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Exhibition launch: *Not Just Ned: A true history of the Irish in Australia

Daniel Gilbert, Simon Crean, Frances Fitzgerald, Tom Keneally and Andrew Sayers, 16 March 2011

ANDREW SAYERS: Hello everybody. Thank you our piper, Maynard Gold. What a great evening! What a fantastic crowd! I would like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay respects to their elders past and present. I should like to introduce the chair of the National Museum of Australia, Danny Gilbert.

DANNY GILBERT: Thank you, Andrew. Welcome everybody. It’s terrific to have such a large crowd here. We have a number of distinguished guests who I would like to pay a special welcome to: the Hon. Simon Crean, Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and, importantly, Minister for the Arts; the Hon. Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Privacy and Freedom of Information, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Justice; Miss Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children of the Government of Ireland. It really is a great pleasure to have you here, minister, because you were only elected a week ago. Congratulations and a very warm welcome.

The Irish ambassador, Mr Máirtín Ó Fainín, is here with us today. You have been a great supporter of this exhibition and given us wonderful encouragement and support. It’s really terrific to have you with us today when the demands on your time with St Patrick’s Day tomorrow are many and varied, and to your wife Mrs Anne Ó Fainín as well. I also welcome Ms Caitriona Ingoldsby, Consul General of Ireland, our special guest Tom Keneally, who you will hear from later who needs no introduction, members of the diplomatic corps, members of the Commonwealth and ACT governments, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Not Just Ned: a true history of the Irish in Australia.

I want to say something very briefly about this National Museum of ours. The National Museum of Australia is an enormously important institution in the cultural life of Australia. The museum offers every Australian the opportunity to engage with this very complex and often contested question of what it is to be an Australian, and of course the history of our nation is at the very heart of this question. The role of the Museum is to tell the story of our rich history of what we are justly proud, of what we are a bit unsure of and where we could have done better. But as well it’s here to entertain us, and you will be entertained tonight.

Those of us who could attend the National Press Club today had the privilege from hearing from our – I was going to say new director; he’s fairly new; he’s been with us several months now. Andrew Sayers gave to the audience and to the press his vision for the National Museum. His speech will be on the website of the National Museum shortly. I commend it to you all. It’s important and good reading.

With what I have just said about this Museum, this exhibition fits very perfectly with the role of the National Museum in telling the story of the history of Australia. There can hardly be a more important story than the Irish Australian story. It’s been integral to the making of our nation and to the building of our nation. There are many stories told in this exhibition. I have had a brief look at it - it’s incredible - but to do justice to the work that’s been done here, you will need to spend two or three days here. Don’t expect to see it all tonight. It’s hugely rich in detail. We are grateful for the many institutions, individuals, families who have made their precious objects available to us from all over the country and overseas as well.

We believe that the exhibition will be a huge success. It follows the very large success of the Canning Stock Route exhibition, which many of you will have seen. That exhibition broke all previous records for us with some 122,000 visitors.

The Not Just Ned exhibition is a home-grown product of this Museum. It fulfils one of our strategic goals, which is to make maximum use of the intellectual and collection resources which we have here in Canberra. Richard Reid, the curator, will be wandering around tonight. If you can grab him, he is full of fabulous stories about the work that’s been done and his knowledge is extraordinary. He and his team have done a truly outstanding job. With that hear, hear!, I think we should give him and his team thanks in anticipation of what you will see. [applause].

As I said at the outset, we have had the enthusiastic and enormously important support of the Irish community led by the Ambassador of Ireland. Ambassador, once again thank you for your help. You will enjoy this exhibition. It’s truly marvellous thank you for coming. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Danny. We have a special treat for you tonight: the Alan Kelly quartet direct from Ireland. Would you please make welcome to the National Museum of Australia the Alan Kelly quartet.

ALAN KELLY: Thank you very much, we are very honoured to be invited here on this very special occasion. We are doing a concert here tomorrow night, but tonight we are going to do one number and we are going to have Steph to sing a beautiful song called The Parting Song. We hope you will like it.

[Song played]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you Alan, Stef, Tola and Anthony from the Alan Kelly quartet. I would now like to introduce the Hon. Simon Crean MP, Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government and Minister for the Arts to address us.

