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Sinners, Saints and Settlers: book launch

Ms Orla Tunney, Brendon Kelson, Dr Richard Reid and Mathew Trinca, 7 September 2010

MAT TRINCA: His Excellency Mr David Daly, Ambassador of the European Union to Australia, and his wife Aideen and Senator Ursula Stephens, Senator for New South Wales and Parliamentary Secretary for Inclusion and the Voluntary Sector, and Ms Orla Tunney, the deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Ireland in Canberra, ladies and gentlemen: Good morning and welcome to the launch of Sinners, Saints and Settlers: A Journey through Irish Australia. My name is Mathew Trinca and I am the Assistant Director for Collections, Content and Exhibitions at the National Museum of Australia (NMA).

Before we start proceedings, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the country in which we meet today, the Ngambri Ngunnawal people of the Canberra region, and also to welcome other Indigenous Australians who might be with us today. I should also tell you that this event is being recorded so that it might be available on the Museum’s website as an audio of demand program.

This is a great day for the Museum and for all the people who have been involved in the production of this book. It’s the culmination of a great deal of work by our two collaborators, Richard Reid and Brendon Kelson and also for the team at the NMA responsible for bringing it to press, especially Julie Simpkin, the editor, and Sarah Evans, the designer. Sinners, Saints and Settlers is part of a wide-ranging NMA project to document the long history of the Irish people in Australia. It’s a project which will culminate next year in a major temporary exhibition on the Irish in Australia to open, of course, on St Patrick’s Day. And later, after the exhibition run here in Canberra, we intend to take the exhibition to Dublin, to our good friends at the National Museum of Ireland, and then on to Belfast.

But this book is not the catalogue of the exhibition. It stands on its own, exploring Irish presence in this country as revealed through the study of 55 places across the continent. In the book you will find stories of the Irish convict experience. You will learn about the nature of general immigration from Ireland between 1788 and the present. Key moments when Irish nationalism became an issue in Australia, like the discussion around Home Rule, the Young Irelanders in Tasmania, the 1798 memorial in Sydney and of course Archbishop Mannix’s support for Irish independence. There are also iconic Irish-Australian stories, such as that of the Kelly gang and the Eureka rebellion. There are the contributions of the Irish born to general Australian social, economic and political development, the key role of the Irish in the Catholic Church in Australia and the ways in which the Irish presence in this country still echoes today.

All of this would not have been possible without the great support of the Embassy of Ireland in Canberra and Jim Murphy, both of whom have supported the project with financial contributions. I am particularly delighted that we are joined today by Ms Orla Tunney of the Embassy of Ireland. Orla is the deputy head of mission and responsible for political and economic affairs at the Embassy. I would now like to invite her to the podium to officially launch the volume.

ORLA TUNNEY: Thank you, Mat, and good morning everyone. It’s always a pleasure to be at the National Museum of Australia. It’s an institution that we are very fond of and we prize our collaboration with the Museum very much at the Embassy of Ireland. Today it’s a particular pleasure to be here on the occasion of the launch of Sinners, Saints and Settlers. I am honoured to be asked to launch this book and to represent Ireland here today.

The Irish Constitution in Article 2 includes this line: ‘The Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’ That is in article 2 of our constitution so it is pretty high up there in terms of the basic foundations of what it means to be Irish and what we represent at the Embassy. In Australia, which is a major diaspora nation, it’s a very important part of our work reaching out to those of Irish heritage in Australia and working with them.

Over the years many hundreds of thousands of people left Ireland. Most of them would have probably preferred to have been able to stay but sadly, for one reason or another, that wasn’t possible for them. But after they left, they retained an affection for Ireland which has been passed on through the generations and which is the unique asset for Ireland today. Irish migrants and their descendants became Australian but they retained memories of Ireland and an affinity with many aspects of what we like to call the Irish character.

Very many of the descendants have a love of Irish culture – and thank you to the musician today representing the Irish culture in that very lively way for us - and an interest in Irish history. The support of the Irish diaspora has been vital to Ireland economically and politically. As you will read in the book we celebrate today, their active interest helped in Ireland’s struggle for independence. More recently, the diaspora was also mobilised to support the successful peace process in Northern Ireland. We are proud of our global Irish family and its solidarity across the miles and down through the generations. This manifests itself in many ways, from the major economic conference for a diaspora of business leaders which our Prime Minister held in Ireland last year to collaborations such as this one that we have with the Museum in celebrating the achievements and the growth of Irish communities around the world.

