From the time when the Irish Language Association of Australia was first conceived in Melbourne in 1991-92 it has gone from strength to strength. The Association was formally registered as a legal entity on 7 May 1993 and it now has been in existence for over ten years. Between 30 and 40 association members regularly gather every week to participate in the conversation circle or to attend the classes and singing. We run Daonscoil Victoria (Irish summer school) each year and other events are run throughout the year. To cap it off we now have our own website which will provide a wonderful opportunity for us to communicate with our friends in all corners of this country and overseas, but especially with our fellow-associations that are organising in the other states, "In unity there is strength". One could say that there is no limit to our future but our own determination. So, as this website is launched we will tell the story of our Association to the world and bid a hearty welcome all who read it. We welcome also any further information or corrections on particular points of history.
But before discussing the Association and Irish language affairs in the decade just past, we must first take a look at the history of the language itself in this country. Of course the Irish language has been in Australia since 1788, when the First Fleet landed in Botany Bay. As we know the authorities in New South Wales thought it was a "secret" language and that its speakers were attempting some kind of plot. We have no reliable knowledge of the number of Irish speakers who came to this country as convicts and we probably never will, due to the absence of evidence, for there is only a passing reference to it in the official records. In Melbourne it would appear that there was a number of Irish speakers from the early years, according to "Garryowen" (Edmond Finn) the journalist from Co Clare who came here in the early 1840s. Incidentally, the wife of John Batman, captain of the Port Philip Association, was an Irishwoman. Her name was Eliza Callaghan and she was a young girl from near Ennis, Co Clare when she was transported in the 1820s to Van Diemen's Land where she later married Batman. It's a pity we have no knowledge of her youth in Ireland but if its true that she was born around 1800 in the West of Ireland she must surely have had quite good Irish from that time well before the Great Famine.
In the Nineteenth Century, when things were tough for the ethnic Irish, mostly poor people, they had to come to terms with the majority culture and ways merely to survive, let alone make their way in life. The "non-essentials" such as the language and culture were put aside in the interests of assimilation and who could blame them now, with the difficulties they had to surmount at the time?
But with the Twentieth Century things were improving. The Catholic Church (most important mark of their ethnic identity retained by the Irish) had carved out a place for itself in Australian life and gradually came a revival of the culture with music and dancing, etc. Those organisations progressed wonderfully well in the capital cities and elsewhere but there were special difficulties with the language, a language that had been abandoned three or four generations before. There were (and still are) stories of the Irish language (a word or two, or perhaps a snatch of an old song, truth to tell) in places like Koroit and Kilmore in Victoria or Boorowa in NSW right up to the Second World War era, and there are still some headstones with Irish inscriptions in cemeteries there ("lobsters are found in rare places", says the old proverb), but that's all.
This is not to say that over the years certain people here and there in Australia were not very interested in Irish language study. Dr Niochlas O'Donnell was a recognised Gaelic scholar in Melbourne in the early part of last century, for example. He wrote a column for the newspaper "The Catholic Advocate" for some time and left a collection of Irish books to the Library of Newman College, University of Melbourne, with one old manuscript among them.They are still there in the Library in Swanston St, Carlton, but few people ever get to use them now. There are also quite a few Irish books in the Caroline Chisholm Catholic Library in Lonsdale St, which apparently were obtained in a similar manner from a lone Gaelic scholar, happily these books are available to all who join the Library for a small cost.
We are aware that the Gaelic League was operating in Sydney in the 1920s (The Albert Dryer Branch) and there may perhaps be more details on that movement available from our friends in NSW in the future, but in Melbourne at the close of the 'seventies the Sean South Club were running Irish classes in Flinders St for about a year. For one reason or another these attempts gradually faded until we reach the eighties with "multiculturalism" riding high across the land. It was at this period that "Old Australians" began to take a new interest in their ancestors, the kind of life they had left behind in the old land, and to seek a deeper knowledge of their culture.
At about that time Irish classes were commenced in a back room of The Australian-Irish Welfare Bureau in Fitzroy (it was called "The Hedge School"). Some years ago it shifted to Northcote where it still continues to operate. In the late 'eighties Irish classes started in Princes Hill High School, Carlton and at the University of Melbourne, for beginners. As well as that an Irish language Program commenced on SBS Radio which drew a group of fluent Irish speakers together each fortnight from all parts of the city. Prominent among those involved were Mossie Scanlon, Eileen and Vincent Loughnane (these latter three being native speakers from the West Kerry Gaeltacht), David Lucy, Áine Szymanski, Eamonn Naughton, Colin Ryan, Jean Tongs, Ted Ryan, Cathal Keating, Vincent O'Gorman, Sister Nora Finucane, Louis de Paor and others.