SIMON CREAN: Thank you very much, Andrew. It’s a pleasure to be in this wonderful institution for this auspicious opening. For those of us from Irish background and those of us in politics, this is an interesting conjunction of a couple of days because 15 March is the one that we are always told to be wary of - we have passed that without event yesterday – and we can then get into the celebrations associated with St Patrick’s Day. It’s a pleasure to be here for the opening of this great exhibition which I have had the opportunity to have a look around and also to be in the company of other great aspects of Irish culture in Australia: not just the politicians but the great storytellers such as Tom Keneally, who tells great Australian stories but in particular the role of the Irish amongst us. To the beautiful voice and music that was heard there before, I always have a soft spot for Irish music. Between pubs, Irish music and politics, you never have a dull moment where those ingredients are involved.

Frances, welcome to Australia. It is interesting that both of our governments took some time to form themselves. Delighted we are that we did, of course, and congratulations to you, but also to your long service in the parliament now being recognised in the role as minister. We are delighted you are here with us and that the diaspora visits that were sanctioned by the new government continue to include Australia.

I am also pleased to acknowledge my ancestry, because my great-grandfather came from Tralee in county Kerry. They settled in Kerang, which has been heavily flooded recently - I was just up there - and my father was born in Hamilton. It was wonderful to see that preserved ancient elk head’s antlers which was down on a property in Hamilton. My great-great-uncle, Tom Crean, was an explorer of note. He was in the Shackleton as well as the ill-fated Scott expeditions to the Antarctic - [sound of bell ringing] appropriate ringing of the bell. He came through both of those and of course did what all good Irishmen should do: opened a pub. The South Pole Inn still stands. Whilst it’s not still in the family, his daughter Mary still lives down there near the pub. She’s 93. My father passed away at the same age. My mother is still alive. I simply note that in terms of the longevity in our genes. I have been a determined politician all my life. I intend to stay that way. But I do not just have determination; I have the genes on my side as well.

To all of you, thank you for being here tonight. I had the occasion as leader of the Labor Party back in 2003 to be part of another great St Patrick’s Day celebration in Melbourne. They always turn out great numbers for them, but on that occasion the current President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was there. It was a wonderful occasion.

To you Máirtín, thank you for all that you have done in making sure that this story, the true story, is told. We have always been welcomed hospitably and genuinely whenever functions are held there, particularly for the St Patrick’s Day occasion. It is my pleasure to be here as Minister for the Arts but to welcome you Frances. We look forward to not only your visit and the continuing strengthening of the relationship between our two countries but also the great success of this exhibition. It deserves it. Enjoy it. And happy St Patrick’s Day for tomorrow. Thank you. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Minister. It is fantastic to have with us this evening Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Children in the Government of Ireland. Would you please make welcome the minister.

FRANCES FITZGERALD: Good evening everyone. It’s a wonderful pleasure to be here with you this evening. Chair of council, Mr Daniel Gilbert, and National Museum of Australia council members, director Mr Andrew Sayers, members of the diplomatic corps, Minister, parliamentary colleagues, distinguished guests: this is, I think, an evening of firsts. Never before in this multicultural country has the National Museum attempted a major exhibition based on a specific migrant group. We are delighted and honoured that the Irish in Australia have been recognised in this way in this exhibition. We have very major populations of Irish descent in the UK, USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and elsewhere as well as Australia, but an exhibition of this scope and focus has never before been attempted. I do want to commend the vision, the scholarship and the hard work behind it. [applause] I have no doubt that it will be a model that many others will follow.

On a more personal level, this is my own first engagement on my first overseas visit since assuming office as minister. In fact, since our government, as has been said, was only appointed one week ago today, it is one of my first engagements anywhere since I took up office. [applause].

What a pleasure it has been. I have had a sneak preview and I have to say it felt like coming home, because it reminded me of my schooling in primary and secondary school with the stories of the Fenians and my history lessons. My father is from Cork with the Fenian connections there. And of course Archbishop Mannix: I used to visit a town called Charleville which had Mannix Place, Mannix Street, Mannix Square, so another connection there. I also have connections with the Curragh, and of course the Melbourne Cup is in there. There are great connections with the horse racing industry between Ireland and Australia.

As I say, a huge resonance and emotional connection at the exhibition tonight. That is what most people who go to the exhibition will feel. Whatever the experience, whether being born in Australia or Ireland or of Irish descent, it tells a wonderful story in great detail. One can see the hard work that went into getting it together and the effort that was made to find exhibits that previously had not been shown publicly at all. It is very exciting from that point of view.