It is not surprising therefore that, when the embassy was initially approached to support the publication of this book, we reacted with great enthusiasm. I also want to acknowledge the other supporters of the book, including the National Australian-Irish Business Association and in particular Mr Jim Murphy. Now, Richard and Brendon may not be aware of this but, thanks to the embassy’s financial interest in the publication of the book, we do retain a copy of the original pitch on our file and it is itself an interesting historical document. Looking back over it before this launch, I noticed a strong thread in that submission, which was that the book was to be a popular and accessible work aimed at a broad rather than an academic readership. I am not going to say anything against academics, particularly in this company, but I would like to say that this aspect of the book’s mission resonates very much with me. This Museum is a wonderful place to celebrate reaching out to the ordinary people of Australia, to new audiences, to people who aren’t particularly interested in history but who just have a general curiosity about their society and about what went into shaping it.

I want to thank Richard Reid and Brendon Kelson for the very considerable work that they put into their mission, each bringing his own strength and experience to what is a wonderful book, which I commend to you all. It brings a fresh view to many aspects of the history which binds us together as Irish and as Australians. I like the focus in the book on learning the stories behind public monuments. The theme of the familiar being re-examined and revealing a deeper significance is an exciting one which recurs throughout the book. I expect and I hope that this theme will be developed further in the exhibition to open next year on the Irish in Australia, when Australians will be invited to discover how so many features of this great society came to be in existence here and in particular how many of them were influenced by Irish thinking. Inviting people to see a new meaning behind the familiar is a worthwhile philosophical and cultural endeavour, and I commend this book for inviting us all to take a step along that path.

I am not sure what the protocol is for launching a book. I understand I don’t break a bottle of champagne on it. In launching the book, I would like to open it and invite you all to read it. Thank you very much. [applause]

MAT TRINCA: Thank you, Orla, for those kind, generous words and also thank you for the continued support that we have felt from the Embassy. The Ambassador, Máirtín O’Fainín, has been a great supporter of these projects. I would appreciate you conveying to him our deep thanks for the work that the Embassy is doing on behalf of this book and also the work to come. Thank you.

Many of you will know Brendon Kelson, the co-author and photographer for Sinners, Saints and Settlers. Mr Kelson is a former director of the Australian War Memorial and was closely involved in the development of the National Gallery of Australia. Could you now please welcome Mr Brendon Kelson to the podium.

BRENDON KELSON: Good morning. A long gestation, yes, but finally a good delivery. We had the assistance of three top Irish midwives, ambassadors Richard O’Brien, Declan Kelly and Máirtín O’Fainín. Our thanks to them, the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and to our own Jim Murphy for encouragement and valued financial support. Richard and I have in the book expressed our appreciation to the many who have helped us along the way to which I would like to add my thanks to the staff of the Museum who brought the project to conclusion.

The historical evidence of the Irish in Australia is all about us - monuments and memorials, churches and cemeteries, fine estates and humble cottages, rural landscapes and ruins, around pubs, racecourses and football clubs, and in verse and song. Take the Bagot handicap run at Flemington racecourse every New Year’s Day. Robert Cooper Bagot, a civil engineer from County Kildare, first transformed the Melbourne Cricket Club and then more famously Flemington racecourse. He turned the evil-smelling centre marsh into the flat, made horse racing a sport for the ordinary citizen and set the example and standard for racecourses right around Australia.

What about Australian public houses? I wonder how many haven’t been run or owned by Irishmen or their descendants at one time or another? Think of the Shamrock, Harp, Killarney and Daniel O’Donnell hotels dotted across the country. And there opposite Flinders Street station sits Young and Jackson, Melbourne’s famous watering hole bought in 1875 by two Irish diggers, Henry Young and Thomas Jackson.

Everyone knows of the blarney stone set in the tower of Blarney Castle, County Cork, the kissing of which is supposed to endow one with sweet, persuasive, wheedling eloquence. But did you know there is a blarney stone in the village of Killarney in the western district of Victoria? Some years ago an enterprising young fellow thought he might turn the local hostelry into a sort of Bunratty Castle, pull in the tourists and make a quid or two. A first move was to acquire a large block of Port Fairy basalt, pop it along the highway and declare it to be the blarney stone at Killarney. The venture never took off, but the stone remains. Tourist coaches continued to stop, and some passengers were even attempted to kiss the stone until a local resident felt obliged to say, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you, a lot of long-legged dogs pass this way.’

When you think of shopping, David Jones and Myer might come to mind, but the Ahearns, Lowes and Moore have been there too. Mark Foys, with its piazza, chandeliers, marble and sumptuous ballroom, was for most of the last century a Sydney institution and one of Australia’s foremost fashion stores. Older Melburnians will remember well the stamp and style of the Buckley and Nunn Emporium in Bourke Street. David Jones it may be now, but the city’s pun survives: You’ve two chances, Buckley’s and none.

