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A love story cut short

Friday, 2nd January, 2015

Russell O’Brien (right) with his wife Chris at the Geocentre where Russell’s grandfather’s items are on display. PICTURE: Michael Murphy Russell O’Brien (right) with his wife Chris at the Geocentre where Russell’s grandfather’s items are on display. PICTURE: Michael Murphy

By Michael Murphy

Whether Clarrie O’Brien was about to propose to shooting victim Alma Cowie remains a “family mystery”, and the only person who probably knew was the man himself.

Seventeen-year-old Alma was the first casualty of the Battle of Broken Hill, dying in Clarrie’s arms as they sat next to each other on the picnic train to Silverton. 

Clarrie’s grandson Russell O’Brien travelled from Coromandel Valley, South Australia, with his wife Chris, to Broken Hill for yesterday’s 100-year anniversary of the tragic event.

“It would have been horrific,” Russell said yesterday. “There’s no doubt about it.

“He was a gentle man, he wasn’t the typical Broken Hillite.

“He was just a quiet gentle person, and I think this would have really rocked his world.”

Russell said his grandfather never talked about it, and his father only talked about it very briefly, but it was just enough to pique his interest. 

“I did my own research and then realised the extent of it,” Russell said.

Clarrie, who worked various occupations above ground at the mines, eventually married and had two children.

“My grandfather was a very quiet man, very reflective and I am sure today he would have been exactly that way, quiet and reflective.

“I think there was always a sadness about my grandfather to be honest.

“He was a difficult man to get to know from my perspective.”

Russell, who left Broken Hill with his family when he was ten years old, came back to Broken Hill to research the event about 20 years ago.

At the time, his grandmother pulled out some items that Clarrie had kept to remind himself of his lost love.

The items included a crocheted flag that Clarrie and Alma had been working on before that day, a scarf and a ring.

“There was family speculation that he was about to ask her to be his wife, but I don’t think that ever actually happened,” Russell said.

“It’s a huge mystery ... to be honest, I think he would have been the only person that would have known.”

Russell’s grandmother died not long after she revealed the items to Russell, and they were passed down to Russell’s father who eventually donated them to the Geocentre where they are displayed today.

Clarrie died in 1974 and was buried about five metres from where Alma Cowie was laid to rest in 1915.

“I think it is pure coincidence (that they were buried close together),” Russell said.

“But it’s really interesting.

“I think it was nice that he kept all that stuff for so long, that he never parted with it, and never had the urge to toss it.

“You can’t help but be touched by seeing the stuff that they worked on together.”

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