I want to briefly say to you that the new Irish government has many important and urgent challenges to deal with, as you are well aware, at home, but it has long been our custom to engage directly with our communities abroad around St Patrick’s Day and to mark our national day by re-engaging with our friends around the world. We have never needed our friends more and we certainly were not going to miss this event here in the most Irish country in the world apart from Ireland itself.I am delighted on behalf of the new Irish government to join with you today in celebrating the ties between our great nations and look forward to a future of continuing cooperation and friendship.

On occasions such as this, it is almost impossible to mention everyone who deserves thanks and recognition, but I will be forgiven for expressing my particular appreciation to senior curator Richard Reid and his curatorial staff [applause] as well as the many people on the staff of the National Museum who have invested so much of themselves in making the exhibition happen. It is a marvellous exhibition but I do have to say that, looking around the room here this evening and knowing what I do about Irish-Australian relationships, it may be that the most exciting bits of the relationship between Australia and Ireland have not yet been written about and there is much more to say and tell about the relationship between our two countries.

I believe that some tremendous personal insights are going to emerge in that room over there over the coming five months. I think a lot of Australians will be inspired to find out more about their own Irish heritage and I hope they will enjoy the resource room, which you will see before you leave the exhibition. It has plenty of information about Ireland and access to some fascinating genealogical resources to get you started.

The Irish government has sponsored an oral history project, which you will see in the resource room as well, called ‘Tell your Irish story’. I want to let you into a secret: just before we came in here Tom Keneally videoed a short piece for that project, and you can go in and look at that later on.

I would also like to pay a particular tribute to the Irish ambassador here, Máirtín Ó Fainín, and his wife Anne for what they have done for us here in Australia and for their wonderful representation for us during their period here in Australia. [applause] Not surprisingly, and I will conclude by saying this: there are some tourist brochures in there as well. If you are inspired to pursue your Irish story to its original source, do think about visiting Ireland. I can assure you of a very warm welcome and some very good value as well. Thank you very much indeed. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Minister. And now I would like to welcome Tom Keneally, one of our much-loved historians and authors, to open the exhibition.

TOM KENEALLY: You have been standing for a while so I have cut it down from two hours 10 minutes to one hour 45 minutes. The Hon. Simon Crean and the Hon. Brendan O’Connor, and Miss Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children, congratulations on your accession to power, minister. If Simon’s crowd don’t do an adequate economic job and you revive the Irish economy, I hope you will tolerate all us economic refugees coming home to you again but I am sure Simon has got things under control. Irish ambassador Máirtín Ó Fainín, who is joined here tonight by a great former ambassador too. The Irish government has been kind enough to send us nothing but brilliant ambassadors from Joe [James] Sharkey to Joe Small to Richard O’Brien and to you. Other distinguished members of the diplomatic corps, director and council of the museum, Dr Reid the curator who has produced a splendid exhibition.

The definition of what Irish is is a sliding term in Australian history. When the Irish were maligned, and that was very frequently in the past, it was generally Irish Catholics or else members of the Protestant bourgeoisie who sympathised with Irish Catholics and who were therefore labelled as Irish as a punishment. For example, the Defenders, a loosely-organised Catholic self defence group transported to the penal colony on the transport Queen in 1791 were suddenly damnable Irish, but so was the Presbyterian United Irishman Joseph Holt. So much later was the member of the House of Commons and son of an Irish baronet William Smith O’Brien, who is part of the exhibition, who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land for the abortive famine uprising of 1848.

When for example Sir Henry Parkes, who was a great man but didn’t like the Irish, declared the Irish ‘unsuitable immigrants’ or passed the Treason Felony Act of 1868 after the attempt on the life of Prince Alfred by [Henry James] O’Farrell, there was a certain kind of Irishman he was not inveiging against. He wasn’t talking about Lord Belmore, the urbane and enlightened governor of New South Wales, an Ulster man, and he was not talking about Sir Samuel McCaughey, Antrim-born famous philanthropist and pastoralist.

He was talking about the Irish class and farm labouring Irish from which many of us were sprung. He was also talking about Catholics of whom he felt a lifetime suspicion that has vanished now from Australian life. That type of Australian - those named with contempt the Irish - were under suspicion here for at least a century and a half, from the Defenders to the United Irishmen, to the orphaned girls of the famine workhouses who were sent here by Earl Grey.

