Nicholas O’Donnell’s Education : A Centenary Reflection

A Feature on a scholar of the Irish Language by Greg Byrnes

One hundred years have passed since the death of Dr Nicholas O’Donnell (1862-1920), an Irish-Australian who needs no introduction to readers of Tinteán . In this centenary year I would like to offer a reflection on his education, in the broadest sense, and share a few details about his teachers which I have gleaned from his ‘Autobiography’.

Education begins at home, and home to Nicholas O’Donnell was a new farm at Bullengarook near Gisborne, Victoria in 1862. His Irish-born parents were still developing the house and land, often with the help of neighbours, and his earliest memories were of such scenes of rural labour. He recalled, for example, travelling with his father in a dray, and remembers seeing him lying wounded after the horse riding accident that led to his death when Nicholas was just three. 

It was thus his widowed mother, Johanna Barry, who was the primary influence on his childhood. Nicholas described her own educational background as follows: 

An Irish farmer’s daughter had little chance of mental cultivation in 1846, ’47 and ’48, the very years when she was of school age. But she could at all points read and write. Afterwards when she kept the shop at Gisborne 1872 to 1876, she practised penmanship from copybooks, and sums from little arithmetic primers, and so greatly improved her handwriting and faculty of computation. Later on when she lived at Separation Street, North Richmond, she read the newspaper voraciously and understood public affairs at the time as well as her compeers of the male sex.  

Joanna’s son therefore had a good role model for love of learning, self-study and critical thinking.

Another of life’s great educators is Nature, and Nicholas, growing up in the country, was familiar with the outdoor life, horse riding and hare shooting, from childhood. Even in later years when living in Melbourne he made regular trips to the bush for holidays. Rather than flora and fauna, as such, it was wide open landscapes that had a particular appeal for him. In addition to longer riding excursions around Gisborne, he later went camping at Mount Buffalo, and organised a horse riding trip up Mount Kosciuszko, and made two visits to the Blue Mountains, to the Jenolan Caves and the Hawkesbury River. I feel it is worth emphasising this side of his character as it is not self-evident in the well-known photograph of Dr O’Donnell as a bespectacled gentleman in a three piece suit.

Turning to his formal schooling, one is struck by its disruption. After elementary instruction ‘of a very haphazard kind’ at Bullengarook, he attended three schools in Melbourne, with interludes at the Catholic School in Gisborne, before returning to the city for Matriculation with a private tutor. Such instability can be disastrous for pupils but there is evidence that Nicholas found the variety stimulating. 

For instance, his recollection of a visiting schoolmaster at Bullengarook testing him and finding fault with his pronunciation hints that the six- or seven-year-old Nicholas was reflecting on his own learning and on the credibility or otherwise of his teachers. Later, aged 14, he was frustrated by an example of the pernicious effect of illogical rules. At St Patrick’s College, Latin was a pre-requisite for the higher classers and lacking this, Nicholas was placed in ‘an infants’ class’ despite ‘running rings around’ his classmates. One can imagine him arguing, ‘Why must I repeat Book One of Algebra just because I haven’t studied Latin?’ In a preview of his later activity as a political campaigner, he made some ‘agitation’ and was eventually promoted but he still felt ‘dissatisfied’. This incident was probably a good lesson, not only in standing up for his beliefs but motivating him to work harder and strive ahead. The frequent changes of geographical location and the regular meeting of new companions must also have built up his adaptability and resilience.

O’Donnell does not elaborate on religious education as such but he recorded that while at St Mary’s School he was taught to serve Mass. His violin teacher was the conductor of the Catholic Church choir in Gisborne and as a university student he regularly attended 11:00 am High Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral which was ‘accompanied by beautiful music’.

With regard to the technical practicalities of schooling, Nicholas noted that it was at St Michael’s, North Melbourne, that he first saw ‘maps and blackboards’. The teachers at Bullengarook might have taught from a slate, or perhaps used no aids at all, not surprising given that one of them taught in a barn. 

On the topic of equipment and technology, by the way, there is an interesting example of extra-curricular, informal teaching, when the thirteen-year-old Nicholas became acquainted with the managers of the Gisborne Times and had the wonderful experience of learning ‘setting type and the mysteries of printing generally’. In a logical development, he later learnt the relatively new art of photography from the celebrated Mr Nettleton of Carlton, and also illustrated his public lectures with lantern slides.

