An Enduring Legacy: the work of Nicholas O’Donnell



Elizabeth Malcolm  launched Val Noone’s edition of  Nicholas O’Donnell’s Autobiography

Elizabeth Malcolm launches O’Donnell’s Autobiography. L to R: in front row Dot Wickham, publisher, Val Noone, editor, unidentified guest, Brian Shanahan, Celtic Club president. Anne Beggs-Sunter, Lorraine and Bernie Brophy.

on 19 February 2017 at the Celtic Club, Melbourne. This is the text of her speech, and family member Peter Brennan’s Reply, and Val Noone’s thanks….


When I looked at the photograph of the author, Dr Nicholas O’Donnell (NOD), on the cover of this book, it struck me that he didn’t look much like Dr Val Noone, the book’s editor and the man responsible for its publication a century after it was written between 1908 and 1916.

Yet, there are in fact many parallels between the two men:

  • both of Co. Limerick ancestry;
  • both born in Victoria and studied or worked at the University of Melbourne;
  • both leaders of the Irish-Australian community in Victoria;
  • both important scholars of Irish culture, especially the Irish language;
  • both active in Irish-Australian political groups and movements;
  • both recognised in Ireland for their achievements in the diaspora; and
  • both with wives who themselves have played active roles in the promotion of Irish culture and scholarship.

Sadly, Nicholas O’Donnell and Molly Bruen, his wife, never visited Ireland, but fortunately Val and Mary Doyle have numerous times.

Really, it’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Val Noone to edit, annotate and publish O’Donnell’s autobiography, which has long circulated in typescript form and been of interest to scholars.

The autobiography of ‘us’

Another thing that struck me about the book was the title, especially the use of the word ‘autobiography’. Although called an ‘autobiography’, it’s not really one in our modern understanding of that word. We think of an autobiography as a narrative of one person’s life written by him- or her-self. The individual and their experiences are at the heart of the story; indeed, they are the story; it is all about me. But NOD’s autobiography is not like that at all: it’s not about me; it’s about us.

At the outset of the book, Nicholas O’Donnell says, firstly, that he intends ‘to place on record the genealogical history of my family, and my wife’s family’; then, only secondly, that he also wants to record the ‘main events of my life’. He hopes, he writes, that the book may prove ‘interesting and instructive to our children when we are no more’ (p.52).

For Nicholas O’Donnell, family and community were fundamental to his very being and, in many ways, he was far more interested in writing about them than he was in writing about himself: only the final quarter of the book is devoted to his own life. And his family and community were extensive: in space, they spanned Ireland and Australia, especially Limerick and Victoria; and, in time, they spanned many centuries, both back into the past and forward into the future. They included a host of Irish families: O’Donnells, Spillanes, Barrys, Blakes, Bruens, Taylors, plus numerous others.

But O’Donnell wasn’t just interested in listing who married whom and who begot whom. He was a talented writer, with an eye for colourful characters and entertaining anecdotes.

A ‘massive’ aunt

I particularly enjoyed, for example, his account of his maternal aunt, born Honora Blake about 1838, who unlike her 7 siblings remained in Ireland, married her 3rd cousin James Hickey and had 6 children. She wrote to NOD in 1906, the year before her death. NOD describes her as a ‘massive woman, the largest of the four sisters’. He includes an extract from one of her letters to him, which I want to quote as it gives wonderful insights into the mind of Nora Hickey.

I am getting old now approaching 70 years [note only ‘getting old’ in 1906]. I know I will not live to be very old as none of my brothers and sisters lived to be very old [70 not ‘very old’ to her]…I was 19.5 stone about 6 years ago. I am only 18 stone now [19 stone = 120 kilos]. I was a very healthy woman and very active: I often used to think where was my weight, I could walk so light. I was 5 feet 10 inches when I was 22 years of age [obviously tall for a woman]. I am only iron-grey at present [her hair not yet white]. I was awfully sound, thank God, and my children are the same. (p.164)

Nicholas O’Donnell’s aunt, Nora, was obviously proud, not only of her own health, but also of her healthy children and especially her son George, who had joined the Franciscan Order as Brother Ephrem. In another letter, she told Nicholas O’Donnell that George, whose hobby was painting: ‘Is after studying oil painting out in Italy, in Florence at the picture galleries’ (p.169). But, sadly, early in 1908, Brother Ephrem wrote informing O’Donnell that his mother had died the previous December. However, it was, he said, ‘a very happy death’ with ‘no pain’ (p.166).

Nicholas O’Donnell, in his brief comments and quotes, leaves us with a vivid impression of his aunt’s large personality, as well as her large person.

