Nicholas Wolf

Data + History

Jan. 17, 2012, 9:13 p.m.

Gaeilge na hAstráil

Writing from Melbourne, I can officially report that some truly wonderful resources for Irish studies can be found right here in south Victoria. Historically, the Irish made up approximately 15% of the Victorian population by the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the highest percentage in all of Australia. Given the astounding growth of Melbourne itself during the gold rush of the 1850s--within months of the gold discovery, its population had nearly doubled--this made it a particularly populous Irish center with all sorts of interesting global connections such as those to the similarly gold-crazy U.S. west coast. Irish, along with English, Scottish, Australian, German, and Canadian miners, were also involved in the defining event in the push for universal male suffrage for whites in Victoria, the Eureka uprising of 1854.

As Riona Nic Congáil has recently written in Beo! the Irish language was, and continues to be, a presence here in Victoria. Dr. Nicholas O'Donnell (1862-1920), an Australian-born son of Limerick emigrants, became an avid speaker of Irish while amassing a considerable collection of printed works in the language. President of the United Irish League in Melbourne, O'Donnell was amazingly active in local Irish nationalist politics for a quarter of a century, all while holding down a medical career and, it appears, reading a good many of the latest Irish-language publications resulting from the early creative literary outburst of the language revival. O'Donnell's collection long ago found a safe home at Newman College, where it offers a unique opportunity to Irish Studies scholars who might benefit from the current fellowship offered by the college to use it for research.

Today's Irish-speaking population in Melbourne--some learners, others fluent writers and teachers--is no less energetic. It should be remembered, of course, that the Irish-language poet Louis de Paor spent many years here in Melbourne. There is also today a regular Irish-language newsletter, An Lúibín, authored by an excellent local scholar, Colin Ryan. And there is Cumman na hAstráil, a group formed in 1992 to promote Irish in Australia, which draws students and speakers from all over the country once a year for a week of intenstive conversation and classes. Fortunate enough to be invited for a visit to this year's school, I was thoroughly impressed with all the Irish spoken among its 50 or so participants.

Sadly, my time here in Melbourne is drawing to a close this week. But I can't have pictured a more welcoming crew than Val, Mary, Angela, Kevin, Di, Elizabeth, Deirdre, Siún, Colin, Sean, and the many more friendly folks who made this a memorable stay. Now if only I could figure out how to pack more Australian ginger beer in the suitcase.