It didn't take long before Irish language enthusiasts city-wide began to express the need for a regular social meeting place. What was required was a conversation group to enable speakers to maintain their fluency or to brush up as necessary, and naturally, to give help to those who were already attending the classes mentioned above and whose numbers were increasing all the time. Clearly some kind of club would be required and after a period of informal meetings at various places such as Naughton's Hotel in Parkville, the Dan O'Connell Hotel in Carlton and the Celtic Club in the city centre, The Irish Language Association of Australia was formally founded in 1992. It was officially registered as a limited association on 7th May 1993 and continued to meet in the Celtic Club, for some time.
But the interest in the language continued to grow and the demand for classes kept pace as well. There was no option, the duty of the Association was to make classes available for its members who were making the demands and it would be fulfilled, although there were particular difficulties to this. Now the Association had to find suitable premises for its work which would be central to all the members and reasonably cheap. After a spell at the North Melbourne Library, we settled down in St John's Catholic Primary School in East Melbourne on the opening day of the second school term in 1993. There were the usual three levels of instruction from the start, Beginners, Intermediate and Higher, each class now having its own room. There is generally a conversation group in a separate room as well, provided sufficient fluent speakers are present.
It would be difficult to find a more suitable site, being so close to the city as it is. The schoolyard is available for parking, there are five classrooms upstairs with teaching facilities, and of course there is a tea-room. But St John's is appropriate for the Association in another important way also, for it was the ethnic Irish who built the old buildings around 150 years ago. The first chapel and round tower in the ancient Gaelic style are still there inside the gate. They were built together with the school itself with the scarce pennies and the labour of the Irish of the parish. They left their mark on the place, all praise to them!
The first Irish language summer school in Victoria (now called Daonscoil Victoria) was held in November 1995 and the NSW school continued in January 1996. The location was near Willaura in the Western District. Around twenty people attended for the week although the place was pretty far from the city. It was changed to January 1997 for the second annual school and moved to a new camp in South Gippsland as the demand for places in the school continued to grow. After a couple more years in that location ( in 1998 and 1999) the school was moved again in 2000, in response to demand for a larger site, and has settled in recent years on camps closer to the city in the district around the small towns of Ballan, Myrniong and Bacchus Marsh. Between 50 and 60 people have attended in each of those years.
The school timetable has settled with the passing years into classes at each level in the mornings and early afternoons, and usually classes in acting, music, dancing and singing, etc afterwards. In the evenings the musicians and singers and dancers usually practice for the concert and others are learning their lessons or conversing. Yet despite all that people have plenty of free time as well. It is a heavy workload for the members of the Committee getting everything ready each year and we are most grateful to them.
From our first school onward we have received tremendous support from our NSW and South Australian friends and on top of that there have always been individuals from further afield, Tasmania and even The Territory ( we are hoping for travellers from Queensland and Western Australia and perhaps New Zealand in the years to come). But the finest jewel we possess have been our special guests who have spent the week with us each year. All have been from Ireland, with beautiful Irish needless to say, but more importantly still, the willingness to teach and to take a central role in co-ordinating school activities over the entire week for their board and lodging. Fair play to them!
It is traditional now for the school to end with a Céilí Mór/Concert on the final night and after breakfast the next morning comes "scaradh na gcarad", the parting of the comrades. In truth, for the stalwarts each successive year's saying of our goodbyes becomes more of an emotional experience.
Given that immigration is practically finished as far as Ireland is concerned, its obvious that there is but one way in which the Irish language will be kept alive in this country in the years ahead. In that regard it is the long term aim of the Association that the Irish language be an official subject in the Victorian secondary school curriculum in the future and in at least one university as a unit for a BA course in Irish Studies. In the furtherance of this aim the Association has combined with Kilbreda Catholic Secondary College in Mentone to run an Irish language and culture class for the students. Certainly it is an experiment at this stage, but there are reports that some other schools in the Catholic Education system are showing interest. It will of course be the parents themselves who will really make or break this endeavour but it's up to us to plant the seed.
Another vision that is coming to fruition, after a special meeting at the Daonscoil this year it was agreed that each group of Irish language enthusiasts would run their own associations in each state and that each association would take it in turns to run a weekend school. We had a marvellous weekend in Adelaide in June of 2001 and 2002 and notices are now going out for a weekend school in Sydney over the long weekend in June 2003.
That is the story to date and we shall be adding to it regularly from time to time from here on, God willing.
28 April 2003