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Dr Richard Reid and Andrew Sayers, National Museum of Australia, 1 July 2011

ANDREW SAYERS: I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. As you came in this morning you might have noticed, if you are familiar with the National Museum, a new sign which says ‘National Museum Australia: where our stories live’, and you will notice that line being used extensively to describe us here at the National Museum from now on. It’s part of some of the big changes that are happening at the National Museum.

One of the other changes you will notice is that we are in the midst of changing our caterer. They have promised that tea and coffee will be served in cups, real crockery, and not paper cups. However, they have only just taken over today so you are the first people to have catering from our new caterer. If there are a few teething issues, please bear with us. It’s one of the changes we are making in order to make more of the main hall of the Museum available for the display of the collection. It’s a long-term plan and it will take us about a year to put that into place. One of the aspects of the Not Just Ned exhibition which has been particularly good for us to be able to do is to have some of the larger objects on display in the Museum’s hall, and people really do enjoy that.

Not Just Ned in many senses is the ideal National Museum exhibition. It’s home grown; it’s an extraordinarily important subject, and I don’t need in this particular audience to talk about what a significant subject the history of Irish Australia is to our nation; and it uses the intellectual resources here at the Museum and here in Canberra. So in lots of ways it is the sort of exhibition that the National Museum should be doing. It’s a fantastic piece of work led curatorially by Richard Reid and a great team. This is a fabulous day for Richard because not only do we have one of our very successful exhibitions reaching its closing weeks but also Richard’s PhD at the Australian National University Farewell my children has just been published. So Richard has been very busy and productive, and we are all the beneficiary of his scholarship.

You will all have an opportunity to see Not Just Ned. I am sure that many of you have already taken the opportunity to see the exhibition, which is very rich and beautiful and only has four weeks to run. What happens with big exhibitions is that lots of people say, ‘We have plenty of time to see that,’ and then they all pile in on the last weekend. Then we have people who come in when it’s closed and say, ‘We have come in to see that exhibition,’ and we say, ‘Sorry, it’s finished.’ Please encourage all your friends and acquaintances to come in and have a look at the exhibition. It’s done very well. We want everybody to have a chance to see it.

Not Just Ned is ideal also in the sense that it’s a great partnership - in fact, it’s not just one partnership but a whole web of partnerships with lenders, with institutions, with the community of scholars, with the community of people who are interested in history and in ancestry and with the entire Irish community. It’s the ideal sort of partnership for the National Museum to have. We want to develop partnerships with every part of the Australian community through projects such as Not Just Ned.

I want to not only welcome you to the National Museum and wish you a good time here at the Museum over the days of the conference but also I want to acknowledge some people. I have acknowledged Richard [Reid] for his great work. I want to acknowledge Dr Perry McIntyre, the co-convenor of the conference, and I also want to acknowledge the Irish embassy - the ambassador Máirtín Ó Fainín and his staff - for really terrific support for the work that we do here at the National Museum. They have been terrific supporters of the exhibition and of the work we do at the Museum. I believe the ambassador is coming to the morning session of this conference later in the day.

I would also like to acknowledge all of the speakers who have travelled to present at the conference and pay a particular tribute to Pat Cooke from the University of Dublin who has come a long way to attend this conference. Pat Cooke was from 2002 to 2006 Chairman of the Irish Museums Association. Therefore, he has had a significant leadership role in the world of museums. Museums are going through a particularly fascinating, challenging and dynamic time in the first part of the twenty-first century. They are tremendously important reminders of cultural memory and repositories of our history. So that is why the National Museum is very pleased to be in partnership to present this conference because it really is our core business. With that welcome, I will leave you to proceed with three days of what looks to be an extraordinarily rich and rewarding conference. Thank you. [applause]

VAL NOONE: [Irish spoken] My name is Val Noone, and it’s my pleasure and honour to be your chairman for the next hour. Welcome to our circle a number of old friends and welcome also to our new friends. Isn’t it great to have a few days to talk nonstop about the stuff that we research, read and write about all the year with people who have the same interest and concern, but how extraordinary to be doing it in this situation? Is this really happening? Are we really at the National Museum of Australia with a massive sensational exhibition on the Irish in Australia? We are. This is probably the most stimulating setting you could have for a conference like this. It is my honour now to introduce our first keynote speaker Richard Reid, the curator of the Not Just Ned exhibition.

Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure and honour of working as a volunteer on the historical side for the exhibition with field trips with Richard and we have had a lot of fun doing that. I will just tell you a couple of words about Richard at a personal level and also his professional record. I have an earlier memory of meeting him at an Australian War Memorial conference. I was a researcher working on the history of the peace movement against the Vietnam War, and Richard was studying the battlefields of Gallipoli, although he has since gone on to study the battlefields of Flanders and so on. I was sitting down the end with a few Vietnam veteran and peace movement mates, while he of course was up the other end of the room with the officers table - you know how it is with Richard Reid. Because this is the Protestant graduate of Trinity College talking to the Irish Catholic Republican working-class lad from Bentley, there were some differences in perspective, but we haven’t stopped talking since and have had lots of fun together.

Richard was born in Portrush, County Antrim. It turns out that he actually has a Catholic grandmother but he hasn’t known that until recently. How about that! In 1972 he migrated with great enthusiasm from London to Australia. He taught high school at Wollongong. He did a PhD under Oliver MacDonagh, about which you have just heard from Andrew [Sayers] but he didn’t tell you that it’s going to be launched tonight, in which he went and looked at all the immigrant records from 1848 to 1870 for the first time. Nobody had done that. I jotted down some of the other publications and stuff I should mention. Having got that PhD, he went on to work for the War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He produced numerous publications on that, but I want to mention the publications relevant to our conference. When Trevor McClaughlin did the book Barefoot and Pregnant?: Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, Richard and Cheryl Mongan wrote the answer: A Decent Set of Girls: The Irish Famine Orphans of the Thomas Arbuthnot, 1849-1850. The other book he did was Echoes of Irish Australia: Rebellion to Republic with Jeff Brownrigg and Cheryl Mongan, which hasn’t had the attention it deserves because I think it’s a great book.

