Thursday, April 17, 2008

Keeping the flag flying Down Under

Michael Moran came from Ballyhaunis in County Mayo, a town well known to my mother who, as Kathleen Regan, lived a few miles away near the village of Cloonfad. A painter for 44 years of his working life, Michael is now retired and living in Sydney, Australia, to where he emigrated courtesy of the £10 assisted passage scheme 50 years ago. He spends a lot of his time as a volunteer in Sydney’s Gaelic Club, which today is home to the Padraig Pearse branch of the Irish Nationalist Association of Australasia. Founded in 1915, the association works for the development of Irish Australian cultural activities and the welfare of Irish people in Australia.

The Gaelic Club is on the first floor of the Irish National Association’s fine premises in Devonshire Street, Sydney, which was opened in 1955 by the Irish charge d’affairs. Today, the Gaelic Club is approached by a stairs, the walls of which are adorned by GAA colours of all the Irish counties. The last framed jersey next to the club entrance shows the Lilywhite colours which were presented by Sue Lomansey, whom, I believe, is the Asian-born chairperson of the Kildare Association in Sydney.

Membership of the Gaelic Club, which started in 1974, has declined in recent years. Thirty years ago, the club boasted a membership of over 1,000, but last year had little more than 250 members, almost 70% of which are over 75 years of age. I saw notices for Irish classes held each week on the premises as well as advance publicity for St Patrick’s Night festivities which, regretfully, I was unable to attend. An intriguing advertisement for ‘Sult at the Gaelic Club’ held on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month promised sessions of music, poetry and the spoken word followed by ‘informal acoustic sessions’.

On the evening I called, the premises were quiet and Michael Moran, who appeared to manage the place with the assistance of a barman, had the opportunity to show me around the club’s library.

Bemoaning the loss of many of its books which had ‘disappeared’ in recent years, Michael nevertheless was able to show me quite a substantial holding of Irish history books, all of which would appear to indicate a purchasing policy which had lapsed some years past.

The club is located in the Surrey Hill area of Sydney, which up to the 1980s was an ‘Irish area’. This changed when the Australian Housing Commission started to renew the area, following which the Irish families moved to the city suburbs, leaving behind the club premises to which they no longer enjoyed easy access. The Gaelic Club continues, offering classes in the Irish language and providing a focal point for the city-based Gaelic teams that play in the New South Wales Championship and the Australian Championship.

The standard of play in the Australian Gaelic games, I’m told, is of a lesser standard than that to be found in New York, that other great bastion of overseas Gaelic games.

It was in Brisbane that I came across another Irish club, this time in Elizabeth Street and not far from St Stephen’s Cathedral, built by Bishop James Quinn, whose brother Andrew Quinn was parish priest of Athy in the 1850s. The Brisbane Irish community would appear to be more active than their Sydney compatriots, the club boasting a membership of almost 7,500, comprised, I’m told, of full members and associate members. To be a full member of what in Brisbane is called a national member, you have to be Irish or of Irish descent. The origin of the Brisbane Club lies in a disagreement which followed the replacement of an Irish commander of the Queensland Irish Volunteer Rifles by a British Army officer. This happened in the centenary year of the 1798 rebellion and the disaffected Irishmen set up the Queensland Irish Association, which moved to the Elizabeth Street premises in 1921.

Brisbane’s Irish Society organises the annual St Patrick’s Day parade, which this year was brought into the city business district starting at the corner of George’s and Elizabeth Street with the salute being taken out-side the Irish Club premises before ending up at the city’s Botanic Gardens. The night before, a gala dinner was held in which more than 500 took part to celebrate the feast day of the Englishman who, strangely enough, is the most iconic representative figure of ancient Ireland.

Australia, which gave a home to several generations of Irish men and women, whether convicts, political prisoners, orphans or free settlers, is not without its contradictions. Racism, which found its most regrettable expression in the white people’s treatment of the aboriginal people, is still a source of concern for observers of the monarchist state which has yet to embrace republican democracy.

Aboriginal Australia of early centuries was a culturally impoverished country compared to the richness of the medieval culture to be found in Ireland of the time. I was reminded of this on reading the programme of events for the South Kildare Medieval Festival planned for Sunday 20 April. From 12.30pm onwards, the centre of Athy will host a variety of talks and outdoor events highlighting the medievalist contribution to Irish life. The idea for the festival arose out of the important archaeological dig which has been ongoing at Ardreigh for the last number of years. The artefacts discovered at Ardreigh and the unfolding story of Ardreigh’s medieval village afford an opportunity to provide a forum for discussion, where the archaeologists can share their knowledge with the local people. It promises to be an enjoyable day and all will be happening between 12.30pm and 4.30pm in the Heritage Centre and outside in Emily Square on Sunday 20 April.

Last week’s photograph of the Ardscull Tug of War Team has evoked great interest and my thanks goes to Peter Kelly of Geraldine who allowed me the opportunity to reproduce it. If you have any information on the members of the Ardscull team, I would be delighted to hear from you.

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