The Irish in Coburg

A Feature by Val Noone. This is an edited version of a talk to the Coburg Historical Society on 16 September 2015

St Paul’s Coburg: many Irish families in Victoria has at least one baptism or marriage in this church between 1850 and 1900

The complex effects of migrating persist long after the migrant is dead, and are worthy of our serious study. As far as I can tell, no article, booklet or website attempts a history of the Irish in Coburg, this suburb 12 kilometres north of Melbourne. Here are ten verbal snapshots from different stages over the 180 years of the Irish in Coburg and, on that basis, I will propose a brief overview.

I wish to pay my respects to the Kulin elders past and present, and regret that, as yet, I have not found out enough about the first contact between the Irish and the Kulin to include that story here.

However, a number of local and family historians have recorded aspects of the history of the Irish in Coburg. The first Irish in the Coburg area were probably shepherds in the parties from Tasmania led by John Batman and John Fawkner. Others were among the early overlanders from New South Wales. Some Anglo-Irish came as colonial officials, others as bounty immigrants or during the gold rush.

Richard Broome’s major history of the municipality, Between Two Creeks, is dedicated to a well known Irish Australian and former member of parliament, Murray Gavin. Broome names a certain Casey among the earliest European settlers, notes the role of John Keady in promoting schooling, remarks on Protestant opposition to the suggestion by Irish residents to change the Pentridge  name to Tipperary or Donegal or Limerick, and records the roles in politics of Irish Australians such as Frank Keane, Murray and his son Peter Gavin, and Phil Cleary. The excellent family history collection of the Coburg library gave me many leads. Also I wish to thank Father Seán O’Connell and Mr Michael Laporta of St Paul’s for their help with research. As you know, in the early days Coburg Catholic parish, or mission, covered a large area including Brunswick, Essendon, Epping and an arc up to Bendigo and Ballarat.

Laurie Burchell has pointed out that the Lalla Rhook subdivision took its name from a Thomas Moore poetic saga, a strongly political allegory about Ireland’s struggle for independence. Walter Ebsworth, Ian Jones and others have highlighted the role of Father Charles O’Hea who will be mentioned later. Les Barnes, in his remarkable work on Coburg street names, listed some Irish ones such as Carr, Connolly, Coonan and Gaffney but he seems to have missed Meheghan. Mary Stainsby has recorded the educational and welfare work of the Sisters of Mercy. And there are others.

Ted Egan and Phil Cleary have threaded through their autobiographies stories of Irish migration, music, republicanism, and the 1950s split in the labour movement. In 1974 Coburg Lake was the scene of the tragic suicide of Democratic Labour Party politician and well known Irish Australian Frank Dowling. In the 1990s Cleary, who has also written magazine articles on Irish history and its relevance to Australia, defended Gerry Adams in the federal parliament and co-hosted with Reverend Alistair Macrae a visit to Coburg by a Sinn Féin representative to speak on the peace process. But now let us look at our chosen ten snapshots.

Marion Stewart, born 1854 at Kalkallo

On an autumn day in 1854, Catherine and Colin Stewart who had a dairy farm called Lydiard at Kalkallo brought their second daughter to Father Charles O’Hea OSA, the Cork-born parish priest of Coburg, for baptism. The child was called Máire by her Offaly-born mother and Marion by her Kilmarnock-born father: later in life others called her Mary. Both parents had arrived six years earlier.

Her mother Catherine left Ireland at the height of the Great Famine and went into indentured service with Thomas Wilson at Merri Creek, that is Craigieburn or Kalkallo. Her father Colin, a millwright, left crowded Glasgow and on arrival was indentured to Thomas Simpson on his farm in the same area.

Craigieburn, at that time a Scots stronghold, had the same name as a place in Dumfries shire, Scotland: in Scots Gaelic and in Irish the word means ‘rocky creek’. In 1869, at the age of 44, Colin, baptised a Presbyterian, was baptised into the Catholic Church by Father O’Hea.

Nineteen years later at Woodstock in the summer of 1873 Marion Stewart married the Laois-born widower Mick Lalor from Epping. Father O’Hea was again the celebrant. Perhaps the baptism and marriage took place at a school-church at Epping or Woodstock but both are recorded as “St Paul’s parish, Coburg”.