The other two are the catalogue for the exhibition Not Just Ned: A true History of the Irish in Australia, which you have in your bag and the book that goes with the exhibition, Sinners, Saints and Settlers: A Journey Through Irish Australia, and tonight we will be launching that PhD I spoke about. As I have been telling anybody who will listen to me, this is a most sensational exhibition, so it’s my great pleasure and honour to introduce to you the curator of this exhibition - Richard Reid. Please make him welcome.

RICHARD REID: Thank you, Val. You will keep on that issue. I have been recently described - I think accurately for the first time ever - at a dinner out at Galong, not the shamrock in the bush but another dinner we did for Ned Ryan’s Freedom Day, by someone who came up to me, who is himself of a northern Catholic background and said, ‘I know what you are. You’re a Trinity College nationalist.’ I thought, I’ll wear that one. I like that one. So that’s a badge I will wear proudly from here on in.

Before I start this presentation, I wanted to say a couple of things about the Not Just Ned exhibition in relation to how it was put together because this is the opportunity to say this. An exhibition like this is a very big exhibition by the National Museum standards, by anybody’s standards, with 1,000 square metres of exhibition space. It doesn’t just happen because of one senior curator, it happens because a team of people do it, and that is something I really learnt out of this exhibition. I had a team of junior curators with Cinnamon van Reyk being my assistant - Cinnamon unfortunately is not here this morning – as well as two other junior curators and we worked together as a team on the exhibition. I would say the last six months before it opened, 17 March was the official opening day, were probably the hardest six months of our lives. Morning, noon and night we had to eat Irish Australia one way or the other. I have never been so exhausted and I don’t think that a team of curators have ever been so exhausted because so much was riding on this exhibition, but it has proved to be successful with the public. We have had a lot of very great feedback for it. Of course we have had our critics, and we will hear about that during this weekend, but basically it was a tremendous task.

The other thing that needs to be said is that it doesn’t happen just because of the curators. It happens because of people like exhibition designers and the installers. Our exhibitions team here at the Museum really know what they are doing in terms of putting up an exhibition. You have never seen anything like the installation of something like this unless you have lived through it. So I want to pay my tribute to them here publicly this morning. It’s because of that team that that exhibition is actually down there.

In your program it says that this presentation is entitled ‘Some of my favourite things’. I am going to talk about that but I have retitled it ‘Flown away’ and you will see why in a moment. I also have a bit of audiovisual to bring in about two-thirds of the way through this presentation when we have to do a bit of toggling between powerpoint and that, so bear with us at that particular moment.

Flown away: Reflections on the NMA’s Irish in Australia exhibition

But now they drift on the still water, Mysterious, beautiful; Among what rushes will they build, By what lake’s edge or pool Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day To find they have flown away?

Those lines from WB Yeats’ Wild Swans at Coole catch, for me, the sense of elegy I have about Not Just Ned, the National Museum’s temporary exhibition on the presence of Irish in Australia, 1788 to the present. In just over four weeks, the Museum’s de-installation experts will enter the 1000 square metre temporary exhibition space and begin the process that will see the return of more than 450 objects to collections, private and public, throughout Australia, the United States, Ireland and New Zealand. For four and a half months these objects, large and small, will, I like to think, have delighted the eyes of those who visited the exhibition.

Cross of Cong image shown

The great replica Cross of Cong, brought to Sydney by Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran in the mid-1890s, will return to the care of the sacristan of St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, and be seen when the clergy care to take it out for procession to mass. Do modern mass goers at the cathedral have any idea of what the cross is or tells us about that vanished period of Australian history when the Irishman Patrick Francis Moran was the leading prince of the Catholic Church in Australia?

Duffy Map image shown

Colonial Australia’s largest map, six metres by four and a half metres, will be taken down, rolled up and will disappear into storage in the Public Records Office of Victoria. How long will it be before it gets another outing as the Public Records Office have no area large enough to display the map? How much will Duffy - it was commissioned by Charles Gavin Duffy - and his particularly Irish angle on Victorian land settlement remain part of the map’s understood historical context? That is a detail from the map of Murndal in the western part of Victoria [image shown].

The silver box in which in 1925 Daniel Mannix received the Freedom of the City of Dublin, and which told the story of his arrest on the high seas off Ireland in 1920, will sit once again in the Archibishop of Melbourne’s palace. There, of course, it’s completely out of sight known about only to the archbishop and any archivist in the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission who happens to realise that a part of the collection relating to Mannix actually resides in the archbishop’s palace.

Famine orphan immigrant Margaret Hurley’s sea chest, made for her in the Gort workhouse in 1849, will return to the safekeeping of the family that has treasured it since her death. This is the only known assisted immigrant style sea chest of the kind required of all Irish assisted immigrants to any of the colonies between the 1830s and 1890s. The fact that it belonged to one of those 4114 Famine orphan immigrants makes it all the more significant.

And the small piece of Irish turf, or peat, brought from Ireland by sisters of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Loretos, in 1875 will sit once again with that collection of Irish objects - a leprechaun band in pottery from the Cork Fine Arts Exhibition of 1883, the woven bookmark carrying a head and shoulders portrait of the ‘uncrowned king of Ireland’ Charles Stewart Parnell, and a piece of Limerick’s ‘treaty stone’, among much else - in the old corridor museum of the Loreto College Mary’s Mount in Ballarat.

