Personal Reflections Inspired by A New History of the Irish in Australia

By Richard O’Brien

At the outset I must remark that all who are interested in the story of the Irish in ‘The Great South Land Under The Southern Cross’ will forever be indebted to the exceptional scholarship of two enormously talented historians, Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall. In their outstanding masterpiece they have reached and researched well behind and far beyond the great volumes of the distant and more recent past and have wonderfully download.jpgnavigated us through key aspects in the journey of those who came here voluntarily or otherwise from that most westerly Green Island nation off the coast of Northern Europe.

I still vividly remember the charismatic President John FitzGerald Kennedy telling those of us who had gathered at Eyre Square in Galway during his historic visit to the land of his ancestors in June 1963, as he pointed out across Galway Bay on a stunningly beautiful summer’s day, that on such a day and with the exceptional vision of the Irish we could see far across the Atlantic to the next parish where he was born in Boston Massachusetts! In the opening pages of their brilliant narrative Elizabeth and Dianne remind us that the story of the Irish diaspora – now of some 80 million people – spans ‘a web of complex relationships across time and space, a multi-national, multi-generational network connecting immigrants and their offspring to their original homeland, as well as to Irish immigrant communities in other places’. On that day in Galway my uncle, who had taken time from his acting career in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre to bring me to Eyre Square, talked of our relatives in London and our cousins in Chicago. I mentioned my mother’s uncle who had travelled to Sydney where he found a job, fell in love and never returned.

My next Australia ‘encounter’ happened many years later when Prime Minister Bob Hawke arrived on a state visit to Ireland in 1987. I was then spokesperson at the Department of Foreign Affairs and (with the unavoidable absence of an accompanying Irish Government Minister) I had the privilege of escorting Mr Hawke to the top of the Rock of Cashel. From that elevated iconic location he enjoyed a magnificent view across the local countryside – north into Tipperary from where Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s grandparents had emigrated, south to Cork where John Curtin’s parents were born, west to Clare where the ancestors of the once Victorian Deputy Premier Pat McNamara had lived and east towards Kilkenny where the father of my immediate predecessor Martin Burke was born. Then the gifted Australian Irish historian Richard Reid emerged from among the men in dark suits and in his intoxicating Co. Down accent told our guest that from across that entire area had come some 60% of those who had arrived in southern New South Wales in the early decades of the European settlement.

However, it’s important to recall that Bob Hawke was not the first Australian Prime Minister to visit Ireland; James Scullin did so in 1929, Joseph Lyons in 1935, Robert Menzies in 1941, Gough Whitlam in 1974, and in 1993 came Paul Keating whose Irish ancestry was traced by another outstanding Australian Irish scholar, Perry McIntyre. Perry was among the talented group who established and promoted Sydney’s Irish Famine Memorial at Hyde Park Barracks, the first ‘home’ to more than 2,000 orphan girls transported to Sydney under the Earl Grey Scheme at the height of the Great Famine. In mentioning Sydney I should add that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern opened the Consulate General in 2000 and invited Prime Minister John Howard to Ireland where in June 2006 he became the third Australian Prime Minister to address both houses of the Irish Parliament.

Back to the main narrative! Frankly, I am entirely unable to surpass the inspiring words of the profoundly wise and indefatigable Val Noone who had the great joy of launching ‘A New History of the Irish in Australia’. Val spoke eloquently of all the rich research across the pages of this remarkable volume so meticulously crafted by Elizabeth and Dianne and provided us with a masterful overview of the book’s three central themes: Race, Stereotypes and Politics. On arriving in 1995 they were among the dominant themes my wife Bernadette and I experienced as we travelled across the length and breadth of this enormous country. As we made those journeys I was deeply indebted to the writings of the great Patrick O’Farrell whose friendship I treasured and who was a constant source of wisdom and guidance – as was the eminent Professor John Molony of ANU who ever remained ‘the man from Ballarat’ and who introduced me to much of rural Victoria, most especially to the events at the Eureka Stockade and the drama of the Pikeman’s Dog.

But Elizabeth and Dianne have not only enriched our understanding, they have also superbly prepared the ground for further scholarly research and reflection. I make that remark since they prompted me to reflect, in my home in the costal paradise of Port Macquarie on the NSW mid-north coast, on my own encounters with the story of the Irish across Australia during my years as ambassador and indeed since retirement.