Beginning in 1874, taking up the hard-won gains of the Eureka-linked democratic agitation for the break up of the squatters’ runs and the new Land Acts, Marion and Mick, as well as Marion’s parents, and a good few other relatives and neighbours from Coburg area selected land in the northeast of Victoria – soon to be known as Kelly country. The Lalors and Stewarts selected at Waggarandall.

Among the Irish Australians from St Paul’s parish, Coburg, moving to the northeast at this time were Ellen Kelly and her children including the famous Ned, who had been baptised by Father O’Hea about six months after Marion Stewart – and would accompany Ned to the gallows. Many one-time Coburg people were among the sympathisers with the Kelly Gang. And some of their descendants were at St Paul’s in November 1980 when Father John Brosnan celebrated Requiem Mass for Ned Kelly on the centenary of his death.

For the Stewarts, Lalors, Kellys and a thousand other families, Coburg – in the widest sense – was a staging post in a large funnel of immigrants, many of them Irish, up through Kilmore and onwards to the country newly opened for selection. In my experience just about every Irish Australian family history from northern and northeastern Victoria has at least one baptism or marriage in St Paul’s Coburg – and of course one marriage in St Francis’, Lonsdale Street. In the history of immigration, in this case Irish immigration, Coburg involves more than today’s suburb.

Michael O’Donnell, strapping, young warder

Pentridge Prison, Coburg: Michael O’Donnell, father of the famous scholar and activist Nicholas, worked as a warder there on arrival in 1850s

The second snapshot, from January 1855, is of Michael O’Donnell, 20, from Camass in County Limerick, newly arrived in Victoria, who – in the words of his son, the famous Irish Australian leader Doctor Nicholas O’Donnell, was

a young athletic strapping man advised by friends to apply for the post of warder at Pentridge, probably with a view of taking his bearings in a young country, and being without a skilled trade like so many young Irishmen, with the view of having a certain income to depend on while selecting his career. My mother used to say that he went to a night school while employed at Pentridge. During his time as warder in the Penal Department, the assassination of John Price took place at Williamstown in 1857 and I remember hearing my mother say that the convicts were in a state of intense excitement on that night when it was my father’s duty to put them under lock and key.

Michael married Johanna Barry, also of Limerick, the sister of one of his fellow warders. Michael resigned from the Stockade in October 1858 when he and his wife, and some of the Barry relatives, selected land at Bullengarook near Gisborne. However, some of this Barry family were warders at Pentridge down into the twentieth-century.

Richard Broome points out that it was ‘mandatory to live within 400 yards of the Stockade in case of trouble and most warders’ houses were clustered in Sydney Road or in O’Hea, Ross, Urquhart, Drummond streets and Bell Street east.’ Wages were low, shifts were sometimes 15 hours long and a stigma attached to the job. ‘In 1858 two-thirds of the warders were Irish and most were single, although Irish were only 16 per cent of the population.’

John Singleton, Anglican evangelist and doctor

The third snapshot is of a most remarkable Irish Anglican evangelist and medical doctor, the Reverend John Singleton. For some five years beginning in January 1855 Singleton had a farm on the Merri Creek in Coburg in present-day Newlands.

From his memoirs, and in Richard Broome’s Between Two Creeks, Singleton stands out for his humanitarian care for the prisoners in the Pentridge Stockade to which he became chaplain. He publicly challenged the Inspector-general of prisons, John Price, over his harsh practices – Price was famously murdered by convicts at Williamstown in March 1857, as mentioned above by Nicholas O’Donnell.

Singleton, by the way, visited Ned in Melbourne Gaol not long before he died and tended his wounds as well as speaking with him about the Christian message. Anne Turley commented that on his way to the gallows, Ned requested that his guard pass on his thanks to Dr Singleton who was one of the few who had treated him with dignity and respect. John Singleton reminds us that not all Irish immigrants were Catholics: some one in six were Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists.

