The Nation writers emigrate to Melbourne

By Greg Byrnes

It is a remarkable fact that three writers associated with The Nation newspaper emigrated to Melbourne in the mid-1850s: Edward Hayes, Charles Gavan Duffy and Gerald Henry Supple. Professionally diverse, they shared a deep love of poetry and song. ‘If there is any book of which we never grow tired’, wrote Hayes, ‘it is a book of ballads’. Duffy recalled that

 ‘Willy Reiley’ was the first ballad I ever heard recited, and it made a painfully vivid impression on my mind. I have never forgotten the least incident of it.’

Supple showed his devotion to the muse by continuing to write in his new home, even embracing Australian subject matter.

Charles Gavan Duffy

Their books began in 1843 with Duffy’s The Spirit of the Nation, a small anthology of that journal’s poems, which had immense success and was repeatedly reissued in enlarged editions. In 1845 he brought out The Ballad Poetry of Ireland, which included ‘old ballads’ such as ‘Shule Aroon’ ( discussed in a recent number of Tinteán) and ‘street ballads’ such as ‘Irish Molly’, but the bulk of the collection consisted of ‘Anglo-Irish ballads’ which Duffy defined as ‘the production of educated men with English tongues and Irish hearts’. Supple’s ‘South Munster Clans Marching to Battle’ was among them. The editor’s twenty page ‘Introduction’ is a thoughtful and sensitive essay in literary criticism. Of especial interest to Australian readers is the inclusion of ‘The Emigrant Mother’ of which Duffy wrote:

I found this touching little ballad in an Australian newspaper long before I contemplated visiting that country and was charmed with its fresh feeling and grace. I have not been able to discover the writer’s name.

It was in fact written by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop (1796-1880) of Armagh, who had arrived in Sydney in 1838.

Another poetic harvest was soon ripe for anthologising. In 1855, Hayes, while working as a stockbroker in Leeds, published The Ballads of Ireland. The two handsome volumes, in green covers embossed with the heraldic gold harp, contain five times as many items as Duffy’s work. Hayes dedicated his magnum opus to Duffy and included eight of the latter’s compositions as well as four by Supple. Unlike the earlier editor, however, Hayes classified the poems by genre such as ‘historical ballads’, ‘descriptive ballads’ and so on. Of ‘fairy ballads’ alone there are twenty-seven. Hayes also differed in taste, excluding what he called ‘the contemptible street ballad of today’. In Melbourne, which Hayes reached that same year, he experienced family tragedies and his extensive personal library was auctioned. The silver lining in that dark cloud is that the extant catalogue (available on the State Library of Victoria website) reveals much about this otherwise little-known man, including his wide reading in Irish and European literature. The 30-page ‘Introduction’ to The Ballads of Ireland mentions the work of many continental writers ; that this is no mere parade is shown by the catalogue which is full of titles such as Gems of German Songs, Oeuvres de Lamartine, Spanish Comedies (four volumes), Dante’s Rimario and dozens more, in addition to numerous dictionaries and grammars.

Grave of Charles Gavan Duffy in Glasnevin Cemetery

Duffy arrived in Melbourne in 1856 and as is well known had a successful career in state parliament. It seems that he wrote no more verse here but on a visit home the publisher of The Ballad Poetry of Ireland requested he revise that work and this appeared as the thirty-ninth edition (1866).

Supple settled in Melbourne a year after Duffy,1857, and practised law and journalism. Tragically, in 1870, he was involved in a bizarre shooting incident in Latrobe Street which led him to spend several years in Pentridge Gaol before being released in 1878, on compassionate grounds. While incarcerated he penned a touching address to the winds as a symbol of freedom, a long poem which includes the verses:

Dreary captive’s soul rejoices – life, long missed, is in your voices

As ye shout around his prison walls your song of liberty…

It appeared in the Melbourne Australasian on 15 April 1876.

Supple promptly moved to New Zealand where he lived with his sisters and continued to write in reduced circumstances. Alone of the three, he explored in verse the history and contemporary life of the southern continent, such as the voyage of William Dampier, the goldfields and the Melbourne Volunteers. These were published by George Robertson and Co (Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide) in 1892 as Dampier’s Dream (An Australasian Foreshadowing) and Some Ballads which included reprints of his well-known earlier poems such as ‘Columbus’ and ‘The Sally from Salerno’. The publication was due to the efforts of sympathisers who hoped to raise funds for the impoverished and nearly blind author.

Evidence of social contact among the three literary immigrants while in Melbourne is not readily available but there may have been letters, messages by word of mouth and even face-to-face meetings.

Duffy retired from politics in 1880 and went to live in France, yet as late as 1892 he further contributed to the Irish renaissance with an address in London on ‘The revival of Irish Literature’ as part of the series that saw Douglas Hyde deliver his landmark lecture on ‘The Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland’ which led to the formation of the Gaelic League.

Hayes had died in 1870 and is buried in Melbourne General Cemetery beneath a beautiful Celtic Cross. Supple died in New Zealand in 1898 and Duffy in France in 1903.

Hayes Family Grave, Melbourne General Cemetery. Photograph, Val Noone


Duffy, Dunlop and Supple have entries in The Australian Dictionary of Biography. For Hayes, see Val Noone, Hidden Ireland in Victoria, Ballarat Heritage Services, 2012.

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.