Did two of the worthy sisters, silently by night, chisel this piece from the sacred rock? And were they used at Mary’s Mount to teach young colonial-born ladies a history virtually unknown, or ignored, by Australia’s Protestant imperial elites, or indeed by that not inconsiderable group of historians who have claimed to be dealing with a developing ‘Australian’ sense of identity in the 1880s and 1890s. Actually, a caption on the piece of treaty stone reveals its provenance - a tourist collector - or did Father Logan do the deed himself? I did not suggest selecting the treaty stone bit for the exhibition because I felt that a 45-word caption would go nowhere near offering an explanation of its meaning or what it was doing in Mary’s Mount. The piece of peat had a clear story to tell of immigrant nostalgia. The piece of treaty stone, or so it seemed to me, was buried in the relative obscurity of Irish history for a modern general audience.

What will be left of the exhibition for the historian of Irish-Australia, or indeed the historian of the development of our National Museum to reflect upon 100 years from now? There are a few files which, having looked at them myself, will not be very revealing. Certainly there is no nice policy paper setting out the argument for an exhibition on the Irish as the first show on an ‘ethnic’ group to be tackled by the Museum for its tenth anniversary. There will, if the file survives, be a paper from me on what such an exhibition might look like but virtually nothing about how the organisation arrived at the decision to commit significant funds and staff time to creating the exhibition.

What will survive for historians to pluck over will be the exhibition catalogue, and you have that, with its attached object list, the NMA’s photographers images of the exhibition, and hopefully the full text of the exhibition including: general narrative panels, five in all; story panels for particular groups of objects; and object captions. For academics and the writers of books, it is sobering to realise that the general narrative is limited to 150 words, the story panels to 100 words and the captions to 45 words. These limits have been strictly applied in Not Just Ned. So where Patrick O’Farrell’s book The Irish in Australia went to some 100,000-plus words, we had 750 to distil the same story. As one academic from Adelaide remarked to me, ‘Those panels carry an awful lot of freight.’ Not only do they have to give something of the general story, they also have be readable, hopefully interesting, and provide a context for the stories and objects in that area of the exhibition.

Incidentally, one panel which cost me some real anxiety was what might seem a very simple one to do - provide a map of Ireland. In many of the captions and stories, an Irishman or woman’s county of origin is given. It was thought important to do this to suggest how specific place of origin within the island was important to immigrants, and this lingering attachment to origins is certainly borne out by the fact that so many Irish people either requested the information to be placed on their headstones here in Australia or their families saw it as important to display that information there. So our designers constructed a simple 32-county map of Ireland. I woke up one morning realising that, with such a map on display, we would certainly be open to the criticism that the National Museum of Australia was clearly politically in favour of Irish reunification. The six-county border accordingly was then placed on the map. I didn’t even think of doing it: it’s the 32 counties; that’s fine; that’s all they need - big statement that.

But to return for a moment to the text panels, they are, undoubtedly, among my favourite objects in the exhibition, not because they are correct, brilliantly written or reflect any other sense of ego achievement, but because they cost so much in time and effort to do. Moreover, there were gimlet-eyed and sharp-brained editors constantly on the watch to suggest what you were saying was boring, tedious or just plain wrong. So text writing becomes an elaborate collaborative process aimed at producing a coherent set of textual globules to be read, not from the comfort of a chair but as the reader progresses around 1000 square metres of museum space from objects the size of a pin to a map six metres by four and a half metres. As historians also - I throw this to you - try summing up sometime, just for fun, in 150 words the Irish story in Australia between circa 1870 and 1945, as we have tried to do on this panel. So you have the rest of my presentation to do it. I will take the papers in at the end, and we will see how you went.

Our visitors seem to have been fairly satisfied with the outcome. An exit survey showed that 85 per cent of visitors thought the level of information in the exhibition ‘was about right’, although naturally this did not record people’s knowledge of the Irish-Australian story which might have allowed them to challenge the historical interpretation. There was barely a word said about that, except from a very small handful of critics who thought the Catholic story was greatly overemphasised. Val, did you hear that? Catholic story was greatly overemphasised. Here objection was not to the text as such but to the supposed paucity of Protestant stories. What this revealed was that these critics didn’t actually realise who the Protestants were and we did not reveal denominational allegiance in the text. Perhaps they wanted green and orange stickers to indicate this particular aspect of Irish identity.

Moving from text panels to the objects themselves, let me speak a little about how we went about choosing them. That project was driven by the constraints of time and money. We had about a year and three months, and a sufficient budget, in which to travel to locations, some of them remote, all over Australia, and one major research trip to Ireland. From Irish institutions, religious organisations and private collections we received some highly significant objects. Most of these were of the familiar iconic type which visitors with any knowledge of the Irish-Australian story would expect to find in such a large exhibition - for example, the William Smith O’Brien gold cup.

Image shown of Smith O’Brien gold cup

This magnificent object made for O’Brien after his release from Van Diemen’s Land in 1854, from Victorian gold, is considered one of the treasures of the National Museum of Ireland. It was never a ‘lay down misere’ [sure thing] that it would come into this exhibition. Behind the scenes of Not Just Ned lay months of sometimes tortuous and fraught negotiation to ensure a significant object would be lent. Take the less well-known, but beautiful, Bagot cup.

Image shown of Bagot Cup

I have to nominate this as one of my favourite things for, apart from any other reason, I had to use more persuasive powers to obtain this than any other object in the exhibition. Before I tell that story, let me say at once that the owners, once they realised exactly where the cup would be displayed - that is, the National Museum - were more than keen that it should come here and determined to help us in any way. Initially, however, I was greeted by the expostulation: ‘That’s the Bagot cup and it isn’t going anywhere.’ As I prepared, on a very hot January night, to go to a long meeting to explain what this exhibition was about, I was told that a vote had been taken not to let us have the cup, but rescinded when it was pointed out by my local contact that this procedure was a little unfair as I was just about to make the journey from Canberra to talk to the local museum board. After a lengthy expounding of how brilliant this exhibition would be and how important it was to tell the story of Charles Harvey Bagot from County Kildare and the discovery of copper in South Australia, someone said, ‘Oh, you’re from the National Museum of Australia. You don’t want to take the cup to Ireland. That museum is a fantastic place - just visited it myself - don’t see why it couldn’t go there – indeed, it must go there.’ Clearly I was initially seen as an Irish raider after South Australian state treasures.