Monuments and memorials are everywhere. Waverley cemetery has perhaps the finest of all memorials to the United Irishmen’s insurrection of 1798. At the top end of Swanson Street stands Sir Redmond Barry remembered here not for sentencing Ned Kelly to be hanged but as the founder of the now State Library of Victoria and the University of Melbourne. At the other end of town are the Melbourne tragic figures of Bourke and Wills.

On North Terrace suffragette Mary Lee has her gaze fixed on the stronghold of South Australian conservatism, the Adelaide Club. CY [Charles Yelverton] O’Connor reflects on Fremantle harbour, the first of his two great engineering feats, the second being the water pipeline to Kalgoorlie. For heroes, look no further than the graves of Martin O’Meara, Victoria Cross and Father John Fahey, Distinguished Service Order, in Perth’s Karrakatta cemetery.

The Irish in Australia have achieved much in sport, but next time you pass through Maitland you might pause to take a look at the bronze figure of Les Darcy, once the golden boy of Australian boxing, tragically dead at 21. The list goes on. If you are out towards Gulgong, New South Wales, 11 kilometres down the road to the south east there is a sign which reads simply ‘Home rule’. Nothing beside remains to tell you of the hopes and aspirations of a number of Irish gold prospectors who worked and passed this way in the early 1870s.

In the first 50 years of Federation, Australia had six Irish-Australian prime ministers. You might consider among other things how much this country has changed by taking a glance at how two of them lived to the ends of their days. John Curtin’s bungalow sits in a quiet street in Cottesloe, Western Australia, and Ben Chifley’s cottage is a short step from the railway yards in Bathurst, New South Wales.

A strong Irish thread runs through our literature, language and our larrikin tradition with some here, I am sure, remembering 1960s Melbourne when Tram 16 travellers on Glenferry Road might have read a question on the billboard outside the Hawthorn Church of Christ, ‘What would you do if Jesus came to Hawthorn?’ and the scored answer below it, ‘Move Peter Hudson to centre half forward.’ Thank you. [applause]

MAT TRINCA: Thanks, Brendon, for those words and also for your long labours on this project which has resulted in such a fine volume. Thank you very much.

Our last speaker is Dr Richard Reid, co-author of the book and the senior curator leading the development of the Irish in Australia exhibition. Dr Reid is a well-known and respected public historian, a former high school teacher of history and English and museum education officer. He also leads historical tours to Ireland and the Western Front and Gallipoli battlefields. Please welcome Dr Reid to the podium.

Dr RICHARD REID: Thank you, Mat. Most of the thank yous have been said so I am not going to go over them again. They have come from me as much as from Brendon. But I would like to acknowledge the presence of my wife who is here today and thank her for her forbearance over the years on as she says ‘an endless number of projects’ and it doesn’t seem to be going to stop.

I thought we were going to be upstaged here this morning. I thought that the Independents on the Hill would be making their announcement and that would be it, there would be no Canberra Times photographer etc. But I am pleased to say that might happen this afternoon for Dr Peter Stanley’s launch so they might be all over there for that.

It reminded me that around 1898 or 1899 - I have forgotten the exact year - the Irish upstaged the Australian constitution in its final drafting. Robert Garran was in the Windsor hotel in Melbourne along with Robert Kingston and Toby ‘pisspot’ Barton - isn’t that a wonderful description of him? He enjoyed the odd wine. Anyway, these gentlemen went to bed progressively through the night as the final draft was being done, leaving Garran alone to send the draft out to be printed for the coming day’s discussion in the assembly on these matters. As he left the hotel that morning - I don’t know if you know the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne, it is very close to the Parliament House in Melbourne - he looked up the road and he saw this crowd gathering and he thought, ‘Ah, they have come to congratulate us on our labours on finally finishing the Australian constitution.’ But as he approached and got closer, he discovered they were actually Irishmen gathering to celebrate the St Patrick’s Day march that day. I have never forgotten that particular image in my mind of that.

I was very pleased that Mat acknowledged country here this morning, the Indigenous people of this land. We could perhaps acknowledge another Irish association with this very site, which I uncovered in the Mitchell Library on my labours for the exhibition, and that was a lovely little program - in fact two or three of them - for the St Patrick’s Day races that used to be held here at Acton and actually the Museum occupies a little bit of that ground. I was pleased to come across that. So I acknowledge those who used to go to the St Patrick’s Day races here in Canberra in the 1930s.

I laboured long and hard in thinking what does an author say about something that you have finished. What can you say about a book that you have written? It’s pretty hard. A lot of it can be egotistical babblings about things. But I thought I would try to share with you a few of the pictures that I got in my mind when writing this book.