Being ‘foolish’ at the Celtic Club

Not till the final section of the book, does Nicholas O’Donnell provide what he calls a ‘short recount of my life’. This is mostly composed of notes, anecdotes and comments, but again it’s full of colour and fascinating detail.

Nicholas O’Donnell writes, for example, that: ‘About 1887 [in Melbourne]…was formed the Celtic Club’. It first met, he tells us, in Maygars Hotel on the corner of Spring and Bourke Streets, but, as membership increased, it moved to rooms in Collins Street, near the office of The Argus: then a conservative newspaper, noted for its hostility to the Irish (p.262). The Club in fact moved about half-a-dozen times over its first 20 years, before Nicholas O’Donnell became president in 1907.

Nicholas O’Donnell mentions 2 close male friends, named Gibbons and Bodkin, and says: ‘Club life, that is the Celtic Club, took a lot of our leisure time’. The years of the late 1880s and early 1890s, he writes were ‘as happy as any in my life’ – an interesting remark, given these years also saw the onset of depression in Australia and a bitter split in the Irish Home Rule movement, which divided the Celtic Club as well. He then adds: ‘Yet we worked hard and made money. But I let it go foolishly enough I can now confess’ (p.272). Nicholas O’Donnell clearly implies that some of this money was ‘let…go foolishly’ at the Celtic Club.

In another entry, he tells us that, in 1892, he became a total abstainer and lost 3 stone in weight, having previously weighed 18 stone—as a doctor, weight was obviously a preoccupation of Nicholas O’Donnell’s. Instead of frequenting the Celtic Club so often, he joined an ‘athletic club’; and, at the end of that year, he and some friends rode and climbed to the top of Mount Kosciuszko—a feat of which he was very proud (p.269).

Although Nicholas O’Donnell does not deal with his own life in a very full manner, nevertheless, his ‘short recount’ reveals much about his character, his Irish activities in Melbourne and also his work as a medical practitioner.

Back to the ‘ancestral cot’

What motivated Nicholas O’Donnell to write his book was a concern about the impact of migration on family and community ties and identity. From the perspective of 1908, he said of the second-generation Irish in Australia, including himself:

‘The breakaway from old world connections and associations is already complete’; ‘the exile’—that is the first-generation immigrant—is now ‘dead and buried in the land of his adoption’; but his children still live and they ‘remember his rehearsal of his boyhood days in the cradle land of his race’; so ‘it is still easy to trace the blood back to the ancestral cot…’ (p.52).

Wonderful expression: the ‘ancestral cot’. Because, during the first decade of the 20th century, it was ‘still easy’ to trace family ties back to Ireland—with Irish and Australian relatives continuing in contact by letter—Nicholas O’Donnell devoted much time and energy to doing so, compiling in the process a large series of family histories. For, although he proclaimed himself a patriotic Australian, at the same time, he urged his children and descendants always to ‘revere and cherish the history and fame’ of Ireland and, along with this, the stories of their own Irish families (p.54). Family, community and nationality—both Irish and Australian—were firmly intertwined in Nicholas O’Donnell’s mind.

The final likenesses

Finally, I suspect that if Val Noone ever wrote an autobiography—and, I don’t know, maybe he already has one in a bottom drawer—it would be like Nicholas O’Donnell’s. They both love Ireland; they both think in terms of the Irish-Australian community; and both want others to share in the excitement of exploring Irish family history. I recommend their book strongly to you all.

Professor Elizabeth Malcolm

Elizabeth occupied the Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne for many years.

Peter Brennan’s Reply on behalf of the O’Donnell family

It is through no personal merit that I am standing here, but merely an accident of birth. My father was Niall, his mother was Sheila, her father was Nicholas O’Donnell. Many people share that pedigree.

How often do we hear that the past was a simpler time, as though we have a mortgage on complexity?

I read a lot, mainly history, mainly novels, mainly escapist, and I like those little quotations writers put at the front of their books. Robert Harris wrote a wonderful trilogy about Cicero, and prefaced one of them with a quote from Kierkegaard, words to the effect that

we always think that all history leads to us, that we are somehow the culmination of all that has gone before. But what if it is we who are living in the pale afterglow…

I never knew Nicholas, of course. I don’t really know much about him. I don’t know what his voice sounded like, how he laughed, or relaxed, what jokes he made, what witticisms he enjoyed. He is among the ancestors, with the other old men with beards, the old women dressed in improbable amounts of clothing, gazing stern-faced out of fading photographs.

I have always had something of a soft spot for his father, Michael, who died so young. A great-great-grandfather should not be a young man, of 28 or 30 and no more, who died fanging his horse too fast on a country road, in the dark, and did not see the branch in front of him. A young man’s mistake.