The Bagot cup is also a good example of what one reviewer called the ‘scrupulous neutrality’ of the exhibition - I love that phrase. It’s like Trinity College Nationalist. That is to say, it exemplifies Patrick O’Farrell’s response to his own question: who were the Irish who came to Australia? Answer: all kinds and conditions of men and women who came from Ireland. The Bagots were Protestant, what we might call ‘southern Protestant’ today to set them off from that more bigoted kind of ‘Prod’ to be found north of Dundalk. We didn’t adopt some sort of quota system for allocating space between Protestants and Catholics: because 20 per cent of nineteenth-century Ireland was Protestant, we would have 20 per cent of floor space taken up by Protestants. Rather the inclusion of certain individuals was determined by the existence of good display objects which also, fortunately, tended to exemplify a theme such as land, settlement or pastoralism. So Samuel Pratt Winter, from Ager, County Meath, became our main squatter story, because how could you not bring into the exhibition these objects - the elk antlers.

Image shown of Elk antlers

It is possible, although not definitely proven, that these antlers of an extinct Irish elk came from a sale on the estate of Lord Cavan in Ireland in the early 1860s around the time when Winter was visiting Ireland. Winter’s success as a squatter in the western district of Victoria in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s allowed him to make lengthy trips to Ireland, England and Europe during which he obtained items for the beautification of his home and estate at Murndal. Winter, however, seems to have been a man of some discernment. Gordon Forth writes:

It would be unfair to group Winter with those newly affluent pastoralists who sought to impress visitors to their recently constructed country houses with displays of poorly selected artworks and books. The detailed notes Winter made on his visits to European galleries and the fact that many volumes in his library were obviously read and frequently annotated, clearly indicate that he was a scholarly man with a genuine interest in art and literature.

So he would not want for reading material on the lengthy sea voyages he undertook, Winter carried with him a travelling library trunk filled with volumes from his ever-expanding stock of books at Murndal. Insofar as one can illustrate the point using objects, Irish Protestant pastoralist Samuel Pratt Winter seems to have lived up to Margaret Kiddle’s description of him as ‘a man of culture from eighteenth-century Ireland rather than nineteenth-century industrial Britain.’

An issue for those, and there were few of them, who thought the exhibition lacked a proper Protestant presence was the amount of material from the Catholic church. It is interesting how people’s perception of an exhibition can be shaped by the mere inclusion of certain objects. One of our conservators, a lovely man, who worked on the objects remarked to me that there were a lot of crosses in Not Just Ned. ‘How many?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know but lots.’ Actually, in 1000 square metres of exhibition space on a subject like this there were precisely five crosses: two fairly large ones, one intermediate size and two small ones. In secular Australia, however, they get noticed.

In reality, our Catholic material was not front and centre but tucked away from the top right-hand corner area of the gallery. There was, as there should be, a fair amount of it but the hardest job was to decide, given the huge amount of material available, just what stories to tell, what themes to cover. It seemed to me that these were the salient stories: the presence and dominance of Irish nuns; the importance of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne; the emphasis on Catholicism brought from Ireland; the life of the Catholic parish; the support of Catholics for the building of the infrastructure of the church; and the Catholic education system. Those seemed to me to be the main ones. Remembering always that these themes must be carried not in text but by carefully selected objects. These are the same objects which support those stories.

Mother Stanislaus Kenny brought ten Sisters of Mercy to Singleton, New South Wales in 1875 where she founded a convent, officially opened by Cardinal Moran in 1909. I visited the convent with no particular end in mind except to see what I knew to be a collection being carefully looked after by Sister Monica Sinclair and her assistants. I left with a sense that this collection, along with other objects, could tell the basic story of the bringing of the Mercy rule from Ireland, a rule which spread far and wide across Australia making the Sisters of Mercy probably the best known of any Irish female religious order in the nation. That recognition came, as we know, from their schools and hospitals, but I was concerned here to focus on the idea of the nuns’ spiritual life, apart from these social concerns. It was a position I had to defend vigorously to my curatorial team, as they were initially unconvinced that this was a story which warranted scarce floor space. The ‘Novices Guide’, written by Mother Kenny herself, went into such things as the prayers to be said on putting on each bit of the sister’s habit on dressing. To accompany this we have a video piece from a documentary called God’s Girls, at the start of which a nun puts on the wimple of the old black habit as she says these very prayers. In this instance, the handwritten instructions became more than a document but take the viewer into the very heart of Mercy religious life:

The habit: Clothe my Soul, O Lord, with the nuptial robe of Charity that pure and undefiled I may carry it before thy Judgement Seat.

As a nuance on the religious seriousness of this story we also put on display a Belleek tea set from the Mercy convent collection in Parramatta where I found this wonderful caption:

Make sure the Sisters have a comfortable cup of tea when I am gone - Catherine McCauley (founder of the Mercy Order) to her sisters shortly before she died, Dublin, 11 November 1841.

What a number of things happened on 11 November: Ned Kelly gets hanged, the armistice gets signed, and so on and so forth. It’s a wonderful date.

Conscious of Ed Campion’s comment on O’Farrell that he concentrated his gaze towards the high end of the church, we looked for ways to engage with ordinary Catholic parish life with its memories of the Irish brogue of priests and teaching nuns and brothers. This little display [image shown] focuses on the first communion of James Parker, born of Irish parents in Surrey Hills, Sydney, in 1908. Among the little personal items associated with that particular significant personal rite of passage is a Lough Derg medal – [image shown] that’s all the little bits and pieces of it - and James’s Prayer Book, seventh edition, published by the Catholic Truth Society, Dublin, in 1916, and carrying the motto ‘Pro Fide et Patria’, Faith and Fatherland. Associated with this is that most well-known of all Australian Catholic publications, the Australian Catechism, 1937 edition, [image shown] authorised by Archbishop Michael Kelly of Sydney with its Irish soul evident from the image on the front: the Monasterboice High Cross in County Louth.