Bridget Bourk, 1875: spoke bad English but fluent Irish

The fourth snapshot is from Bell Street in the summer of 1875, and was given to me by Robert Lindsey. According to the Argus (Wednesday 3 February 1875):

An old woman, about 60 years of age, was found in Bell Street, Coburg, on Monday last, at half-past 6 o’clock. As she could give no intelligent account of herself, and appeared to be of weak intellect, she was taken in charge by Sergeant Joyce, and locked up for the night. At the lockup she gave the name of Bridget Bourk, as well as Sergeant Joyce could understand, as she spoke bad English, but could speak Irish fluently. She had on a black silk bonnet, muslin cap, black and white plaid shawl, and black silk dress. She was taken before the Brunswick bench of magistrates and remanded for a week to see if any of her friends would inquire for her. If not she will probably be sent to the lunatic asylum.

Joyce, born in Clifden at the western end of Conemara in Galway, himself a fluent Irish speaker, seems to have helped further and a few days later her family rescued her from captivity. This report reminds us that over half the Irish migrants to Victoria spoke Irish and the mainstream English-speaking institutions such as the press and the magistrates were usually unsympathetic to such people.

1891: high percentage in Coburg

The fifth snapshot is from the 1891 census. In his PhD thesis, Chris McConville – perhaps known to some of you as campaign manager for sometime Coburg MHR Phil Cleary – studied the distribution of Irish-born people in Melbourne’s suburbs. In 1891 Coburg showed up as having 24.3 per cent of Melbourne’s Irish-born living in its municipality, ranking third behind Hotham and the City of Melbourne, but ahead of Richmond, Fitzroy, South Melbourne and Collingwood. By 1933 that situation had changed to the extent that Coburg did not rank in the first six for share of Irish born residents. I am not sure what to make of these figures.

Archbishop voices working-class views on war

Our sixth snapshot is from Brunswick during World War I. Congratulations to Moreland Council for their fine website on the war, including diggers’, Turks’ and peace movement views. On 28 January 1917 at the opening of a new secondary and technical school in Dawson Street, Brunswick, run by the Christian Brothers, many people from surrounding suburbs including Coburg, more than half of them not Catholics, came to hear the 53-year-old coadjutor Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Cork-born Daniel Mannix.

In the course of his speech Mannix turned to the question of the harmful effects of war on the education budget. He then said: ‘When all was said and all concessions made, the war was like most wars – just an ordinary trade war.’ Such remarks sat easily alongside the views of local activists like future prime minister John Curtin, Bella Guerin, members of parliament Frank Anstey, Maurice Blackburn and Frank Brennan, the trade union daily newspaper Labour Call, and, as it turned out, the majority of people of Coburg and other working-class suburbs.

Local historian Cheryl Griffin has put together a good account about Lawrence Smith and how around 1918 the council rejected the name Mannix Street for the Deanery Estate at the back of Pentridge. The local <fightingthekaiser> blogspot says that ‘Mannix was a huge influence on the way Catholics voted in the referenda of 1916 and 1917’. I prefer to put that the other way round: the working class and their organisations were a huge influence on Archbishop Mannix. In this sense, Mannix was not speaking at his audience, he was facing the same way as his audience and speaking on their behalf to the wider world.

A 1929 car crash into Merri Creek

The seventh snapshot is from the corner of Bell Street and Nicholson Street. On 4 April 1929 Father James O’Dwyer of Trentham but formerly of Coburg parish, aged 34, was driving north along Nicholson Street and skidded while turning into Bell Street and crashed through a fence, the car falling six feet down an embankment into the Merri Creek and overturning. Passengers Father Patrick Power, 32, of Preston, and Mr Edmund Burke, 30, of Coburg Hotel, were thrown clear but O’Dwyer was pinned underneath and was dead on arrival at St Vincent’s hospital.

O’Dwyer was greatly and publicly mourned. In his panegyric, Archbishop Mannix lamented O’Dwyer’s tragic fate and also, referring to the car, warned that ‘modern inventions and improvements have their advantages but they bring their own risks and dangers also’. Charismatic but unostentatious, O’Dwyer was not only a much appreciated pastor but was also leader of the Gaelic League, an organisation for the use and promotion of the Irish language. He had also begun and edited an Irish republican journal called Irish News, which later was called The Irish Nation, which supported Sinn Féin in their political and armed resistance to the Crown. O’Dwyer played a central role in the building of the impressive monument in Melbourne General Cemetery to hunger striker and republican hero Terence McSwiney who died in Brixton prison on 25 October 1920.

