Echoes of Erin in Australia

By Tomas O Maoldomhnaigh

Echoes of Erin in Australia

Having been requested by the Ardchomhairle of Comhaltas to embark on a return visit to Australia for the purpose of finalising venues, dates, etc for the first CCE tour in 1997, I set out from Shannon via London and Bangkok to Sydney. After a 3 hour wait in Sydney I got a connecting flight to North Queensland to the coastal city of Cairns. I had ample time to read on the 22 hour flight and I came across a very learned article in Treoir No 1 of 1996 by S Ahmed de Ridder in which he compliments CCE as an organisation and observes ‘Irish traditional music has shown the universality of its soul by readily transcending national boundaries, and this uniqueness is something the Irish people and their vibrant musical culture can be very proud of indeed. In a world in which the most vulgar aspects of commerce have now settled on every tree, Irish traditional music has, thanks to its timeless nature, managed to find a home in the hearts of culturally diverse people. It is truly a triumph of spirit over matter’. With these thoughts in my mind I was, indeed, looking forward to meeting with the writer and his wonderful family.

I was fortunate when I had cleared customs etc to meet with both Sased and a Limerick man Mick O’Mara who made me feel welcome. Having sorted out the business end of things, booking a theatre etc, we repaired to the Irish Bar where a music session is organised by Mick and friends on each Saturday afternoon.

It had been arranged that my first night would be spent in the ‘bush’. This was nothing new to me having spent a number of years in the ‘bush’ in Africa in the early 1970’s. But first I was informed that bed would have to wait a little longer. Though somewhat jetlagged I did my best to appreciate the three hours drive from Cairns to Atherton Tablelands - a truly beautiful unspoiled natural countryside, where the de Ridder family Sased and Carina and their three wonderful children live.

What, one may ask, has this go to do with traditional Irish music and Comhaltas? While on my previous visit to Australia with Bill Cunningham, I had the opportunity to speak with Carina de Ridder by phone from Melbourne with a view to setting up a branch of CCE in North Queensland. This all came about through contact with Michael Cleary of Sydney. One of the most interesting aspects of the story is the universality of the Irish Culture because as it transpired neither Sased nor Carina have any Irish connections at all - the seed was sown twenty years ago, when Carina from Belgium was on a trip to Dingle! Having eventually emigrated to Australia she married Sased of Dutch Indonesian origin and today their children Jem (12), Karim (11), Khalide (8) carry on the Irish tradition of music making.

I was to spend only one night with this family, but it was a memorable experience to hear them playing the most haunting music in the northern style on fiddles, flute and tin-whistles. The main influences on their music came from tapes of Johnny Doherty and John Loughran. They show an extraordinary appetite and ability in relation to Irish traditional music and this without any structures such as classes, workshops etc. Probably to their advantage is the fact that they live in isolation, correspondence school and unaffected by modern commercialism, peer pressure, etc.

My time spent with this family was much too short. However, the hospitality afforded to me coupled with good music, chat and friendship will stay in my memory for many years. I look forward to meeting all the family in 1997 when they come to Ireland.

It is difficult for us in Ireland to appreciate the vastness of Australia. My next stop was 500 miles south-west of Cairns at Mount Isa, a mining town where the largest Irish Worker’s Club of Australia is managed by Ben Gillick of Meath. I had the pleasure to meet a young Irish dancing teacher Theresa McNamara from Newmarket-on-Fergus who teaches dancing in the Club, as well as Larry Flynn from Cashel and Oliver Sweeney from County Tyrone.

