Barney Devlin: tribute to a friend and teacher

A Memorial Notice by Val Noone

EamonBarneyScGhJune 2011


Barney Devlin’s death on Saturday 23 June is a great loss. Within the hour Kate Moody heard from the family, she rang Joan Moloney and Joan rang us. Our sympathies to Angela, Marcia, Berenice and the grandchildren.

For me and for many others Barney was both a friend and a teacher. The first day I met him I thought he looked a lot like my Uncle Joe Devlin, whose parents came from Belfast to Melbourne in the 1870s. His facial expressions and curls seemed to me a close match but the mists of family history meant we could not prove a link.

Barney’s personal abilities, charm, compassion and wit have impacted all of us who knew him. I am thinking in a special way of his students in high schools in Belfast, Canberra and the USA, and in Irish-language classes around southeast Australia. The last named was how I got to know him. We enjoyed chewing the cud over history, current events and the meaning of everything.

BarneyScGh2014inDramaWhat good memories many of us have of being in Barney’s class. He was always well prepared, suitably demanding, showing classy documentaries from TG4 – I remember especially the one about the Irish mountaineer who retraced the steps of Burke & Wills – and he had a few teacherly tricks. No items were more enthusiastically awaited at the ceolchoirmeacha at summer school or winter school than the spoofy dramas written and directed and acted in by Barney. In the early days Barney worked closely on the scripts with his mate the late Peadar Ó Dálaigh.

An important piece of background information about Barney’s love of Irish literature is that English Lit. had been his specialty in high-school teaching. Few people could match his knowledge of English literature. He had a phenomenal ability to recall clearly writers and texts and their interpretation.

In Belfast Barney had learned Irish at a Christian Brothers secondary school and at Queens University. After he retired from high-school teaching he then set out to revive his use of and knowledge about the Irish language: it had been 1972 when he left Ireland. He used tell his class at summer school that he was ar féarach, like an old racehorse taking it easy out on the grassy paddocks.

But the reality was that, along with playing golf, he took drastic steps to reclaim his Gaelic heritage, studying long and hard, and taking courses. Incidentally, we did one great course together, namely Kathy Swift’s fortnightof classes in Old Irish at Melbourne University in 2006. One of Barney’s many achievements was that in recent years he became the Australian correspondent for the leading international Irish-language electronic news service of its day, called Beo. He shared his own difficulties with us his students, explaining to us corrections that the editor had made to his prose. Linguistic scholars will one day list the new words and phrases which Barney worked out for writing in Irish about Australian realities.

Barney did these things and many others with a wonderful sense of humour and a sincere humanist philosophy. He believed that the way to deal with death is not to seek a life after death but to seek a full life before death.

The loss of Barney Devlin means for me that a bright light has gone out. Nonetheless, Barney was a bit of a legend and I have a hunch that his reputation will grow in death, which means that his light will keep shining in another way for many years.

Slán abhaile, Barney. (Fitzroy, 25 June 2018.)

Val Noone is an elder of the Irish Community in Australia.

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