O’Dwyer reminds us that around 1920 support for Irish independence and republicanism was strong in Australia including Coburg. Indeed, Gerald Fitzgerald of 1 Stock Street would be the official Sinn Féin contact in Victoria for about three decades.

Ted Egan’s autobiography evokes a typical Irish Australian boyhood of the 1940s

Ted Egan: outstanding yet typical

The eighth snapshot is of Ted Egan, folk singer, Aboriginal linguist and administrator of the Northern Territory from 2003 to 2007. In his first volume of memoirs, The Paperboys’ War, he evokes growing up in Coburg in the 1930s and 40s. He was born on 6 July 1932 at 4 Higinbotham Street, at home with Nurse Regan as the midwife for his mother Grace. It was “a normal Melbourne winter’s day, early morning frost and fogs, rain later. No colder than average”.

Ted is an exceptional person but his Coburg upbringing was in many ways typically Irish Australian. With no Medibank, the family paid subscriptions to their lodge, the Irish National Foresters, which provided basic health and sickness benefits. The family played a card game popular with the Irish called Forty Fives. His father  was out of work due to the Depression. Ted sang a song in Irish, ‘Soggart Aroon’ at the celebrations for the diamond anniversary of ordination of parish priest Father Peter McGee.

Apropos of our earlier mention of the Anzacs, Ted and his wife Eris Evans produced a marvellous album of Anzac songs, a highlight of which is ‘A Song for Grace’, that is, his Coburg mother. It is about the death of her brother, Jack, Ted’s uncle. It begins:

I was a girl of 13 when my three brothers went to the war
Martin and Robert and Jack and as I waved from the door
I thought who in the world could have brothers
as handsome as they …

Our parents were Irish with no love for England at all
but their sons were Australian
and each one proudly answered the call

The emotion is powerful, you need to hear it through. Ted says that his uncle Jack was Celtic in his restlessness and quest for adventure and romance. He also thinks that his family’s traits of hiding emotions and being gregarious were from their Celtic inheritance.

Other aspects of Irish Australia evoked by Ted’s autobiography include: the Redemptorist preachers of fire and brimstone; secret meetings of Catholic anti-communist groups; the Houlihans and the Democratic Labor Party; Sister Mary Josepha; Brother J S Nash of CBC, North Melbourne; and admiration for Bill O’Reilly as the greatest bowler of all time.

Louis de Paor: poet in Shaftsbury Street

The ninth snapshot, from the 1990, is of Louis de Paor, Shirley Bourke and their five children – all redheads – who lived in Shaftsbury Street, Coburg: they have since returned to live in Ireland. While living in Melbourne, Louis published two books of bilingual poems with the local Black Pepper press and won the prestigious Ireland-based Seán Ó Riordáin prize. While his poem on the stolen generation, ‘An Dubh ina Gheal: Assimilation’, is perhaps the most memorable of his Australian poems, on this occasion the opening lines of his ‘Cuairteoirí: Visitors’ are worth quoting. They evoke his impressions of 1990s Coburg, perhaps in January:

Leis sin tagann amhas an tsamhraidh
ag adharcáil thar an gcúinne
ar rúid aeraíochta leis an ngrian,
fuinneoga leatha ar oscailt
ag doirteadh solais is fothram giodamach
ar an aer ceartchreidmheach cúng.

And summer is a hooligan
hooning round corners
joyriding with the sun,
windows wide open blaring
light and flirtatious noise
on the righteous upstanding air.

Louis encouraged a number of people (such as myself) to take up the study of the Irish language as a radical act of reclaiming Irish Australian culture.

Until recently Coburg was home to Colin Ryan, an Australian-born poet and writer who is published in Irish-language magazines in Ireland and the United States of America, editor of an electronic newsletter in Irish. Thirty years ago, while living in Coburg, David Lucy, a mathematician, learned Irish from Colin. David’s grandfather, Michael Lucy, was a native Irish speaker but his own father was not interested. David is still shocked at the rapid rate of language loss over just two generations. Incidentally, Colin pointed out that the 2011 census figures recorded seven speakers of Irish living in Coburg.

