Early Maitland was a network of gazetted streets and ad hoc and private lanes.
Many of today's streets started as private roads and lanes, meandering between blocks of land upon which multiple houses sprawled higgledy-piggledy.
People plonked their shack, tent, lean-to wherever they wanted.
If the block was government land or not fenced, nobody cared.
This was the origin of Maitland's Irishtown, an area that never received any official recognition but was well known to Maitlandites from the 1840s to the 1860s.
The only mention found is in Philip Punch's reminiscences in the Catholic Sentinel in 1937.
He mentions a local character, "Cork Mary", who established herself as Dean Lynch's policeman at St John's Church in Cathedral Street (then Charles Street).
"Her home was in a short lane off Free Church Street at the rear of St. John's.
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The locality was known as Irishtown from the circumstance that all its residents hailed from Erin."
Indications are that "Cork Mary" was Mary Sullivan, an unmarried Irish ex-convict described by the Mercury in 1877 as "an old woman well known in Maitland".
Despite Irishtown's unofficial status, we can build up a picture. Apparently, a lane existed between Hunter St and Free Church St back from the river.
This continued until it reached Charles Street (very close to today's footpath).
It was only a couple of metres wide and used as a pedestrian shortcut by many of the residents of Horseshoe Bend.
We know this because it upset the Free Church residents who were trying to distance themselves from the uncouth Horseshoe Bend and Irishtown rabble.
It probably joined a cluster of lanes running to the bank from High Street (most still extant).
Along this lane and behind the shops, a significant number of dwellings were erected, right up to the edge of a quite precipitous drop into the river which then ran some 50 metres north of the current levee.
Most of these dwellings were huts of poor or moveable (to avoid floods) quality.
The better ones, like Mary Sullivan's, which had a ratings value of £3 compared to the average of about £10, were slightly up Free Church St. The houses in Irishtown were lost to bank erosion in a succession of floods in 1857, 1864 and 1867.
The floods of the 1867's were the most disastrous.
"The river bank at the end of Hunter-Street would appear to have given way bodily, for the cottages on the river side of the street were first carried away .... The row of houses next adjoining, and known as Ranfurly Terrace, then began to crumble away" (Maitland Mercury, 25/6/1867).
If most of the residents were Irish and devoted to St John's there is a deep irony.
The Council argued the embankment erected to protect St Johns (probably by the residents of Irishtown!) had directly contributed to the destruction of the row of houses on the river side of the Church i.e. Irishtown.
By 1877, Mary Sullivan's house was one of three on one block, the last in Free Church Street before the river.
She had lived in this house for 23 years.
That year a fire destroyed all three. Mary was able to flee the flames but never recovered and died some months later, aged 70 years.
The loss of these homes and their residents probably signalled the demise of Irishtown.
Maitland District Historical Society
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