Dr. Nicholas O’Donnell: ‘A Towering Figure’

Commemorating an almost forgotten Irish-Australian.

By Rowan O’DonnellNOD

Though his presence is not immediately obvious, the imprint left by  Dr Nicholas O’Donnell (1862 -1920) on the cultural and political life of Irish-Australian Melbourne can still be discerned. O’Donnell was president of The Celtic Club, (established in 1887), from 1907-09. (Originally a non-sectarian but politicised organisation, it is now  a cultural organisation,  hosting a range of activities including music, film, literary and educational events to promote interest in Australian Irish culture.) O’Donnell was also responsible for establishing the Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in Melbourne in 1901. This included organising lessons in the Irish language for men and women at a price of one guinea and half a guinea respectively. The Gaelic League’s efforts led to Irish history being introduced to a number of Catholic schools and increased interest in Irish music. Celtic designs also became prominent in cemeteries 

These endeavours did much to commemorate the ancient history of Ireland, but such traditions are a relic of the past rather than an evolving process. It is Nicholas O’Donnell’s collection of books – his personal library  – which demonstrates his interests in the evolving nature of language and culture. This collection, in the  library at Newman College contains over 700 books and 300 pamphlets from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Dr Nicholas Wolf, from New York University,  an O’Donnell Fellow, received a grant to use the collection to source his research to create a reference guide to written Irish grammar in the 19th and 20th centuries. He wrote a short summary of the contents of O’Donnel’s collection and value during his six-week stay. In his ‘Items of Note in the Newman College Irish Collection’, he identified the excellent condition of the texts and the ‘concentrated subject area combined with its accessibility’. The sheer number of important texts from the preceding years, often with notes written on the margins and covers  provides valuable insight to reading practices of the early twentieth century.

Wolf goes on to describe the collection of religious texts held in the library, predominantly Catholic but including several Protestant texts. Among the most notable works are volumes of Seanmoirí Muighe Nuadhad, edited publications ‘of an important set of nineteenth-century sermons held in the Maynooth library collection’. It does not stop there, however. Wolf also noted a number of other publications of genuine originality and uniqueness for the Catholics of Melbourne. The Newman library also houses notable nineteenth-century religious publications, including a later edition of Andrew Donlevy’s Irish-language catechism and editions of translations of Thomas à Kempis. Among the English-language holdings, there are a number of complete multivolume sets of hagiographies, many with Irish authorship provenance, and two copies of the famous centenary history of Maynooth College written by John Healy in 1895. O’Donnell’s collection fits comfortably into this exalted company and reveals a great deal about who he was and what he valued. Without our narratives our history is lost and consequently so is our identity. In Melbourne, there is no figure that has done more for the collection, study and dissemination of uniquely Irish and Catholic texts than O’Donnell.

In Melbourne before Mannix, historian Patrick Morgan described Dr O’Donnell as one of the leading figures in early Catholic Melbourne, indeed a man who was instrumental in making Melbourne ‘the great bastion of Irish Catholicism in Australia’. This is recognition of an enormous contribution to the ascension of the Irish as an organised and defined group of people in a still new and foreign city. O’Donnell himself never visited Ireland, yet learnt the language and offered much in regard to its value and significance. The fact that he never saw Ireland but dedicated so much of his personal, political and academic life to it, suggests that his fondness for Gaelic culture could be acquired in a ‘foreign’ country. This is message should be presented to all generations of immigrants. Globalisation – the domination by mass culture’s of music, film and fashion – extends its influence over diverse and distinct cultures to create increasingly indistinguishable banalities, so that cultural activities start to look and sound the same everywhere. By maintaining traditions and languages, their extraordinary past is not lost.  Today in Melbourne people can easily immerse themselves in Irish culture largely due to O’Donnell’s effort, including the various events organized by the Celtic Club and his extensive scholarship on Irish politics and language.

As well as contributing to the translation and proliferation of Irish texts, he was a central figure in the Home Rule Movement in Australia. Indeed, O’Donnell, it has been suggested, ‘almost alone at first … battled to revive Gaelic’. Though Nicholas O’Donnell was a staunch Catholic, the Celtic Club was a non-sectarian organisation. This non-sectarianism allowed him broader political views and led to his fighting for a United Ireland,  an important symbol of solidarity for a nation that had been politically and religiously divided for centuries, divisions which were reflected  even in the suburbs of Melbourne. His influence was such that he was elected president of a large convention held in Melbourne, attended by an Irish parliamentarian, which had gathered to support Irish Home Rule. He retained that position for twenty years leading ‘the Melbourne, and to an extent the Australian, movement for Home Rule’. He contributed various texts to Austral Light in which he discusses the current developments and affairs of the day and how these have affected the likelihood of Irish Home Rule. In an article entitled ‘The Home Rule Revival’ he writes with acuity and pride on the attitudes and efforts of the United Irish League in Victoria.

O’Donnell’s writing, however, was not limited to political commentary. In addition to his political efforts and the wealth of literature left behind, he also contributed a column, ‘Our Gaelic Column’, to the Catholic paper, the Advocate. His contributions comprised extracts of journal articles from Belfast and Dublin, poems, songs, folktales, Catholic prayers and a guide to aid the reading and pronunciation of Irish. These articles were in Gaelic, though often included notes and translations of the extracts. He also contributed a poem to the paper to celebrate the opening of the Shamrock Club in Melbourne on 26th June 1902.

There is scarcely a human activity more important and more widely practised than language, although,  using it on an everyday basis means its significance and complexity are taken for granted. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is a good to be reminded, every so often, of the importance of these ‘mundane’ practices. Establishing a meaningful memorial to Dr O’Donnell would be a worthy commemoration of his achievements. However such a commemorative tribute should not take the form of a statue or any other inanimate object, as such monuments quickly lose their appeal and their initial significance becomes dated or forgotten. A memorial to Dr O’Donnell should take the form of either a) a scholarship which would encourage students to continue the research and promotion of the Irish language, culture and history, or, b) a cultural event or festival in which the entire Melbourne community would be invited to join and celebrate their heritage as recorded by Dr O’Donnell’s life work. Either of these commemorative forms would raise awareness and interest in a figure whose presence lurks beneath the surface of many of Melbourne’s establishments and organisations, yet whose face is rarely seen and whose voice is rarely heard. A scholarship or an event would serve to create new memories while aptly representing the evolving nature and diversity of the Irish in Australia.

Dr Nicholas O’Donnell was an exemplary Irish scholar (as well as a Melbourne general practitioner), and is an outstanding candidate for a greater public profile. He promoted Irish political and religious autonomy through his various political affiliations, as well as in his voluminous scholarship as an early Gaelic academic, and his regular contributions to the Advocate. The continuation of his legacy is now maintained by Newman College Library and by those who visit Melbourne to explore and research his life’s collection. During his lifetime, O’Donnell maintained personal and professional relationships with other scholars from Ireland and around the world.  Now, with his life’s collection available for research, he has again given Melbourne a  platform from which the development of Irish politics and literature can be understood and studied in a from a unique point of view.

Rowan is a history student at Victoria University and is not related to Nicholas O’Donnell.
Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the Irish Library in Newman College could learn more about its holdings by going to the website and searching under ‘nicholas o’donnell’ or ‘irish language’. Articles by Paddy Morgan and Val Noone are also to be found in the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies, available in hard copy or via Informit database.