I have a little quote that I want to read you from a gentleman called Henry Glassie, who I am sure you have never heard of. He is an ethnographic historian based in Boston and he spent a great many years - nearly as many years as we took to write this book, ten years - studying a little tiny piece of a parish in County Fermanagh in Ireland, a little place called Balymalone. He looked at this in incredible detail but he came up with this quote about history. I have always liked it and I thought this is what I have been trying to do in this book, ‘History is not the past but a map of the past drawn from a particular point of view to be useful to the modern traveller.’ That’s what this book seems to me to be trying to do from my point of view. If you were travelling around and looking at various things in Australia, what could I say to you if I can hold you for five or ten minutes? By the way, that’s my experience as a tour guide or as an education officer, ten minutes is probably what you have got anywhere to say something to somebody. I will make sure I don’t go on for more than ten minutes.

Let me just share with you a few of these placers and the kind of things that emerge from them. If you were to visit the suburb of Box Hill in Melbourne - I don’t know how many of you have ever been to Box Hill; it’s a very significant suburb in Melbourne - and go to the Uniting Church there you would see there a beautiful Willis pipe organ. You would look at it, on one side it has ‘God is love’ written up on the wall and the other side ‘Jesus is Lord’ and you might think here on Sundays people gather to praise God, to say their prayers and everything else. It would come as a considerable shock to you to realise that this organ once stood in the ballroom of an Irishman called Henry ‘Money’ Miller. I have to confess in advance that I am very sorry that this Irishman was a Presbyterian and not a Roman Catholic. It would have suited my purposes much better if he had been Catholic, and you will see why.

This organ originally stood in his ballroom at Findon in Kew. Miller was known to be the greatest miser of his generation in Melbourne, giving nothing to charity whatsoever. He was visited in 1888, the celebration of the first 100 years of European-Australia, by one little character called George Meudell. Meudell wrote this book called The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift. He was called to see Henry ‘Money’ Miller in his dying years, and he found him in the billiard room, quite close to where the ballroom was, counting coins. In fact he was counting something called Jimmy Goblins. A ‘Jimmy Goblin’ I looked up this morning is a British slang word for gold sovereigns, and this is how he describes this elderly Irish miser. We don’t think of them like that; we think of them as quite different. But here he is:

… what a lovely dotage to be in, just to do nothing but sit all day playing with new yellow ‘Jimmy Goblins’, to absorb their glitter and harken to their click and clink … to spend a long life gathering money, piling it up, seeing it grow without spending more than keeps one alive … indulging one’s ruling passion to the utmost right to the door of death.

What a brilliant picture of an Irishman in Australia that sums up another aspect of the Irish presence. Another comment made about Miller was that ‘His counting house is his church, his ledger is his Bible and money is his God.’ How appropriate that the organ from his ballroom has ended up in the Uniting Church in Box Hill - that’s what I say. So if you happen to be passing through Box Hill, stop and take a look at this beautiful pipe organ. By the way, could we get that for the exhibition? Let’s wrench it out.

Another image of an Irishman that is very different and a gentleman you will all know is Daniel Mannix. If you go to Melbourne there is a statue of Daniel Mannix outside St Patrick’s cathedral in Melbourne. You might have thought that that has been there forever. In fact, originally there used to be a statue there of Daniel O’Connell, the great liberator of Ireland, the emancipator and so on. That was taken down - I think by Archbishop Hara - taken out, laid on its back and forgotten about until suddenly Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, was visiting. George Pell, who was at that stage archbishop, said ‘Where the hell is O’Connell?’ and sent his assistant priests off to find O’Connell. They came back and said, ‘He’s lying on his back, Archbishop, out there in this storage bay’. ‘Get him up quickly, Mary McAleese is coming.’ So consequently O’Connell is re-erected at the back of the cathedral. I was told that story by this priest who knew all about this. Anyway, it is not O’Connell there any more, it’s Daniel Mannix. I am sure that Daniel Mannix has been placed there because he is regarded by Melbourne Catholics as one of the great Catholic leaders of Melbourne.

But there is another side to Mannix completely, and that is the side which is the great supporter of Irish independence. There are a couple of beautiful stories about that relating to Mannix. If you look close by, you will see another little plaque at St Patrick’s cathedral which says that the cross on the top of the main spire was donated to the cathedral by the government of Ireland in 1938. You might think what largesse, the government of Ireland was going around the world looking for cathedrals to give Celtic crosses to in order to celebrate the connection between the people of Ireland and these various places. There is only one reason that cross is there - that was because Daniel Mannix at the time was archbishop and the man who headed the government in Ireland was De Valera, and of course De Valera and Mannix were thick as thieves as regards the independence of Ireland.