I mentioned Bob Hawke’s visit in 1987. During the state dinner in his honour he invited his host Charles Haughey to Australia and the following year CJH became the first taoiseach-in-office ‘to cross the tyranny of distance’ where he was welcomed by my earlier predecessor the scholarly Jim Sharkey. During his visit the Taoiseach presented Ireland’s Bicentennial Gift to Australia at the National Library in Canberra; a microfilm of the Irish transportation records from 1788 to 1868. Soon after Jim’s departure, Martin Burke welcomed President Mary Robinson on her state visit in 1993. However, Patrick Hillery was the first Irish President to visit Australia (1985), and was welcomed by Ambassador Joe Small who is long remembered for his heroic campaign in combating the scourge of Irish jokes referred to by Elizabeth and Dianne. On 1 September 1998 Mary McAleese arrived in Perth to begin the first state visit of her Presidency and with her husband Martin journeyed from Western Australia to New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania (where she visited the William Smith O’Brien cottage at Port Arthur) and on to Brisbane to address the centenary celebration of the establishment of the Queensland Irish Association.

The following year Governor General Sir William Deane and Lady Helen embarked on the first state visit of an Australian Governor General to Ireland, including a visit to the birthplace of his ancestors in County Tipperary. Mentioning Sir William reminds me of his installation as Governor General in the Senate Chamber of the Federal Parliament on 16 February 1996. Sitting in the Visitors Gallery I observed that those present on the rostrum with the incoming Governor General and his wife were Prime Minister Paul Keating, the Speaker of the House of Representatives Stephen Martin all of whose grandparents were born in Ireland, and the President of the Senate Michael Beahan who was born in London of Irish parents. Then came forward Chief Justice Sir Gerard Brennan, ever proud of his Irish heritage, to administer the Oath of Office. It was at that moment that I was struck by the fact that in no other country in the world, beyond the shores of Ireland itself, had all the constitutional officers of a nation, gathered together for such a solemn state occasion, been of Irish heritage. Also present in the Senate Chamber were members of the Australian Irish Parliamentary Friendship Group, including the ever supportive West Australian Senator Jim McKiernan who was born in County Cavan. The second state visit of a Governor General took place two years ago when Sir Peter Cosgrove and his wife travelled to Ireland. In 1999 Sir Peter commanded Irish troops who served with their Australian colleagues in East Timor as part of the international peacekeeping force initiated by Prime Minister Howard.

Moving beyond state and official visits there was the ongoing work of deeply dedicated colleagues in the Canberra Embassy whose commitment enabled me, my predecessors and successors, to travel across Australia and participate in numerous local activities. In that process I was ever captivated by the contribution of Irish Australians to the very nature of Australian identity and I was particularly taken by the widespread use of the word ‘mate’ and the underlying reality of Australian ‘mateship’. In his book on ‘mateship’ Nick Dyrenfurth remarks that in addition to addressing friends as ‘mates’, ordinary Australians also do so in order to exercise ‘the sheer impertinence’ of labelling their ‘betters’ as such, and added that this practice was most obvious in the case of the Irish who were he said ‘imbued with an innate conviction of comradeship’. ‘Mateship’ inspired the magnificent sculpture by Joan and Charlie Smith, who journeyed from Waterford to Perth under Bob Hawke’s visa scheme to attract the talented and creative, which stands in Anzac Parade in Canberra as a memorial to the soldiers of the Australia Army.

In mentioning the world of creativity and of literature there were the numerous volumes of Australian literary masterpieces I had the privilege of launching including Tom Keneally’s ‘The Great Shame’ and Christopher Koch’s ‘Out of Ireland’. Among the books on Irish themes and Australian Irish History I especially recall were Jarlath Ronayne’s ‘First Fleet to Federation: Irish Supremacy in Colonial Australia’, Father Brian Maher’s ‘Planting the Celtic Cross’, ‘A Decent Set of Girls’ by Cheryl Mongan and Richard Reid and David Malouf’s unforgettable ‘Conversations at Curlow Creek’. There were numerous biographies including ‘Mercy, Mater and Me’ by the entirely exceptional Sister Angela Mary Doyle who for many years headed the Mater Hospital in Brisbane. Sister Angela Mary chose Brisbane’s Mary Ryan Bookshop, owned by the erudite Bill Concannon from Barna Co. Galway, as the location for the launch. There was the autobiography of Father Condon from country Victoria whose brother was a celebrated Scripture scholar at All Hallows seminary in north Dublin. On 6 April 1997 the ever persuasive Cork-born Fr John McSweeney organised a special gathering at Strathfield in Sydney to mark the sesquicentenary of the arrival in Australia of Fr William McGinty, the first priest ordained in All Hallows which was especially committed to providing priests to Catholic dioceses across Australia. Among those present was the much loved Bishop David Cremin, also a priest of All Hallows, who continues to play a mighty role at the heart of the Australian Irish community in Sydney.

