You can’t take it with you but the legal system nevertheless allows people to influence what happens to their property after they’re gone and thus the dead may continue to exercise power over the living. This was especially the case in the 19th century, when women were denied the same property rights as men, as well as being unable to vote.

<i>  Caroline's Dilemma</i>, by Bettina Bradbury.

Caroline’s Dilemma, by Bettina Bradbury.Credit:

Back in Ireland, the Kearney family blamed Edward for straying from his religion. Edward’s dying wishes, which were influenced by the urging of his brothers to strongly reassert his Catholic faith, were aimed at restricting the ability of his widow to live her own life.

‘‘The will sought to Catholicise his children and render them Irish,’’ writes Bradbury. ‘‘Edward’s final wishes fully deployed his power as a male patriarch to dictate their future and to bequeath his property as he wished.”

In a protracted legal proceeding that at the time was compared to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the interminable lawsuit in Dickens’ Bleak House, Caroline applied to the equitable jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Victoria, and subsequently petitioned the Court of Chancery in Dublin, to have the more oppressive provisions of her husband’s will overturned.

Ironically, judges of a different denomination would both enforce and relax the sectarian provisions of Edward’s will. In Melbourne, the Irish-born Protestant Supreme Court Justice Sir Robert Molesworth upheld the provision obliging Caroline to raise her children in Ireland as Catholics in order to benefit from the estate. As Bradbury notes, Justice Molesworth’s decision was entirely consistent with the settled law of the time.

Caroline continued her legal struggle in Ireland despite the will being upheld. Lord O’Hagan, the Catholic Lord Chancellor of Ireland, allowed the eldest three of Caroline’s children to go to a Protestant school after they absconded from a Catholic boarding school.

The legal system allows people to influence what happens to their property after they’re gone and thus the dead may continue to exercise power over the living.

After interviewing the children, Lord O’Hagan acknowledged that they were not Catholic and that Edward had ‘‘left Ireland and went out to Australia where he was out of reach of all religious discipline and the opportunity of cultivating the faith of his fathers’’.

Caroline’s Dilemma is a concentrated and compelling family history. Bradbury’s research is prodigious – there are more than 60 pages of sources and references.

‘‘Over recent years,’’ she writes, ‘‘I have become enticed by the richness of piecing together biographies of individuals and families in much the same way that genealogists do.’’

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After exhausting her legal options, Caroline went on to live a lonely and restricted – if financially secure – life, eventually dying of the effects of chronic alcoholism after remarrying unhappily in secret. In the meantime, her children eventually went their own way.

‘‘Their father’s will had forced the boys to leave Australia, but he could not take Australia out of the boys.’’ Bradbury describes how four of Caroline’s five children eventually returned to settle in Australia, while one of them migrated to New Zealand.

They lived and died as Catholics and Protestants. By the time the last of the Kearney children passed away in the 1930s, women in Australia had property and voting rights denied Caroline and her generation.

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