No doubt, as shown by these objects, such things were the basis of Australian Catholic piety. Within the prayerbook, most moving of all and in his own hand, are James’s daily prayer intentions as pencilled out on this scrap of paper from a later stage in his life: ‘Wednesday, overcome temptations’ - I wish I had known that one – ‘Thursday, for friends; Friday, lead a good life’. I was most moved by this. I thought this was just wonderful tucked in the prayerbook.

At the beginning of our search for what being Irish and Catholic had been about in Australia, it was suggested to me that high on the list was the way in which the faithful were forever putting their hands in their pockets for donations to church building funds. In fact, that was Michael McKernan who said, ‘Richard, how are you going to do that? That’s what we were doing all the time, running bazaars, raffles, et cetera.’ That was the guts of the operation as far as the local priest was concerned in keeping the money coming in to the school and to the parish.

Most here would be familiar with the regular list of donors names scattered throughout Catholic newspapers showing that, towards the completion of St Francis Xavier Cathedral, Adelaide in 1926, Mrs CM Donnelly gave 10 shillings, Miss G Powell five shillings, and a friend 2/6. Mr FT Kennedy was on a promise for two guineas.

But far more powerful for making that point in an exhibition are the 50 silver commemorative trowels given at various times to Corkman Archbishop William Spence of Adelaide between 1915 and 1934 when he laid the foundation stone of convents, schools, church halls and churches. That’s them in their original condition just all piled into this box in the Archdiocesan Historical Commission.

Image shown of trowels

A bit tongue in cheek perhaps, we called Spence ‘Bob the Builder’ in the exhibition text. At the start of the hunt for Catholic objects we had no idea of the existence of these items but they were uncovered by our South Australian sleuth and researcher Anne Herraman in the Catholic Diocesan Archives in Adelaide. The idea that donations from the faithful towards church building should be recognised in the exhibition would probably have gone nowhere without these trowels or else we would have had to rely on using a miscellany of trowels from other places and perhaps a large photo montage produced by Archbishop Daniel Mannix – Mannix’s buildings - no false modesty here. ‘Si monumentum quaeris, circumspice, if you are looking for a monument, look around, and notice His Grace in the middle.

Catholic Australians were at the heart of the so-called ‘education question’ in Australian history. Interestingly, I was originally in favour of finishing the exhibition chronologically speaking in the mid-1960s when Bob Menzies sent an Australian ambassador to the Republic of Ireland and Commonwealth–state aids of sorts to Catholic schools began. That seemed like a drawing of a line in the sand between the era of the Protestant–Catholic divide in Australia; that is, the divide broadly speaking between Irish Catholics, and their view of things, and so-called British Australians.

It was never going to be easy to illustrate through objects a topic such as sectarianism, so we simply alluded to it in the text and concentrated on material relating to teaching or attending Catholic schools. This was an area where again we knew it had to be tackled but with no idea what might be out there in school collections. Most of these collections are closely associated with the old teaching orders. While we expected to find things, we were taken aback by the sheer wealth of material to be seen with the Sisters of Mercy, the Dominicans, the Loretos or the St John of God sisters. In search of this education story, we visited the Mercy Heritage Centre, All Hallows College, and Christian Brothers College, Terrace, in Brisbane; the Loreto College in Ballarat, the Loreto College in Adelaide; Cabra College in Adelaide; the Christian Brothers College in Wakefield Street, Adelaide; and St Ignatius College, Riverview, Sydney - apart from speaking with others on the phone.

An example of the best of these collections is at the Loreto College, Mary’s Mount, in Ballarat. The college was founded by Mary Gonzaga Barry and six nuns from Enniscorthy, County Wicklow in 1875, after an appeal from Bishop James Moore of Ballarat for Loreto sisters for his diocese. The avowed aim of the Loretos was superior education for women, and they certainly achieved this at Mary’s Mount and subsequently in other locations around the Australian colonies.

At Mary’s Mount we were confronted by two significant collections: one dealing with the order itself and the other with the college. Not surprisingly, there were many interesting things relating to Mary Barry, ranging from a little gold model sent to her by her ex-pupils in Ireland with the inscription: ‘To Dear Mother Gonzaga from the Children of the Loreto Day School, Enniscorthy, for the children of the Loreto Convent, Ballarat, 25 March 1875 – Recompense’ to her personal tatting equipment, and much more. Possibly the most splendid object relating to the order itself, although it was in need of cleaning and some restoration, was the so-called ‘tree’ showing the development of the order over the centuries, which stood about 1.2 metres high. The roots of the tree lie in places like Presburg, 1628, Monaco, 1627 or Praga 1628, while branches spread to Ireland – Omagh, 1855; Clonmel, 1881; and to Coleraine in the dark north in 1930 - and to Australia:  Sydney, 1892; Perth, 1897; and even to Broome in 1915.

A huge strength of the collection is in objects relating to the education provided at Mary’s Mount. You can see a whole range of things here [image shown] including sports uniforms, prefect badges, this beautiful little handwritten thing from one of the prefects, photographs coming out your ear, the uniform in 1899, members of the sodality in 1877, the basketball team in 1920 - it just went on and on. There are some 2000 photographs in that school. It’s the most brilliantly documented school I think I have ever seen. There are items of school uniform, the prefects oath written in a girl’s own hand, hundreds of photographs of school life et cetera. But what was the story here as we came to see it? It is suggested in this photograph used in the college prospectus to advertise the superior nature of Loreto education and the quality of the equipment used to support it. [image shown] You can see here Loreto young ladies learning astronomy using a large telescope and an orrery.

Image shown of orrery

The orrery was sent from Ireland to Gonzaga Barry in about 1899 by her brother. In the Loreto museum a caption proudly states that in 1901 there were only three such instruments in Australia. The orrery was brought to the National Museum of Australia for the exhibition because nothing in my view better illustrated the quality education being provided to Ballarat’s Catholic elite by the Loretos than this object.

