Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cahill, Ellen (1863–1934)

by Andrew Brown-May

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Ellen Cahill (c.1863-1934), street singer, familiar to a generation of Melburnians as 'Killarney Kate', was born at Castlecomer, Kilkenny, Ireland, probably the daughter of a Patrick Cahill. She came to Melbourne in the early 1870s with her parents, who ran a hotel in Lonsdale Street. Though she was described by Alan Marshall in 1952 as 'once better known in Melbourne than Flinders Street Station', only a sketchy outline of her life can be extracted from obituaries embroidered by rumour, the stark record of her petty criminal career, and the nostalgic memories of those who encountered her in their youth.

Said to have trained in Ireland as a singer, young Ellen sang at charity concerts in Melbourne and at her parents' hotel. An unhappy romance was presumed to be the cause of her later street career, and she was known at least by the 1910s as a perambulating singer. Her repertoire featured Irish ballads—her favourite, Killarney's Lakes, provided her sobriquet. She often sang on trams, had an unofficial free tram pass and was known to stand in the middle of the tramlines and not budge until she had finished her song. Her city pitches included the Town Hall corner, the Argus building in La Trobe Street, Queen Victoria Market and the Homoeopathic Hospital, where she would perform from the gardens for patients on the verandahs.

Cahill was renowned for her beautiful singing voice and, though well spoken, her coarse language which could often offend. Seemingly a poor and pathetic figure with a blackthorn stick, purple hat and a passion for horse racing, she was reputed either to have been comfortably off or to depend on the charity of Melbourne's Irish Catholic establishment. She took a prominent part in Irish demonstrations and festivities, including St Patrick's Day parades.

Her petty criminal record spanned almost two decades, from her first conviction in 1909 for stealing from a Collins Street residence, where she had been employed as a domestic servant, to regular sentences for having insufficient means of support, offensive behaviour and drunkenness. Prison registers reported her as: single, in domestic service, born in Ireland, arrived in Australia in the ship Markara, 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, over the years her hair turning from brown to grey, her complexion from fresh to sallow.

Cahill's persistent presence in the city streets could be both an affront to middle-class respectability and a challenge to homogeneous notions of public space, as well as a source of amusement, comfort and public entertainment. She died of myocarditis on 3 January 1934 in Melbourne and was buried with Catholic rites following a procession of some three hundred people from the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital to Fawkner cemetery. To avoid a pauper's burial, the funeral was arranged by a prominent theatrical personality. A rare image of 'Killarney Kate', with portraits of contemporaneous street personalities including 'Starlight', 'Anzac' and 'Bible Jo', is included in a State Library of Victoria collection of photographs of 1920s and 1930s street personalities.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Wannan (compiler), Australian Folklore (Melb, 1970)
  • J. Cranston, The Melbourne Cable Trams 1885-1940 (Melb, 1988)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Nov 1923, p 10, 30 May 1952, ‘supplement’, p 8
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 Jan 1934, p 4, 4 Jan 1934, p 4
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1934, p 8
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1934, p 11
  • VPRS 516, unit 13, p 225, prisoner record--Ellen Cahill, 7138 and VPRS 30/P, unit 1513, criminal case file, 274 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Andrew Brown-May, 'Cahill, Ellen (1863–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cahill-ellen-12830/text23159, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Killarney Kate
Birth

1863
Castlecomer, Kilkenny, Ireland

Death

3 January 1934
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation