Piecing together Elusive Fragments


Val Noone: Hidden Ireland in Victoria. Ballarat: Ballarat Heritage Services,  2012. ISBN: 978-1-876478-83-4 RRP: $55

Daibhi's Prayerbook The movement of people from Ireland to Australia has had several chroniclers but this study is the first to focus on an aspect of their culture that has to date proven elusive: the Irish language. So successful have been Val’s researches that the state of Victoria has alone provided material enough for over two-hundred pages of text, most of which are enlivened by photographs. This is not a coffee-table book, however, and lovers of bibliographic detail will find much matter in the fifteen pages of fine-print, double columned endnotes and eight pages of references. The Introduction outlines some historical reasons for this elusiveness and uses a beautiful metaphor of beach-combing to express the work’s methodology for recovering whatever remains of the Irish Gaelic heritage. Frequent references to ‘flotsam and jetsam’, ‘fragments’ and ‘wreckage’ sustain the imagery most effectively, as does the colour photograph of Cape Conran’s stony shoreline on page [4]. Here too the origin of the term ‘Hidden Ireland’  and its relevance to Victoria is explained (pp.11-12). This methodology, although a special case in a particular diaspora setting, resembles that of historians in Ireland, due to the deliberate destruction of the past. This has been well expressed by the American Irish scholar James F Kenney: “Through so much of Ireland’s story the primary duty of the historian has been to gather up the fragments, lest they be lost!’ (Sources for the Early History of Ireland, Columbia University Press, New York, 1929 (1966),  p. 14). Even in Ireland, during the nineteenth century, the language had become “virtually invisible in written form” ( p 14). When Irish was published it often went under the radar. The proverb about not judging a book by its cover is relevant here. The verbose English cover of Timothy O’Sullivan’s Pious Miscellany (p 37), for instance, does not immediately convey that there is an Irish language text within. The Introduction acknowledges ‘The languages already here’ and shows a map of ‘The Aboriginal Languages of Victoria’, material for deeper reflection on language contact, loss, and  revival. The written evidence for Irish Gaelic in Victoria (manuscript, monumental epigraphy, and print) is arguably the most straightforward to deal with. The central chapters of the book survey a wide range of these and reproduce examples of their scripts and fonts. I found myself being drawn to the even more-hidden Ireland of the peripheral references, the echoes and shadows in this story. Val has studied these too, and has shown great insight in joining the dots and teasing out their potential meanings. For example, the oral history  passed on by Sheila Gravatt of Bungaree, which he calls ‘half-remembered sayings’ and ‘puzzling snippets of Irish’, requiring his own phonetic notation to be preserved on paper, are hints of a rich world of transplanted Gaelic culture in rural Victoria with links to humour, social life, farming, food, and traditional prayers. A fleeting example from Irish music and dance (p. 137) reminds us of the disguises worn by Irish culture  in this field. Tune names that are odd or nonsensical in the garbled English approximation rather than translation can often be explained by restoring the Gaelic. Briefly, the item given here involves ‘daisies’ while the original concerned the Irish regional name ‘Déise’ in Waterford. Another example of oral evidence is Val’s own eye-witness, or rather ear-witness report of the amount of conversational Irish he heard at the Celtic Club, Melbourne, during an event which was not specifically targeted at the language but rather at sport , the GAA (p. 139) . How can we doubt that such conversations were carried on a century earlier in both town and country Victoria? Iconographic studies illustrate the spaces where such conversations were likely to occur. In a sometimes hostile environment (remember sectarianism, the Punch cartoons, etc) visual symbols of Irishness were important for cultural orientation. These include Gaelic names for homes and places (pp. 30-31), church dedications to Irish saints (pp. 32, 79) and hotels named ‘The Harp’ (p.94). Chapters Seven and Eight discuss imagery from Ireland’s past as an expression of “pride in ancient Irish civilisation” (p. 99) including Irish or Celtic interlace and spiral design as embroidery or appliqué: the kilts of the Melbourne Irish Pipe Band (p. 92) and the  historical costumes of the young ladies at Mary’s Mount (p. 104). An outstanding practitioner of these arts was Mary Bruen, who married Nicholas O’Donnell  (pp. 78-79). I particularly enjoyed the examples of a phenomenon where the literary and iconographic came together, that is, the  ‘big books’ of circa 1900, encyclopaedic volumes of Irish history and culture with high quality coloured illustrations (see especially p. 74). The author concludes that “ Irish-Australian families, virtually none of whom could read or write Irish, who bought or read these volumes, had the opportunity to learn from them about Irish-language folklore, literature, history and music.” (p. 75). Following this hint, one might add that such family and neighbourly groups gathered around those books would be prompted to share memories, in English or Irish or a mixture, of their culture. The author’s humanism pervades these pages and the many readers who know Val will recognise as characteristic the necessarily brief but nevertheless committed references to Indigenous Australians and ecumenical initiatives  (pp. 97 , 99 and 167) . Another, tragic, implication of ‘hidden’ Ireland, at this time of official enquiries into institutional abuse in Ireland and the Irish diaspora, is acknowledged on page 73. Hidden Ireland in Victoria  repeatedly states that it is an interim report and that the discovery of material is ongoing. I look forward to the second, expanded, edition.

Greg Byrne is a freelance historian who is currently researching the Irish language writings of Michael (later Archbishop) Sheehan. He has published several articles on connections between Ireland and Australia.

One thought on “Piecing together Elusive Fragments

  1. Thie review by Greg Byrne does full justice to Val Noone’s valuable and groundbreaking study of the Irish language and influence hidden but deeply embedded in Victoria’s history. He carefully picks out the salient points the book lays out for us and pays tribute to the author who combed so many beaches and sifted such a wealth of ‘flotsam and jetsam’. Byrne appreciates the mystery involved in all the hiding and the silence, and the precious nature of what documents and objects we must jealously preserve so that the future won’t neglect such a wondrous heritage : ‘the past is not dead, it is not even past’as William Faulkner wrote.

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