In 1987 Patrick O’Farrell wrote in the preface to his book The Irish in Australia:

The Irish in Australia is an impossible subject, too vast, too various, too complex and certainly too elusive.

After having tried with three other curators to put this exhibition together, I have to agree. Although after writing those lines, O’Farrell then treated us to more than 150,000 words of his years of research on that very topic. Similarly, we were aware of the vastness of the task but were obliged to fill a temporary exhibition space of just over 1000 square metres and to provide large objects for the Museum’s vast entrance hall.

Did O’Farrell succeed in giving a reasonable account of what was then 200 years of Irish encounter with Australia? Have we done so in Not Just Ned? I will leave judgment on that to others but what we have done, like O’Farrell, is to start the process of thinking about the grand narrative of the Irish in Australia realised not on the printed page but in the themes and stories suggested by three-dimensional objects. This has not, to the best of our knowledge, been done in any other major country of Irish immigrant settlement, although I am aware of small other shows about the Irish in particular regional settings. So perhaps we have set a standard for an exhibition like this, drawn out the areas to search in and indicated the problems involved in trying to put the grand narrative into readable exhibition text without descending too far into bland banalities.

In Not Just Ned we have tackled emigration, immigration, emigrant voyages, convicts, settlers great and small, iconic stories such as Burke and Wills and Eureka, Irish nationalism in Australia, the Irish in literature, the Irish in sport, Irish music today and yesterday, the Irish encounter with the Indigenous people, significant political figures, the Irish in medicine, Irish manufacturers, the Irish as storekeepers, governors, exotic dancers and would-be assassins - and much else. There are gaps and I, more than anyone, am very conscious of them. At the centre of the show are the four suits of Kelly Gang armour. Looking at them now, I can’t imagine what we would have done without them.

But I have called this presentation ‘some of my favourite things’ and here are five of them, each illustrating a particular strand of Irish experience in relation to Australia. First, the Nashwauk anchor. The South Australian government assisted emigrant vessel Nashwauk grounded on the coast of Adelaide in May 1855 with more than 220 Irish immigrants on board. None of them died, but observers wrote of young Irish women being carried ashore through the waves on the back of sailors as they said ‘Hail Marys’. The anchor fetched up on the grounds of the Moana Caravan Park which I found on the official site of the Onkaparinga Council by Googling Irish immigrants, ships etc – in-depth research. The assisted voyage was the sine qua non of Irish emigration to Australia, and the anchor is a fine symbol of that process. There it is being installed into the gallery. [image shown]

On 16 September 1844, William Byrne, probably an Irishman given the name, paid one pound to join the Loyal Australian Repeal Association. I had no idea such a nationalist organisation existed this early in our colonial history - 1844. This is Byrne’s membership certificate which was shown to me in a battered frame by an archivist in Sydney with the question: Is this important? Apart from anything else, the object is a wonderful example of how a simple membership certificate can pack in so much political and historical information. How could you deny a parliament to Ireland when, if you read down the side, Portugal is 4475 larger than Bavaria and Saxony united, 409 larger than Naples and Sicily, and so it goes on and ‘has not a parliament at the end’ - undeniable we should have our own parliament.

At the very heart of the exhibition are four sound chairs where you will find 46 pieces of recorded sound accessible on an iPad. Here is the intangible heritage of Irish-Australia: emigrant letters from the nineteenth century read in Irish accents; ballads such as Moreton Bay, the unofficial Irish national anthem of the late nineteenth century God Save Ireland sung by John McCormick; Archbishop Mannix addressing a St Patrick’s Day dinner in 1954 on the subject of the partition of Ireland; Tom Keneally describing his Christian Brothers education in Sydney; and Mary Durack, in 1975, talking about her father Michael Patrick Durack’s first visit to Ireland somewhere before the First World War.

This is perhaps my favourite piece in the whole exhibition, and I was very excited when I found it in the National Library’s oral history collections. Mary describes how her father did not feel very Irish in Ireland as he travelled around the country, although he liked the people, finding them nonetheless a little listless and unenergetic. At the port of Sligo he observed a group of emigrants about to board a ship for America surrounded by their weeping relatives. Michael Patrick Durack wept himself and Mary says he did not know why he was weeping. She knew, she said. He wept because this would have been the scene 48 years before as his father’s father left behind the old folks in Galway to begin his long journey to New South Wales.

Irish piper John Wayland, founder of the Cork Pipers Club in 1898, came to Western Australia before World War I bringing with him a unique set of Irish pipes. The pipes, regarded with awe by one expert we had in to assemble them, are on display in the exhibition. In mid-1916, the following report from Geraldton appeared in the West Australian:

At the recruiting rally which was held at Geraldton last week a presentation was made to Mr JS Wayland who has, since recruiting commenced, piped the recruits to the station on Tuesday and Friday evenings. The presentation consisted of a purse of gold and a gold medallion for the watch chain inscribed - Presented to Mr J S Wayland, piper to the Geraldton, Western Australia, recruits for the great war.

This is the medallion lent to us by the Folk Music Society of Ireland located in Merrion Square in Dublin. It is one of the smallest objects in the exhibition but resonant with the image of Irishman Wayland walking in front of men on their way to Pozières, Polygon Wood or Passchendaele playing his war pipes.

But I suppose at the end of the day I have to say that just about top of the tree is the great Cross of Cong with Cardinal Moran. Moran, as I have written about before, possibly staged the first ever exhibition on the Irish in Australia back in 1904 at his St Mary’s Cathedral Fair when he had on display a life-sized replica of the Monasterboice high cross. No-one in my view did more than Moran, as this non-archival material evidence shows, to bring the reality of Ireland’s Celtic Christian past to Australian Catholics or to teach them to hold their heads high when told that Australia’s past lay with the English Reformation, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Battle of Waterloo or the Duke of Wellington. Where is this great Monasterboice replica? Flown away without trace or memory.

