in the construction of the
railway system, and I had written to him at the suggestion of another distant
relative; this was a delightful female McKern, part of the family that had never
left the British Isles, who wrote to me when I was at the Old Vie. She informed
me first that as our surnames were spelt in the same way we must be related,
because every McKern, wherever they lived now, belonged to one family, and that
Uncle George would be most anxious to hear from me, as he knew nothing of the
Australian branch of the family; so I wrote and put him in touch with Pop, who
gave him the information he required for his genealogical project.
I found it interesting enough that there were McKerns living all over the world,
and all related, but even more so to know that we had all come from the Maclans,
of Glencoe and the victims of that famous massacre. (See John Prebble's splendid
book on that subject.) The Maclans seemed to have been a troublous lot,
specializing in the theft of cattle, but their fate was unwarrantably savage.
Nearly forty of the clan, while hosts to the Earl of Argyll's Regiment under
Captain Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, were murdered at night by their guests, the
elder Maclan shot in the back as he struggled into his breeks. Abuse of the
unwritten rules of hospitality, if this can be so described, smudges the
Campbell escutcheon to this day.
I first saw Glencoe before I had learnt of this family connection, and when told
of it I felt an almost physical shock, and my memory of that first sight rushed
back because of the inexplicable and strange feeling I experienced then.
We had a very old and cheap car, I think the first, which took us more or less
successfully on our first trip to Scotland, and we came into the glen from the
upper end in the east; and the first view shook me so unexpectedly, as sudden as
a blow, that I stalled the car.
The prospect down the valley, with its precipitous sides and under a pall of
cloud, was the most chilling and threatening landscape I had ever seen. I had
been startled, amazed, or swept with pleasure by unexpected vistas many times,
but this place infected me with what I can only describe as dread; and as we
drove down deeper into the glen on a narrow road through great rocks, the
feeling increased. A sense of entrapment grew with the steepening walls on each
side, and it was with considerable relief that we reached the gentler prospects
at the Loch Leven end.
So strong had been my reaction in Glencoe that I was simply bewildered; I had
never been so affected in this way before, or indeed since, and I had no
possible explanation for it, even to myself. Had I known of my direct descent
from the inhabitants, then such a feeling could not only be explicable, but put
down to a stimulated imagination. But the fact is that I did not know.
At some time after the massacre, male survivors crossed to Ireland, possibly the
elder ones, and settled there; presumably adopting a phonetic spelling and the
Irish 'Me'. One of the definitions of 'kern' is 'a lightly armed Irish
28 Just Resting
whether this has anything to do with the altered spelling I don't know. McKern's
Printing Works still exists in Limerick, but there has been no McKern there for
a hundred years; it was curious to visit there. My father showed me many years
ago the indenture papers to the printing trade belonging to the first Australian
migrants, the two sons apprenticed to their mother who apparently ran the
printshop in Limerick in the 18405; these were the typesetters of the first
Australian edition, as I am one of the reprints.
I have always had the impression that my father's family did not entirely
approve of his choice of wife, which did not prevent their marriage being a
happy success; I can remember being taken to my paternal grandmother's house
many times, but Mum seemed never to be with us. Grandma lived in a comfortable
house on the North Shore of Sydney at Roseville, an aptly if unimaginatively
named suburb, for indeed roses seemed to thrive in that particular place. I
remember that the street was not surfaced and a small stream ran where a gutter
would be, so that each house had a tiny wooden bridge in front of the gate.
Grandma lived in bed, cared for by Pop's three sisters who remained spinsters
all their lives. It was a strangely religious Protestant family, rather genteel,
and the house had an atmosphere certainly lacking in ours, where beer was drunk
and bets placed on unreliable horses over the telephone to an S.P. (starting
price) bookmaker (illegal). Although Pop loved and respected his sisters, I feel
that he was glad to have escaped the family, with a long tradition of church
Grandma died quite soon, but I still used to visit my aunts. I liked them all;
Gertrude had been a member of 'The Grey Battalion' of nursing sisters in the
1914-18 war and had seen much overseas service and had been decorated many
times; Muriel was a tiny hunchback, a sweet lady, and Florence was the eldest
with a warm straightbacked authority. They all clasped their hands over their
stomach and all wore metal-rimmed glasses with little gold chains pinned to
their blouses. An uncle I never knew had died on service; Pop and another
brother were both unfit, Pop because of colour-blindness, which aborted his
attempts to serve on the railways. He had a certificate of which he and I were
proud; a diploma for Roots . . . and Branches 29
thirteen branches of engineering from technical college. He started his own
domestic and commercial refrigeration maintenance company with a sleeping
partner who supplied the money; Pop worked like a dog until his partner walked
out, and even harder afterwards until demand declined through technical
advancement in construction. Then, late on, he was employed by Triefus, an
industrial diamond company who treated him with appreciation and generosity, and
he was quite happy. I am grateful to them.
Norman and Alan, my elder brothers, worked with him until he abandoned
engineering. My brothers and their children I have lost contact with; I was a
black sheep, we never had common interests, and since 1946 I have been a long
--"Just Resting" Leo McKern
That's the sad story. Leo never imagined I
guess that we might want more contact. My dad Norman never had time for his
little brother which is no surprise, he didn't have much time for his children,
either. But that is a story for another time. I'm going to put a bit more about
the family up and a few pics and I'd love to hear from any of the family.
A few pics