The discrimination and suspicion was not dead, for example, when my father enlisted as a volunteer in World War II. It was not dead when my brother-in-law, great-grandson of a transported Irish ribbonman won a DFC and bar and DSO flying a nearly unprecedented 84 missions in World War II. Despite suspicion and hysteria, despite the honest 40,000 alarmed citizens who signed a petition of protest when our first Prime Minister [Edmund] Barton received a medallion from the Pope, the old excluding use of the word ‘Irish’ has died. The old divisions are gone now in Ireland itself and here, and the gulf between both kinds of Irish are exhibited and honoured here in those chambers behind us.

I am delighted to see Lord Belmore honoured. When the prince was wounded by a would-be assassin at Clontarf in Sydney, Belmore warned Parkes that, once he let the dogs of sectarianism run, he would not get them back into their kennels for two or three generations. I am glad to see honoured in there not only Ned but [Sir] Redmond Barry, another distinguished Irishman, who condemned Ned to death - a bit of a shortcoming. I am delighted to see honoured the progressive Governor Bourke, landlord of Limerick, and of course Belmore was also a landlord in Enniskillen. I am delighted to Governor [Charles Gavan] Duffy, eight times tried for sedition in Dublin and migrant to Australia, who very quickly became premier and land reformer of Victoria. I am always delighted to see Eureka. The Irish were blamed for it, so we might as well take the credit.

I am delighted that Catalpa is there. I believe there’s a man here tonight who is a descendant of Captain [George] Anthony, the Yankee captain who came to Western Australia purely in the name of adventure and freedom to liberate the last of the life sentence serving Fenians in 1876. It’s one of the greatest stories in Australia, and Catalpa has lost its radioactivity, its capacity to divide people and it is well exhibited in there. Until recently it was buried under a layer of old sectarian suspicion, and I believe that the ABC would not allow the playing of The Catalpa song until the 1970s.

I am glad to see Les Darcy, who wanted to fight but not for the Empire. Also Daniel Mannix, often accused of being a major figure in the defeat of conscription referendums; the Sinn Féiners; the beautiful monstrances which are now no longer looked upon as a pertinence of barbarity; but also part of our history are exhibits to do with the Orange Lodge. Here is honoured both the Irish liberal loyalist tradition which contributed so much to Australia as well as the kind of people John Dunmore Lang and Parkes lambasted when they used the term ‘Irish’ as a form of condemnation.

What do we learn from this history? Because I am one of the oldest people in the room, I am going to try to say what we learn. Dare I say it to so many distinguished folk, we learn that Australia, while both sides fought and often despised each other, was making the same man and the same woman of us all. We learn that religious and cultural hysteria of the kind that grazes on still like a great evil ruminant in our society is generally unnecessary and plain stupid.

We realise, to paraphrase Robert Emmet, that the despised are often nobler than those who despise them. We realise there are communities today who are painted as if they are little less than Australian the way the Irish community was 100 years ago. Australia is unimaginable without the Irish, without the Italians, without the Greeks; yet when I was a kid there were people who wanted them begone from the scene, wanted them to go and leave Australia monochrome and boring.

And all that sectarian and racial passion and all that hysteria was expended for what? It was a waste of emotion and a brake on the fraternity of the Commonwealth. That is what this exhibition displays: it displays the Irish becoming Australians, making their own version of Irishdom within Australia. It is also a graphic rendering of the high colour and drama of the Irish on this continent. Our poorest ancestors are validated tonight and so is whatever Irish blood - whatever that may be: Viking, Cromwellian soldier or Celt – honoured here by Dr Reid whatever Irish blood we carry. I declare this exhibition open and unleash you to enjoy it. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Tom. We couldn’t have had a better person to open Not Just Ned: a true history of the Irish in Australia. You just follow the St Patrick’s banner and you will see the exhibition in all of its glory. There are a couple of people we need to thank this evening in addition to the extraordinary National Museum of Australia team who have put this exhibition together. You will see in its richness and detail and its presentation just how much and how many people have worked so hard to bring off a great exhibition. I salute you all and thank you very much. [applause]

We also thank our sponsors: The History Channel whose documentary on The Irish in Australia will screen tomorrow night; Capital Wines are providing the wines this evening; and I would like to echo the thanks for the great support we have had from the Embassy of Ireland; and from the Irish Abroad Unit and Culture Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs of Ireland. We have an innovation this evening, and that is we have a shop that you actually exit as you come out of the exhibition. The catalogue is just fantastic, beautiful. In fact I can see it glowing on the floor. It’s also a great labour of love by the National Museum of Australia. Please enjoy the exhibition and have a great St Patrick’s Day. Good night.

Date published: 28 April 2011