Judith O'Neill (nee Lyall) was a descendent of convicts (1840s) and free settlers (1850s). On one side of the family there were convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land who made a new life in Victoria. On the other, her great-great grandparents emigrated from Skye in Scotland to Victoria in 1852.
O'Neill was born in Melbourne but grew up at Mildura where the family moved for the dry climate to improve her health. As a child she was taken to Eureka and steeped in Henry Lawson, C. J. Dennis and A. B. Patterson (qq.v.). O'Neill remembered: 'As a young adult, I read the books my mother read: Henry Handel Richardson, Ruth Park, M. Barnard Eldershaw and Miles Franklin. This showed me that women could write books and the past was worth writing about' (Nieuwenhuizen 5). She read English at the University of Melbourne and went to England on a Rotary scholarship in 1952 to train at the Institute of Education in London. O'Neill subsequently taught in schools in England and Australia.
On returning to Australia in 1954, she married the Ormond College theologian John O'Neill. They had three daughters. O'Neill became a Catholic while her husband remained a Presbyterian. She commented: 'No-one ever thinks that my Catholicism and writing are connected but it is the mainspring of my life' (Nieuwenhuizen 6). In 1964 the family left Australia with John O'Neill's appointment as Professor of New Testament at Cambridge University. Judith O'Neill became Head of English at St. Mary's Convent School. She edited a series of critical poetry anthologies aimed at senior school students in the 1960s and wrote a school biography, Martin Luther (1975). This led on to Transported to Van Diemen's Land : the story of two convicts (1977) linked to O'Neill's family history which gave her the confidence to write fiction after her retirement in the 1980s. In 1985 the O'Neills moved to Edinburgh where John O'Neill was Professor of New Testament. He died in 2003. All of O'Neill's books are set in Australia and draw on family history and the settings of her childhood.
(Source: 'Judith O'Neill', The Daily Telegraph, 11.5.2006; Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, 'Know The Author Judith O'Neill' Magpies 5 (November 1992): 5-6.)
Deepwater1987single work novel young adult historical fiction
'When Char's older brother goes to war, it is her responsibility to take on his job as farm assistant to their father. With the men away at war, many women are filling the positions which had previously been in male-dominated areas.
'Another example of this is Miss Playfair, who arrives from the city as the first female to teach at the local Kanyul school. Her arrival coincides with, and in many ways contributes to, the prevailing disruption in the formerly close-knit community.
'Char discovers that in war time, there are not only the natural disasters of drought and shortage to contend with. There are also personal hatreds and prejudices which sweep through the community, overriding the coherence and cooperation the war should bring to the lives of her people.
'Deepwater is a moving account of the experience of war for those at home, through the eyes of a young girl.'