There was the world of sport ranging from GAA clubs to Aussie Rules, so strongly influenced by Gaelic football. Jim Stynes, an Irish born winner of the Brownlow Medal, also undertook outstanding philanthropy with his family and friends across the City of Melbourne. Melbourne was named by the first Irish born Governor of New South Wales, General Sir Richard Bourke. Today, Richard is remembered in ‘Bourke Street’ and his wife in ‘Elizabeth Street’ at the very heart of the City. Each year saw the Rose of Tralee festivals in Melbourne and elsewhere linking young Australians to Ireland and the Festival of Kerry. Melbourne also saw the first Irish Welfare Bureau, assisting those who had fallen on difficult times, established by Phyllis McGrath in 1974, and later replicated in other centres including Sydney with major contributions by Frank and Anne O’Donoghue.

Elizabeth and Dianne write of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and I still recall my many conversations with the Melbourne-born former Governor General Sir Ninian Stephen who made an essential contribution to the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement. Mentioning the Troubles also calls to mind the exceptional work of the Australia Ireland Fund which so generously contributed over the years to numerous projects aimed at securing peace and reconciliation across Northern Ireland. The Fund has long been magnificently promoted and organised by the dedicated Teresa Keating and in my time led by such exceptional Australian-Irish luminaries as the highly celebrated sports administrator John O’Neill. and subsequently by Charles Curran who brought with him the experiences of a life enriched by business and the law. On the Board were other generous contributors including Jane and Peter Cosgrove, the other great legal authority Frank Curran and the wise and considerate Margaret Whitlam who every year ensured that her truly great Gough would attend the annual fund-raising garden party in the magnificent Sydney home of the generous and gracious Lady Mary Fairfax. Among those present each year were Mary Lee and Judge John O’Meally, both of whom led the fundraising campaign to ensure the continuation of Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales following the retirement of the illustrious Patrick O’Farrell. Their stunning achievements eventually led to the appointment of the wonderfully talented Ronan McDonald who is Elizabeth’s most recent successor in the Gerry Higgins Chair at Melbourne University.

I understand from Frank O’Shea who invited me to make this contribution – but please don’t be hard on him for the ramblings are mine – that it will be published in the March edition ahead of St. Patrick’s Day. March 17 was ever a hectic day which began at the 7am breakfast of Melbourne’s Irish Chamber of Commerce organised by the enthusiastic Norman and Marie Fay supported by leading personalities including Gerry Higgins, Brian Shanahan, Gerry Lonergan, Frank Hargrave and Seamus Moloughney, to name but a few. One of my most memorable recollections is of the year when the visiting Irish Minister Sile de Valera spoke most movingly of the visit of her grandfather to Melbourne at the invitation of his close friend Archbishop Daniel Mannix.

Following breakfast, it was off to the airport to catch a flight to Sydney for the Lansdowne Club lunch organised by Peter Brennan. Peter – undoubtedly the finest Irish business executive gifted to Australia in his generation – was ever selflessly dedicated to transforming all aspects of the trade and investment relationships between his new home and his mother country. He regularly identified and encouraged importers and exporters, addressed large investment conferences as well as smaller gatherings and helped put Ireland on the map of Australia’s leading banking and financial corporations. In the early days some 200 Lansdowne Club members and guests gathered to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day while now over 1600 attend gala celebrations at Sydney’s International Convention Centre. At all these events, large or more intimate, Peter always succeeded in attracting top notch speakers from the Federal and State Parliaments as well as from leading business corporations. On 17 March 2011 the Guest of Honour was Australia’s Welsh born Prime Minister Julia Gillard who understandably insisted that we Irish should never forget that Patrick was a Welshman and that it was indeed ‘a Taffy who started it all’!

On that note I will conclude and wish Elizabeth and Dianne, Frank O’Shea, Frances Devlin-Glass and all the readers of Tintean, the distinguished Ambassador Breandan O Caollai and his wonderful wife Carmel together with Liz, Una and Anne and all their colleagues in Yarralumla, all the joys and blessings of this 2019 St. Patrick’s Day.

Beannachtai na Feile Padraig oraibh go leir!

Richard O’Brien joined Ireland’s Foreign Service in 1972. He served in London and Washington before becoming Ireland’s first resident ambassador in Poland (1990), adding Lithuania and Latvia the following year. He arrived in Canberra in 1995 as Ambassador to Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, adding UN Member States across the Pacific in 1999. In 2002, he was appointed ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Sudan; in 2006 he was appointed to Singapore, Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor. He served as a member of the Board of the Australia Ireland Fund from 1995 to 2002 and from 2010 to 2015. He Chaired the Irish Studies Committee at the University of New South Wales from 2010 to 2015 and is an Honorary Life Member of Melbourne’s Celtic Club. Richard now lives in Port Macquarie, New South Wales.