My father always had a soft spot for that young man’s wife, Joanna, who was left in what must still have been a strange land with two small children, both of whom became eminent men, pillars of their society. And there was that moment when you just feel for her, as they left North Melbourne in their cart, and a jar of raspberries she had been given spilled over her white dress, ruining it. I don’t know how many dresses she had, but I bet it was her favourite.

I think this book was a labour of love for Nicholas, for his children, and their children, so that they would know where they came from, as, in his words, the years turned into decades and the decades into centuries.

It is more than a century since he wrote those words, and almost a century since he died.

Nicholas’s diary, as we called it, was one of Dad’s most treasured possessions. I have not read it all, though I have dipped into it over the years. When someone is speaking to his descendants, those descendants should pay heed. Though one of his admonitions, I’m afraid, has not stood the test of time. He told us to always remember that we have not a drop of English blood in us. But I don’t think he would mind, that this is no longer so.

I wish Angela Gehrig was here. And I wish my father could see this. He would be so happy.

I am in some awe at the labour of love of Val Noone and Mary Doyle and others, who have taken that leather-bound handwritten book from the drawer at home, and made it accessible to all.

I salute you Val. Well done. Good on you.

Peter Brennan

Val Noone’s Thanks: From Nicholas to Paloma

Some one hundred years ago, when Nicholas O’Donnell, Bullengarook-born, 45 years of age, sat down in his home a kilometre away in Victoria Street, West Melbourne, he was not writing his own story, for him his autobiography was the story of his tribe or clan – as Elizabeth has remarked.

All of us who love and labour over family history know why he did so. He was aware of his place in the river of life and trying to learn more about that. When mainstream society is built on self-promotion and profit, his emphasis on community and cooperation is timely.

Nuair a bionn Nioclás Ó Domhnaill ag scríobh a dhirbheathaisnéis, bionn sé é ag scríobh “in ainm Dé agus ghlúnta na marbh”.

I have dedicated this book to Angela Gehrig who in her role as librarian at Newman College deserves special thanks. In October, a few days before Angela died I showed her an early set of proofs. She glanced at them, smiled, said she liked them and commented, “This has been quite a dance hasn’t it?”. I am not sure what she meant but starting in 2009, producing this book required some fancy footwork including Angela finding volunteer typists among the Newman students for part of the job, who deserve our thanks.

Newman College and in particular Provost Sean Burke have invested financially in this book as have the Hotham History Project led by their president who is here today Lorna Hannan. Kevin Molloy and Suzanne Jamieson made personal donations towards the costs of publication. Thanks a million to them all.

Tom Donovan in Limerick and Geralyn Barry in Oregon have been generous in endorsing the book. Special thanks to Dot Wickham and Clare Gervasoni, my publishers, Ballarat Heritage Services.

As an aside, there is a double Swiss connection here today, not sure what it means, but Clare comes from Swiss Italians on her father’s side and Angela Gehrig from Swiss French on her father’s side, while both of them are Irish on their mother’s sides.

Thanks to Brian Shanahan, Elizabeth Malcolm, Peter Brennan and Dot Wickham for their speeches today, and, on your behalf, special thanks to Brendan Power, Graeme Pilkington and Noel Hanway for the music, especially their ‘Lament for Limerick’. I have been a fan of Brendan since I first heard him over 60 years ago in Bentleigh at our parish St Patrick’s night concert.

Mary Doyle, my wife, has done a tower of work, for instance, in typing and proof-reading – all the trees you see in the book Mary keyed into a data base. Thanks to our son Michael who has been an adviser on Irish history and to our daughter Catherine, our witty MC. In the book, I tried to thank those who helped but apologies and thanks to those I forgot to mention.

Thanks to all of you here today for your support. It is a great pleasure to welcome relatives, friends including a couple from school days in 1951, colleagues, O’Donnell and Barry descendants, Hotham history group, fellow Celtic Club members, and family history buffs. If I name everyone we will be here for ages.

To John Hinkson and all at Arena Printing, thanks for a beautiful job. And to Helen Mohan, Kylie Woods and staff at the Celtic Club, thanks for your hospitality and your generous rates for the use of these facilities.

This year the Nicholas O’Donnell story has come to a striking new stage. Paloma Herrera Brennan, a Salvadoran-Irish-Australian and great-great-granddaughter of Nicholas and Molly O’Donnell, and daughter of Rosemary Brennan who is here this afternoon, Paloma has begun her exchange term from Melbourne at Trinity College Dublin, studying among other things Irish history. Her grandfather Niall Brennan never had the chance to study in Ireland, Nicholas never had the chance to study in Ireland. She has. As the proverb says,
A scath a chéile a mhaireann na daoine, people live in the shadow of one another.’

Go raibh míle maith agaibh, slán abhaile. Thanks a million, and safe home.