Coburg in contemporary family histories

The tenth snapshot is taken at Coburg cemetery on Sunday 4 October 2009. A large group, convened by Jan Watson and her cousins, have gathered at the graves of John McNamara from Milltown Malbay in County Clare, and his wife Mary McNamara née Meany from Jenkinston, County Kilkenny. The date was the 150th anniversary of the arrival of John in Australia. A memorial stone was unveiled, several other family graves nearby were visited, and a family reunion followed. A couple of years earlier Mayor Mark O’Brien addressed a similar reunion organised by Paula Hyndes for the Kennedy and McDermott families. My own grandparents and other ancestors are buried there but to date we have not held a ceremony there.

Such examples remind us that Coburg cemetery has graves of interest to tens of thousands of Irish Australians. In this way, Coburg has a virtual existence much wider than its present geographical boundaries.

Factors in the rise of family history include the increased availability of records on line, and the leisure time and disposable income of baby-boomer retirees.  For some, family genealogies help us cope with uncertainties about the future. Other important factors include the campaigns of the 1970s by Italians, Greeks, Maltese, Polish, Arabic and other groups for ethnic rights. This contributed to old New Australians developing a heightened awareness of their own migration history. This was reinforced by the rising strength of the movement among Aboriginal Australians for civic and land rights.

In addition, along with all other ethnic and folk cultures around the world, many Irish Australians reaffirmed their sense of a distinctive history, richer than that of simply or solely producers and consumers of the global economy. There are grounds for seeing the rise of family history and the survival of an Irish Australian sense of identity as forms of resistance to the pressures for sameness that come from globalisation.

Overview of Irish in Coburg

These ten snapshots – Marion Stewart of Kalkallo, warder Michael O’Donnell, Doctor Reverend John Singleton, the arrest of Bridget Bourk, a high 1891 percentage, the working-class alliance with Mannix, a 1929 car crash, Ted Egan’s autobiography, poet Louis de Paor, and the role of family histories – are but a sample, yet they give indications of an enduring sense of Irish Australian identity throughout Coburg’s history; and they point to an overview along the following lines.

Since 1835, about 150,000 people have migrated from Ireland to Victoria and today 30 per cent or about 1.7 million Victorians have Irish ancestors. While exact figures are not available, Coburg has figured in the migration histories of a large percentage of Victorians of Irish descent (and of later waves of migrants and refugees). In this case it was a stopping place on the journey to land selection further north. A hunger for land led many of the gold-rush era migrants to become selectors in the northeast.

Some other conclusions are in order. As is common with migration, the Irish found new opportunities in Australia but they also experienced displacement and loss, including loss of language. We can see that the impetus for migration continued long after the Famine ended. All along, music and dancing, literature, mythology and religion have been at the heart of Australian Irish identity. Irish Australians have been predominantly Catholic but include other denominations such as Anglicans. Irish Australians are to be found in all walks of life. For example, some were prisoners, others warders. However, to state the obvious, for the first century Irish Australians were overwhelmingly working class.

During World War I, an Irish Australian archbishop formed an alliance against conscription with working-class militants, something rare in world history. Later, as the same Daniel Mannix, once a working-class hero, moved with a section of his flock to the conservative side of Australian politics, the formation of the Democratic Labor Party and associated activities split the Irish Australians of Coburg, as elsewhere in Australia.

In recent decades, along with other ethnic and folk cultures around the world, many Irish Australians have reaffirmed their sense of a distinctive history, richer than that of simply or solely producers and consumers of the global economy. There are grounds for seeing the rise of family history and the survival of an Irish Australian sense of identity as forms of resistance to the pressures for sameness that come from globalisation.

Investigating the history of the Irish in Coburg is not just a quest for roots and for knowledge about the past: it is an investigation into a wider, virtual web that extends through much of Victoria. Sin é mó scéal, that’s my story.

Dr Val Noone is a fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Earlier this year he edited with commentary a rare manuscript about migration from Limerick to Victoria, entitled Nicholas O’Donnell’s Autobiography.

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