Over the last three years or so, I have given I don’t know how many presentations, expositions and expostulations about the National Museum’s Irish in Australia exhibition. This is probably one of the last occasions where I will have the chance to speak in this general way about it. In looking at how to come to an end, I am reminded of Oliver MacDonagh’s sweeping overview ‘The Irish in Australia’, which he gave at the 1985 Irish in Australia conference here in Canberra and which was subsequently published under that name. After what he called the ‘stratospheric’ view of the paper, he eschewed generalisation and presented instead the story of one small group of Irish emigrants he had stumbled across in archives: the Sisters of Mercy who came to Parramatta in 1888, the first centenary of European Australia.

I offer the story of a similar sort of emigrant: Bernadette O’Connor, [image shown of her on the donkey] born at Dromore West, County Sligo, on 5 May 1919 and who died on a mud flat at Beagle Bay, Dampier Peninsula, Western Australia, on 24 August 2007. There is something incredibly symmetrical and appropriate about that date, because it was within days of the one hundredth anniversary of the arrival of a party of eight Irish born, and one Australian born, Sisters of the St John of God to establish a convent at Beagle Bay to assist the German Pallotine Fathers established in their work with the local Indigenous people.

Sister Bernadette O’Connor arrived from Ireland in 1942, spent the rest of her working mission life in the Kimberley and was the last of the Irish-born St John of Gods in the region. Here is Bernadette on a donkey shortly after her arrival at Beagle Bay. The sisters, as is well known, became much caught up in the whole ‘Stolen Generation’ story. They accepted into their schools mixed race children from across the region and undoubtedly benefited from the official Western Australian government policy of forcibly removing such children from their mothers and placing them at Beagle Bay.

For many years, however, the sisters have acknowledged the pain and destruction of this policy and they have been working more actively on the ground than most for reconciliation and healing. Sister Bernadette worked at many locations in the north-west, including at the famous Bungarun Leprosarium near Derby, a place largely run by the sisters between its opening in the mid-1930s to its closure in the 1980s. She returned to Beagle Bay and spent the last 20 years of her life there where she became something of a local figure to everyone.

I now want to play you a little piece. An inmate of Bungarun who would remember Sister Bernadette is Gabby Dolby, who during his time at Bungarun played in the famous Bungarun classical orchestra founded by Sister Alphonsus Daly in the 1940s. Let me play a piece featuring Gabby taken on the verandah of the Old Convent, Broome. In it he strums a violin, a violin actually used in the orchestra and which is on display in Not Just Ned, along with a white habit traditionally worn by the Sisters of St John of God in this area.

[audio played]

I never had much schooling in my lifetime. As a little boy from Beagle Bay my father took me and never put me into school too much but he was a carpenter. We used to come here to Broome and work on the church there a bit and build about three or four houses here. [inaudible] When I was 13 they took me to the Leprosarian because there was four people run away from here – they had leprosy and they run to Beagle Bay, and that is where they started to get us people. But I never [inaudible] When I was 13 year old they took me to Derby Leprosarian. There was the nuns there and they were the ones that look after the people, all of us sick and needy people, you know. They used to do all the dressings of our sores and things like that. When I went there as a young boy I used to play the violin, the guitar, the banjo, the ukulele. And my two brothers beat me - they could play the mouth organ. I couldn’t play the mouth organ. Yeah, we used to have concerts and I would be playing that for the concert.But all your other mates too, they were all there playing?Yeah there were some other ones there too. And I used to be a yodelling cowboy with a guitar, playing like this with the guitar.What was your favourite thing to play?I’ll give you a little one.What was your favourite instrument, was it the violin?The whole lot: violin, banjo, guitar.OK, all of them.Singing and playing guitar…From Beagle Bay you come.I liked to be singing the hymns. One of them was: ‘Hail Queen of heaven, the ocean star, guide of the wanderers here below. Grow on life’s surge we claim thy care, save us from burial and from woe. Mother of Christ, Star of the sea, pray for us sinners, pray for me.’Thank you.

Image shown of the St John of God tropical habit

Sister Bernadette O’Connor, aged 88, went on 25 August 2007 for her daily walk in a long-sleeved dress, carrying a stick and accompanied by her dog. Her body was found out in her beloved mud flats where she liked to walk for miles. Where she was found, the local community of Beagle Bay erected a white cross which they have maintained to this day. I was there only last Saturday in mud up to my ankles. Nearby is a little tree which in a manner characteristic of these salt flats has a little well of fresh water that comes to the surface.

In this region with its large ethnic mix, the Irish sisters were always supporters of the underdog, those who minister to the needs of the Japanese, Malays, Chinese, Filipinos and Aboriginals. They might have made many mistakes in that long journey from 1907 but their story, like the story of the Irish in Australia generally since 1788, is deeply embedded now in the complexities of the multiculture of Australia. It fully earned its place in Not Just Ned, and I hope something of it will echo on long after the objects in the exhibition have flown away from the National Museum of Australia. Thank you.

VAL NOONE: Thank you very much, Richard. What more could you ask for than to have the curator take us through his favourite objects. I suppose we picked up some of the sadness that he feels and we all feel that it’s closing and will be flown away. It’s now open to you to comment and questions please either about the exhibition or about Richard’s comments on the exhibition.

QUESTION: Anne Herraman from South Australia. Richard, it’s been an enormous privilege and adventure and a treasure hunt for me to be involved in this whole project. Seeing once again another dimension as you speak to it this morning and knowing from the South Australian end how many people are really interested in this and how many bus loads have actually come over and made the big trek, I am interested in the number of ways that it can be perpetuated in electronic form. What you have done this morning with hearing your voice and then seeing the images and the construction of it, not only the things themselves, there are lots of different ways of carrying it forward so that it doesn’t just flow away. Can you tell us how that is going to happen?