Still in Queensland after a trip by plane of about 1,000 miles from Mount Isa, I arrived in the large city of Brisbane on the Pacific Ocean. It was a pleasure to meet once again Therese Lavelle (Dublin) Entertainments Manager of Queensland Irish Association and her husband Gabriel from Galway. It is interesting to note that the first Irish born president of the Irish Club (QIA) in 100 years is Patrick Brennan from Carrick-on-Shannon. While in Brisbane, I was invited by the QIA to attend a lunch organised by the Irish Business Association whose current President is Philip Moynihan of Cork. Philip introduced me to Viki Scott an Irish Dance Teacher and Niall Nugent of Dublin. Some of the Irish traditional music fraternity I met in Brisbane included Mick Tunney (Mayo), and Sue Fish members of the band Shebeen, who play every Wednesday in QIA. The other members of the band are Adrian Jeffries (Antrim) uilleann piper (maker and performer) and Rose Broe - keyboards.

My trip continued south along the coast to the town of Newcastle - a holiday paradise North of Sydney, where I enjoyed the company of Dermot Tansey of Roscommon and his wife Josephine from County Limerick, and Fr Thomas Kennedy of Mull inahone, County Tipperary, who has been in Australia for over 40 years.

On to Sydney, regarded as the most beautiful city in Australia, where I was welcomed by Michael Cleary of Ennistymon County Clare and his wife Mina from County Mayo. Michael and his family have long been the foremost supporters and promoters of Irish culture and of CCE in Sydney and Australia. This city of 4.5 million has many traditional musicians, singers and dancers scattered throughout this sprawling metropolis. Sydney is no stranger to visiting Irish traditional musicians, who over the years have stayed periodically in the city teaching and performing.

Among those were Maura O’Keeffe, Jackie Daly, David Sheridan, Josie Marsh, Mary Shannon, John Carty, Eilis O’Connor and currently Michelle Powderly.

Many young Australians now show great interest in learning Irish traditional music and dancing and often meet for sessions in such venues as the Gaelic Club and Thurles Castle and in ‘Irish’ pubs dotted throughout the city. Many young Irish also meet in the Mercantile in the under the management of Dubliner Terry O’Neill. There I met, among many, Leo Stewart of Derry a great supporter of traditional music in the city, and also Philip Gannon of Castlerea, County Roscommon and Seamus Finneran also of Roscommon.

Many Irish people in Sydney also promote Irish cultural activities through Radio, TV and newsmedia such as Padraig Seoighe from Mayo who has a weekly programme ‘Eire san Astráil’ on Radio 2EA; Vince Murray and Martin Coleman on Radio 2RDJ ‘Ireland Calling’, Nancy and Neill O’Donnell ‘The Irish Heritage ProgrammE on 2SER FM, and also Billy Cantwell and Annette Blackwell of ‘The Irish Echo’, and Seamus Maher of ‘The Irish Australian’. Sydney has many Irish Dancing Schools catering for this interest, no doubt inundated with new applicants due to the success of ‘Riverdance and ‘Lord of the Dance. The Irish Céilí Dancing scene in Sydney is currently organised by Margaret Winnett and her troupe of Céilí Dancers.

Melbourne, Australia’s second city has been home to the Irish for generations and no doubt has probably the largest collection of Irish traditional musicians born either in Ireland or Australia. The local Comhaltas branch is quite active with weekly sessions under the leadership of Paddy O’Neill of Cavan and of course classes organised prior to the session. Always lending a hand to the music you will find people like Paddy and John Fitzgerald from Bodyke, County Clare; Kathleen Harte, Teresa Cronin, Ray and Joan Munday, Peter Rayner, Moray Logan, Gréagan O’Leary, Derek Browne and Pam Connell. Paddy O’Neill and his family must be credited with providing opportunities for learning, performing and for promoting the Irish Music Tradition in this region over many years and no doubt over the coming years as well. As in Sydney, Irish music sessions are regularly found in many ‘Irish’ pubs in Melbourne. One very proud person in the Melbourne Irish Scene is Conor Hayes of Dublin who is the current World Irish Dancing Champion. Conor emigrated as a very young child and is a member of the Cathy Casgriff School of Irish Dancing.