Nowadays, the importance of balancing study with leisure is recognised and encouraged. Nicholas seems to have achieved this naturally. ‘I used to study hard’, he wrote, ‘but I was not averse to fun and sport and social merriment’. Indeed, in his regular country holidays, when he stayed with his Aunt Brigid, he enjoyed weeks of ‘picnics, riding, driving, concerts, balls and sport’.

Mention of concerts is a reminder that Nicholas also had music lessons: the fiddle for about a year and the piano for a few years. He occasionally performed on the latter instrument at public concerts.

As for his teachers themselves, many of them were specifically identified by Nicholas as Irish: ‘ a snuff-taking old Irishman named Grennan…[who] was an ex-military teacher ’ ; Thomas Boyle, ‘a decent man and a good Irish man’ ; D. J. Buckley, ‘an Irishman by birth but had spent about 18 years of his adolescence and youth in France’ ; and ‘Mr Thomas Johnson MA, educated in Dublin’ . Of these, Daniel Buckley was probably Nicholas’ favourite because he wrote: ‘I liked him very much as he took the older boys into his confidence and had none of the “thrashing” and “belting” proclivities…’ of some others.

Nicholas O’Donnell’s education continued, of course, with a medical degree and here there was a shock. He failed First Year. He does not comment on this stark fact, but in addition to the personal disappointment there would have been financial implications for the family.

Once more proving his resilience and ability to learn from his mistakes, Nicholas ‘got back on his horse’ as it were, and ‘succeeded in getting through all subjects triumphantly’. Moreover in third year he ‘got 96% in anatomy’.

The next period of his life was a busy one of setting up his practice, marriage and children, and involvement with social and political organisations. Then came the achievement for which he is particularly noted, his mastery of the Irish language in his late thirties. This is impressive but it is not inexplicable. He had studied English and French at school, added Latin for Matriculation and in a further term, Greek, which was compulsory for medicine. He continued the two classical languages at university as part of his medical course. He therefore knew how to learn a language, and he had the support of a teacher, Thomas Cunningham Curran at the Melbourne Gaelic League and a community of native speakers.

(The question of whether or not Nicholas was familiar with spoken Irish as a child is too complex to go into here). 

What I find more remarkable than his language-learning as such is his stepping up to the role of public facilitator for his fellow learners through his ‘Our Gaelic Column’ in The Advocate from 1901. This column bridged the gap between the last page of the standard Irish primer by Eugene O’Growney and the first page of a Gaelic book or newspaper ( Cf ‘Our Gaelic Column’, The Advocate, 16 August 1902, p. 15). Without any formal training in educational theories, O’Donnell brilliantly hit upon the idea of selecting samples of prose and poetry from the latest Dublin journals and publications, to which he added his own translations with explanatory notes and commentary. The diversity of texts, including humorous pieces, would seem to have had wide appeal. The novelty of his initiative must not be underestimated: at that time, the Gaelic Revival had only just begun and a modern literature could not yet be said to exist. Even such a basic text as Peadar O’Leary’s folk-novel Séadna was not published until 1904. Readers of ‘Our Gaelic Column’ could follow, over the next decade, the development of that literature almost, apart from the shipping delay, in real time. O’Donnell was not just subscribing to Irish journals and buying the latest Gaelic texts but he was in correspondence with Revival leaders themselves, writers such as Douglas Hyde and Patrick Dinneen. He shared these insights with his readers; he became in fact a teacher of others.

After the death of his beloved wife, Molly Bruen, in 1911, and his own stroke in 1912, there was an understandable slowing down of his public activities. On the other hand, this seems to have been accompanied by even deeper private study of both older Irish texts and genealogies for family history research, and the latest prose and poetry inspired by the events of 1916. Nicholas O’Donnell’s life-long learning continued to the end. 

Quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Nicholas O’Donnell’s Autobiography edited by Val Noone, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2017. The author thanks Val Noone for sharing his unpublished research on O’Donnell’s teachers.

Greg Byrnes

Greg Byrnes is a teacher of English to international students in Sydney NSW. In Irish Studies; his research has focused on Gaelic language and literature, some of which has been published in Ireland and Australia.