Hannah Dorney was born in Cork, Ireland, probably on 14 July 1829, the third child and eldest daughter of Elizabeth Lynch and her husband, Thomas Dorney, a shopkeeper. Although christened Joanna, she preferred to use the less exotic 'Hannah'. She received a basic education, learning to read, write, sing, and play the piano. She was also taught a simple and devout Roman Catholicism which sustained her all her life and was passed on to her own children.
During the famine which afflicted southern Ireland from 1845 to 1849 the Dorney family were scattered. It is possible that Hannah went into service at this time. She married William Ward, probably on 7 October 1850 at Cork. In early 1853 William went to London, and thence to Melbourne, Australia, arriving in August. Hannah, who had two infants and was again pregnant, followed in July. She crossed the Irish Sea in an open paddle-steamer to Liverpool. There she boarded the Goldfinder for Melbourne, arriving on 24 October 1853. Hannah and William found lodgings in North Melbourne, then moved to Emerald Hill, the Irish shanty town in South Melbourne, and back to North Melbourne. William did not prosper. His occupations changed from accountant to clerk, to gentleman, to bookkeeper. Hannah became the family bread-winner. She opened a small shop and later a lodging house in Abbotsford Street, catering for miners on their way to the diggings. William Ward died on 4 November 1860. His was not the only death; of the eight sons Hannah bore in Melbourne only her third, Joseph George, survived. Seven baby boys succumbed to infectious diseases rampant in the overcrowded city.
On 31 December 1862 at Melbourne Hannah Ward married John Barron, a butcher from Northumberland, England. This second marriage ended suddenly and mysteriously. In September 1863 Hannah Barron and her three surviving children left for New Zealand on the Edina. They settled at Campbelltown (as Bluff was then officially known) where Hannah resumed the business she knew best, opening a shop for miners working the small Southland goldfields. When the gold faded away she ran a boarding house for sailors. Trade through the port was growing and Hannah Ward Barron (as she was known), a capable businesswoman, borrowed enough capital to transform her boarding house into the Club Hotel, situated in a commanding position opposite the wharf. The only major problem was the lack of a church. Itinerant priests called regularly, but the Wards occasionally travelled 17 miles to Invercargill to attend mass.
Hannah Ward Barron took out an order under the Married Women's Property Protection Act 1860 as security against an untoward reappearance by her husband and began to enjoy her prosperity. Her eldest child, Mary Eliza Frances (known as Mina), married the postmaster, Charles Tipping, in 1872. Hannah later gave them a section in Foyle Street for a house. William Thomas Ward, her elder surviving son, worked for the Post Office and soon after his marriage in 1887 moved on to Invercargill and Dunedin.
While Hannah enjoyed close and loving relationships with these two children and their families, the apple of her eye was unquestionably Joseph, her youngest. He inherited her love of music, buoyant nature and flair for business. Hannah lent him £800 to set up his first stock and station agency and watched him become mayor of Campbelltown in 1881. He married Theresa Dorothea de Smidt, daughter of the owner of the Golden Age Hotel, in December 1883, and was elected to Parliament in 1887. Hannah helped bring up their family and took charge of her grandchildren when Joseph and Theresa went to Britain in 1895. She enjoyed his success as Richard Seddon's colonial treasurer and Southland's leading entrepreneur.
Hannah Ward Barron's last years, however, were clouded by anxiety. Joseph Ward's business interests had been disastrously overextended when the recession of 1894 struck. In 1895 he was reduced to asking his mother for a promissory note to hold his creditors at bay. Hannah's whole worth was about £5,000, and she willingly signed a note for this amount, but Joseph owed about £100,000. He filed for bankruptcy on 8 July 1897. Hannah helped with his recovery and saw him discharged in November 1897, but according to Joseph's close friend, John McKenzie, her death a year later was hastened by the anxiety of this time. The provisions of her will show her concern for the insecurity of her favourite son's position. Her estate was divided evenly among her three children, but Joseph's share was to be held in trust for his children, so that he did not benefit personally.
Hannah died at her daughter's house in Bluff on 10 November 1898 secure in her religion and the affection of her family. Her obituary notices recited conventional praise of her piety, good works, and maternal virtues. They passed over her strength of character, resilience and business acumen. She had, like millions of others, left Ireland to make a new life and succeeded. Moreover, she had managed it by herself.