Paddy O’Neill and I took the opportunity to travel to Tasmania, to make contact with the Irish traditional music scene there, notably in Hobart and in Launceston. How delighted we were to find a gathering of musicians in full flight on the very day of arrival - Saturday afternoon in the New Sydney Hotel. Among those musicians we met were Malcolm Brooks (melodian), Peter Grubb, Secretary of the Irish Association of Tasmania, Malcolm Fielding (Banjo), Bernard Chenery (Flute) and George Callaghan (Harp/Artist) from Belfast.

Tasmania the earliest settlement for Irish enforced exiles, and no doubt holding no fond memories for these early settlers; today is a beautiful part of the continent - very much akin to Ireland in both scenic beauty and relaxed life style. We experienced this as we drove North to the city of Launceston. Again we were fortunate to find a traditional session on Sunday afternoon in ‘Irish Murphys’ Pub. Here we met Beth Sowter (fiddle), Frank Murphy (Banjo), Anthony Carr (Kells - singer), and Brian Mooney (guitar / singer) from VIC. Tasmania a little off the beaten track does not experience many visiting Irish performers and would no doubt provide a great failte to Irish traditional musicians especially.

Canberra, Australia’s capital, is a city largely peopled by Government employees, and probably does not have as large an Irish influence as the other major cities. As Irish culture transcends all boundaries, this city in time, will experience the same level of Irish cultural activity as others. It has a beautiful Irish Club where I was fortunate to meet with Pat Harris, President of the Irish Association and other staff members, as well as Barney and Angela Devlin of Belfast, Stan and Julia Cronin (Roscommon). Stan is President of Cáirde na hEireann. The Irish Ambassador Richard O’Brien and his staff are always very supportive of the Irish Scene here.

A native of Carrick-on-Suir, Maurice Cummins a dynamic person of great organisational skill, introduced us to many musicians mostly Australians born in Adelaide. I enjoyed listening and chatting to a range of musicians in the Celtic Club and in the Governer Hindmarsh Hotel. There is a great opportunity here for a branch of Comhaltas once more in Adelaide. Maurice has wonderful contacts and is one of the chief organisers of a major Celtic music festival in Kapunda, a distance of about 50 miles from Adelaide with Bill O’Brien of Kapunda. I also met Tomas Mac Aodha Bhuidhe of Birr and Tom Devlin of Belfast. I had the opportunity of doing an interview with Bob Boyd and Stephen O’Connor, both from Dublin, who present a radio programme ‘Radio Eireann’ on 5EB - an ethnic station. Among the Irish musicians I met were Pat Organ (box), County Clare and John Mullarka (Bodhrán) of SIigo who is an uncle of fiddler Kevin Burke. Many of the musicians in Adelaide owe a debt of gratitude to Tim Whelan (RIP) of Upperchurch, County Tipperary who for many years taught music classes in this city.

My final step was in Perth and I was provided with first class hospitality in the home of Sean and Margaret Doherty. Sean a native of Charlestown, County Mayo and his wife Margaret have been the driving force behind the Irish cultural scene in Perth since the late 60’s. All of their spare time is spent in the promotion, teaching and organising events especially in the Irish Club in Subiaco. Seán has assisted many young Australians not alone to appreciate Irish traditional music but has produced some fine performers among them Ormond Og Waters on concertina. At their weekly session on Monday night you would be enchanted with the fine traditional singing of Tommy Kearns from Ballymote, Co. Sligo. The present secretary, Rúnaf of the Branch, is Elaine Hourigan of Pallasgreen, County Limerick, a young emigrant and this reminds me that other young Irish emigrants would always be welcome to join Comhaltas in Australia. The future of Irish traditional music, song and dance in the Perth area is in the excellent hands of the personnel of this Branch.

Wherever I went in this vast continent one constant request was ‘can you send us an Irish music teacher?’. This no doubt, is the basis of the further continuance of traditional music on the continent, and has been recognised by those promoting our rich culture there. So, perhaps any reader who can fill this void, might contact An Cultúrlann and you will be guaranteed a céad míle failte DOWN UNDER.