The Irish-Speaking Community Remember a champion of the Language
Many in Australia’s Irish language community are saddened by the recent death of an t-Athair Michéal Ó Súileabháin from Cork. For some of us our abiding memory of Fr Michéal is dancing straight-backed in a set at the Sydney annual Irish Language Winter School well into his 80s, and his late-night rendering of Waltzing Matilda in Irish. Even when he could no longer participate easily in the Ard Rang discussions through memory loss in his later years we were nevertheless always delighted with his quiet and smiling presence.
Fr Michael’s mother was Australian-born, and no doubt this influenced his emigration to Sydney in the 1950s after his ordination. The Irish National Association recorded his contribution to Sydney’s Irish culture in 2015 and it can be read at https://irishassociation.org.au/sydney-irish-histories/micheal-osuilleabhain
In 2008 Fr Michéal had a memoir published in An Linn Bhuí, a Waterford Irish language journal. Below are snippets from that memoir.
Tá blas Corcaíoch ar mo chuid cainte cé go bhfuil mé im chónaí san Astráille sé bliana is caoga anois. Bhí mé i mo shagart paróiste i Mascot, an ceantar ina bhfuil aerphort Sydney, ar feadh sé bliana is fiche. D’éirigh mé as an bpost san sé bliana ó shoin. Níl blas cainte mo mháthar ar mo chuid cainte ar aon chor. Rugadh agus tógadh í i Sydney. Is mar seo a tharla gur rugadh in Éirinn mé. Chuaigh mo mháthair agus mo shean-mháthair go hÉirinn chun cuairt a thabhairt ar gaolta i gCo. Ros Comáin. Bhí m’athair, Pádraig Ua Súilleabháin, a rugadh i dtuaisceart Co. Chorcaí, ag rothaíocht mór thimpeall Éireann. Chaith sé oíche sa tigh ósta ‘Strokestown Arms’
I have a Cork accent even though I have lived in Australia for 56 years now. I was a parish priest in Mascot, where Sydney airport is, for 26 years and retired from that position six years ago. I don’t have any trace of my mother’s accent. She was born and bred in Sydney. How I came to be born in Ireland is because my mother and grandmother went on a visit to Ireland to meet relatives in Co. Roscommon. My father, Patrick O Sullivan, who was born in North Cork, was on a round-Ireland cycling trip. He spent a night in the Strokestown Arms.
Fr Michéal continues with an account of his father’s connection with revolutionary leader Michael Collins when Collins was on the run. Fr Michael’s father was a sub editor for The Irish Independent at the time. His house was sometimes used by Collins as a safe place and O’Sullivan also couriered letters from Collins for publication in the newspaper. One particular time O’Sullivan was beaten up by a group of Black and Tans who were looking for the source of a Collins letter published in the paper, and when he would not reveal the source they threw him in the Liffey. While he survived that assault because he was a good swimmer (a regular at Dublin’s Forty Foot), the soldiers destroyed presents brought from Sydney to Australia by his future mother-in-law. His future brother-in-law, however, later brought another ‘present’, this time a gun, a gift for the Volunteers.
Bhris an Cogadh Cathardha amach. Gearradh an t-iarnród idir Cill Airne agus Baile Átha Cliath. Bhí orthu ﬁlleadh ar thraen ó Chill Airne go Luimneach, go Gaillimh, go Sligeach, go Béal Feirste, go Baile Átha Cliath. Fuaireadar pas ó Óglaigh na hÉireann – ‘H. Q. Regular Forces’ – i nGaillimh chun dul trí línte na saighdiúirí.
The article continues with the marriage of Patrick O Sullivan to Sydney-born Mary Connolly and how their honeymoon in Killarney coincided with the Civil War, forcing the young couple to return to Dublin by an elongated route as outlined above, when the railway line between Dublin and Killarney was destroyed. They travelled back to Dublin via Limerick, Galway, Sligo, and Belfast, having obtained a pass from The Irish Volunteers in Galway to take them safely through to Dublin.
Chuir mo thuismitheoirí fúthu i gCóbh, agus is ann a rugadh mo cheathrar deirﬁúr – Eibhlín (1925), Eilís (1926–1983), Máighréad (1934), Gabrielle (1938) – agus mé féin (1927) agus mo dheartháir, Dónal (1928).
Fr Michéal’s parents settled down in Cobh, Co. Cork where they had six children between 1925 and 1938. Fr Michael was born in 1927.
In Eanair na bliana 1939 chuaigh mo mháthair ar ais ar turas go dtí an Astráil agus mo cheathrar deirfiúr léithi. Ní fhaca mé arís iad go dtí gur tháinig said go dtí m’oirniúim Baile Átha Cliath I Meitheamh 1952. Ar dtúis ní raibh siad in ann an Astráil a thréigean. Bhris an Cogadh Domhanda amach (1939–45) agus ní rabhadar in ann filleadh. Fiú amháin nuair a bhí an cogadh críochnaithe, ní raibh longa ag dul na slí.
Fr Michéal’s mother took her four daughters with her to Australia in 1939 unaware that war was about to break out. When World War 11 was over, they still could not return to Ireland as there were no ships operating. As a result, he didn’t see his mother or his sisters again until his ordination in Dublin in 1952. This section of the article is an amusing account of Fr Michéal’s baby nephew having been placed in a basinette at the back of the sacristy under the watchful eye of a couple of students by his sister during the ceremony was the cause of consternation when the sister asked for the baby at the conclusion of the ceremony: Chuaigh sí go dtí an sacraistí agus bhuail sí cnag ar an doras. Tháinig dalta amach. ‘An féidir leat an leanbh a thabhairt dom, le do thoil?’ ‘Cén leanbh?’ Níor chuala sé aon rud i dtaobh linbh. ‘Leanbh Mhichíl Uí Shúilleabháin.’ B’fhéidir gur mhaith an rud é gur fhág mé an Coláiste an lá sin i ndiaidh an oirnithe!
She went to the sacristy and knocked on the door. A student came out. ‘Can you give me the baby, please’. ‘What baby?’ He hadn’t heard anything about a baby. ‘Michael O’Sullivan’s baby’. Maybe it was a good thing I left the College the day after my ordination!
Fr Michéal had a long innings as they say. Had he not become ill in his later years he may have written some more interesting accounts of his life. The Irish National Association of Australasia recorded his contribution to Sydney’s Irish culture in 2015 which can be read at https://irishassociation.org.au/sydney-irish-histories/micheal-osuilleabhain
Michéal was a sagart dílis, a proud Corkman, a lover of Ireland, a teacher and promoter of the Irish language. In the photo above of Fr Michael dancing he is wearing a t-shirt with an amusing take on the well-known Irish saying Ní bheidh mo leithéid ann arís (‘his like will not be seen again’) that regrets someone passing. The words on Fr Michéal’s t-shirt are Ní bheidh mo leithéid ann arís ‘my like will not be seen again’. It’s funny but oh so true.