The Story of Early Melbourne

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

GARRYOWEN UNMASKED. THE LIFE OF EDMUND FINN. By Elizabeth Rushen. Anchor Books 2022. 195 pp.

RP: $34.95

The name Edmund Finn is not widely known among the pioneers of early Victoria. Elizabeth Rushen’s book, as well as being a biography, covers a huge amount of mid-nineteenth-century Melbourne history, filling in many details of what the place was like, both before and after the discovery of gold.

The Finn family was one of 73 from Tipperary town and surrounds among the 206 Irish on the Royal Saxon out of Cork, arriving in Williamstown in July 1841. The family said they were from Galway, because they were afraid that their youngest boy, 19-year old Patrick, was suspected by authorities of association with one of the secret organisations like the Ribbonmen or the Whiteboys. William, the father of the family was a bootmaker, a trade that assured him of many customers in his new country. 

A name that appears frequently in the story of Edmund Finn is that of John O’Shannassy. Two years older than Finn, they attended the same school in Tipperary and renewed their friendship in Melbourne. O’Shannassy involved himself in local politics and was responsible for obtaining a well-paid position in the new Parliament House for his old schoolfriend, at that time earning his uncertain living as a journalist. He was described by one publication as ‘the father of the Melbourne press,’ the writer going on to express his ‘satisfaction at so fitting a termination to a long and arduous connection with the Press.’ His promotion was a bit of a cause celebre, it being known that O’Shanassy was favouring Irish Catholics wherever he could. Finn would remain in his government position for 27 years until seriously poor eyesight put an end to his work.

His family life was unhappy. He and his wife Anne had nine children, only five of whom reached adulthood. Reading between the lines, it might be easy to conclude that by today’s standards, he was not a good husband. Anne was committed to mental institutions on a number of occasions for reasons that ring hollow by modern understanding. He was disappointed in his three sons, all of whom he sent to top private schools of the time; the oldest two became journalists in publications that were either disreputable or anti-Irish; the third, Willy, was part of a group of young men in trouble with the police and died in unexplained circumstances at the age of 23. Not a great deal is known about his daughter Sissy.

Finn’s writings as Garryowen earned him a wide readership. Mostly historical or anecdotal, he had a light touch that might occasionally descend into vulgarity. One article, titled ‘The Bishop’s Erection (a suppressed relic)’ referred to Melbourne’s first Anglican Cathedral, St James. He wrote of a ‘stunted tower’ which the church had and was ‘generally known as ‘the bishop’s erection’.’ At the time he was writing under the Garryowen pseudonym in the 1880s, he was more than twenty years into a kept pledge of abstinence from alcohol which he took at a time when it was beginning to be a problem for him.

He was still working in the Legislative Council when he began his Chronicles of Early Melbourne. It would grow to more than 1000 pages over 68 chapters, concentrating on the period 1835-52. Much of the book consists of his own recollections and those of his friends, as well as newspaper reports from the time. It was not a work of history, and he did not intend it to be, a fact that was hinted by his using his pseudonym. Although he had intended to end the work with the separation of Victoria from New South Wales in 1851, he wrote about the discovery of gold and the changes it made to the State, adding some chapters to bring the account up to its date of publication in 1888. Oddly enough, he skipped over much of the events of the Eureka Stockade of 1854 and its aftermath because of his ‘essentially conservative stance in opposition to political violence’, probably because he felt that corresponding violent protests in Ireland had been such a disaster.

The style of The Chronicles is well summarised by the author as follows,

Finn emphasised the origins of Melbourne’s immigrant community and their various religious, masonic and sectarian affiliations. Often using satire and parody, his delightfully colourful and realistic vignettes cleverly situate readers in the mire of frontier Melbourne and in the self-respecting gentility of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, but he was hampered by the veracity of the information supplied to him, his own failing memory, and his desire to craft a good story.’

As a history of early Melbourne and in particular the role of the Irish, this is a treasure.

Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.