The best image I can give you of that is one where Daniel Mannix in 1920 tried to go back to Ireland to visit ostensibly his aged mother but also he was going to obviously say a few things about the independence of Ireland during a time when the war of independence was going on. He wasn’t allowed to go. His liner the Baltic was intercepted on the high seas - I am not quite sure on the high seas or inside British territorial waters; it’s a moot point - by HMS Wyvern, a British destroyer. The archbishop and his secretary, Father Vaughan, were taken off the liner and put ashore in England at Penzance. The image I want to give you of that is that Mannix was told by these two British detectives who got on board that he wasn’t going to be allowed in England, that there was a destroyer waiting to take him to England after which he could do pretty much as he wished but that he wasn’t allowed to go to Ireland. The archbishop packed up his case and he stood quietly at the top of the gangway, not moving. The British detectives spotted exactly what he was about and placed his hand quietly on Mannix’s shoulder so as the Archbishop could say, ‘I was arrested on the high seas. I wasn’t just taken off; it was a full official arrest.’

When they got to Penzance, by the way, a lovely thing there was that the parish priest wasn’t in. Father Vaughan described this:

I [Vaughan] took my courage in both hands and told her we were both starving. [These are some nuns that they found in the presbytery so these French nuns befriended them.] Neither of us could eat in the confined cabin of the Wyvern. His Grace was delighted to get to the Convent, away from the crowd. The Sisters were most kind. We enjoyed the cups of tea immensely.

I love thinking of Mannix getting off at Penzance and having a cup of tea. I wonder if the teacups exist. That would be an iconic piece to bring in. There is Mannix outside the cathedral, you see it’s something about Catholicism but it’s about a lot, lot more when you think of it.

I want to finish on one last and rather sadder story. While it’s not my favourite in the book, it is one that is perhaps the most moving: in 1872 the English writer Anthony Trollope came out to Australia and travelled around and eventually produced a travel book on all this. He went to Port Arthur in Tasmania. I am sure a lot of you have been to that marvellous convict site. It contains one of the grimmest reminders of the convict experience in Australia, the silent prison where men had to wear masks when they came out of their cells. They were to sit in their cells all day ruminating on their crimes and their guilt and so on but if they came out, they couldn’t speak to each other.

Anthony Trollope met there an Irishman - who else? - a gentleman that he described as one-eyed Dennis Doherty. Doherty had been transported in 1833 to Australia for mutiny, and there he was in 1872 still a prisoner of the crown. It’s interesting that right beside this silent prison where Doherty was for many, many years, you can slip your lattes and cappuccinos and think about the convict experience. Anyway Trollope met Doherty, and Doherty informed him that he had never been a free man for an hour since 1833 and that during that time he had received upwards of 3000 lashes. His actual convict record illustrates that he’s not far off the mark for that. Trollope felt he had to show Doherty some kindness because Doherty said that he needed some mercy in his old age, he was a dying man and finished. He said to Trollope:

I have tried to escape - always to escape as a bird does out of a cage. Is this unnatural? - Is this a great crime?’

The prison warders told Trollope, ‘If you take Doherty away, his hand is against every man and he would as soon put a knife in you as look at you,’ and so on and so forth. There’s this other very different kind of experience.

That’s what I think I am trying to capture in this book. As you stand at these places, you get a sense of who these people are and if you go across the 55 places you get a sense that each of them represents something symbolic in the history of the Irish in Australia. You can get that from Patrick O’Farrell’s marvellous book on the Irish in Australia [Vanished Kingdoms: Irish in Australia and New Zealand] but you can also get it by going to places and thinking a little bit about the stories that unfold there if you would only listen. Thank you very much.

MAT TRINCA: Thank you, Richard. I think you’ll agree with me that it’s as though Richard was made to write this book and to lead this exhibition. What he doesn’t know about the Irish in Australia I can honestly say is not worth knowing. The Museum counts itself entirely lucky and fortunate to have him to lead this program through these years. [applause]

Thank you once again to everyone that has been involved in the production of this fine book. I also want to thank our performer Ms Jacqueline Bradley who was supplying the music before and we hope after the formal proceedings. That’s the end of the speech making. Can I now just indulge in a shameless plug and tell you that the book is on sale at the Museum shop at the bargain basement price of $39.95. This is the day to buy it. If you’re lucky you will be able to catch Richard Reid and Brendon Kelson to sign your copy as well. Please stay with us for the refreshments and to enjoy the music. I thank you all for attending today. Thank you.

Date published: 20 September 2010