RICHARD REID: The short answer would be no. But I like the thought that it will live in virtual reality and not real reality. We have obviously photographed the whole thing. There is quite a lot up on the National Museum of Australia’s website about the exhibition. Also I have picked out 50 objects that I think carry the story from 1788 to the present day, and we will put those up gradually throughout the rest of the year with commentary by me and so on. A lot of effort is going on to looking at how this can live on.

The only sensible comment we had on it though was from someone in Tintean who suggested that what needs to happen now is for people to look in local areas in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth etc what you might draw out of that. There is no doubt in my mind the National Museum will never again do an exhibition like this. The Irish have now been done here. All sorts of other themes and topics have to be covered in a museum like this. The Irish have been enormously privileged to have their story as the first one ever to be plucked out and done in this way. There were some reasons for that that I didn’t go into in the paper. All of you would know very well the arguments that went on about the National Museum when it opened in 2001 and those famous black armband views of history which were being bandied around at the time. To some extent I think, and I don’t have any proof in a file about this, Not Just Ned is something of a reaction to that, something of a way of saying actually we can tackle a very mainstream topic and we can bring a lot of complexity into that mainstream topic.

One of the things we were determined to do with the exhibition was to make sure we had enough stories in there about the Irish and ethnic Australian Aboriginal people or Indigenous people whatever you want to call them. That was very important. So there were decisions like that made by me. You could ask, ‘Why are the St John of God sisters there?’. Because the chairman of our council Danny Gilbert said to me at a lunch, ‘You are going to do something about the sisters of St John of God, aren’t you?’ I said to myself internally, the sisters of St John of God, who are they and went and found out. I then found out, of course, they were a tremendous story to tell. To come back to your question, the catalogue is there, there is a lot of digital stuff, the website will survive a long time on the National Museum site. But like anything, all this stuff will ultimately I hope fly away.

QUESTION: Is there a photograph of every object and every caption, and is that available to the public?

RICHARD REID: No, not in that form, Val, you are quite right. Our photographer went around and did general shots of everything in the exhibition but not down to the detail of every single object. No, that hasn’t been done. That’s a huge job. You think that’s easy but it’s not - to get a photographer to do absolutely everything. The Museum has certain funds and availability, and we just have to go with the realities of that kind of thing - sadly.

QUESTION: One of the ongoing initiatives that I think should be pursued is Australian-Irish cultural tourism. If you take places like Goulburn and look at the story of the Duracks, there are many places, sites and grave sites that I think could be enhanced substantially and that could be taken up by the local, regional and national cultural tourism programs. And that occurs in many places across Australia. The exhibition here gives that wonderful background to be able to pursue that.

RICHARD REID: I would like to think that that would happen, but there are many places that are doing aspects of the Irish story. We have Sandra Murray with us from Fremantle Prison, and there Sandra tells the story of the Fenians and all sorts of things that happened there in relation to that. At Port Arthur [Tasmania], you can go on a convict government tour with Francis McNamara or at least you were able to a few years ago. Is that still going? There are bits and pieces done around the place.

One of the things that has been tremendous for this exhibition is we have been able to go and ferret it out and start to bring some of it - not all of it by any stretch of imagination. As I said, there are gaps in this exhibition and I am conscious of them. One gap which gave me a lot of bother, because I thought we would have the big house on the hill over here making comments about it, was where are the Irish in the ALP? I thought there is a mountain of documentation on things like that but give me an object that really does it. Now we do have the five prime ministers of Irish parents and grandparents before 1950 in the exhibition. One of my most pleasant moments was to be able to ring up the historian Michael Richards at Old Parliament House and say, ‘Michael, you have a series of pamphlets there on all the prime ministers and you say that the first one of Irish extraction is James Scullin, 1929. You’re wrong.’ ‘Who is it then?’ ‘It’s actually Stanley Melbourne Bruce.’ ‘You’re joking.’ Both Bruce’s parents are Irish born in Ireland - that’s the key. He was just amazed at that, so they have changed that and they have now put Bruce in as being of Irish origin and he undoubtedly is. Another of my favourite objects in the exhibition is the little gold cigarette case given to him by Albert and Elizabeth at the opening of Parliament House in 1927. There’s the King’s Speech - Bertie standing on the steps of Parliament House in 1927 - and my question for history is: Did he stutter? We don’t know.

QUESTION: My name is Eric Richards of Welsh background. I want to say this in a non-ethnic way but I was thinking that this exhibition is going to be enormously attractive and exciting to people of Irish origin, Irish tourists and Irish people of that sort. I was wondering how you expect it to speak to people of non-Irish background, people from perhaps Wales or Macedonia or wherever else in Australia. What do you think an exhibition like this does?

RICHARD REID: That’s a very good question, because this is the National Museum. I have two responses to that. The first is that that was actually my most challenging thought: how does this exhibition speak to the Vietnamese grandmother who came as a boat person and her grandson born here in Liverpool? How do we attract them in? When she wanders in, the airlock situation to Not Just Ned is about St Patrick’s Day and shows these awful gewgaws of people wear now and things they do in the streets, and a whole series of photographs of the St Patrick’s Day parade in Sydney last year. She will say at once, ‘Oh yeah, that’s those silly Irish people who every year get drunk on one day a year and go out in these silly hats.’ So there was an idea of opening that up.

The second thing I would say is that I have had comments back that actually what you have on display here is about Australian history. It is not just about the Irish; it’s about us during the nineteenth century. In fact, if you took all that out of our history - as Oliver MacDonagh once said about the Irish in Australia likening it to Hamlet the play, ‘If you took the Prince of Denmark out of it, ie the Irish, it would still be good but it would be a lesser play.’ So I think that maintains. If you go and look at those things that are in the exhibition, imagine that none of that was there because the Irish weren’t here, it would be a different kind of Australia. So you begin to see that it’s about Australia as - it’s certainly not about Ireland. Very little of it is about Ireland.

VAL NOONE: Thanks very much, Richard, and thanks for your questions but I am afraid we have to draw that to a conclusion now.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

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