Ned Kelly and 'Mary Poppins' writer among top Irish-Australians

Wed, Aug 19, 2009, 01:00

SYDNEY LETTER:A list of 100 people with Irish roots shows a huge influence on politics, art, sport and folk legend

IN 1992, then Australian prime minister Paul Keating said that “Australia without the Irish would be unthinkable . . . unimaginable . . . unspeakable.” Keating’s enduring pride in his heritage ensured he made the cut in the top 100 Irish-Australians list just published in the 20th anniversary edition of the Sydney-based Irish Echonewspaper.

The list is a fascinating insight into the vast Irish contribution to Australian politics, business, sport, law, arts and many other areas.

“These are people who’ve made a positive contribution in their field, so each individual would have certainly achieved a lot in their lives,” said Irish Echoeditor Billy Cantwell.

Bushranger and renegade folk hero Ned Kelly made the list, but so did Redmond Barry, a Cork-born, Trinity-educated judge.

Barry had a scandalous affair with a married woman on the boat to Australia, a very successful legal career and did a huge amount of pro bonowork for Aborigines who had no one else to turn to. But he’ll forever be remembered for one thing only: he sentenced Ned Kelly to death. Barry died suddenly in 1880, a mere 12 days after Kelly was hanged.

Two other Trinity graduates are among the 22 still-living legends on the list. Alan Joyce of Qantas and Paul O’Sullivan of telecommunications giant Optus are both currently earning millions as chief executives of their respective companies.

Sport is well-represented, including swimmer Fanny Durack (Olympic gold medallist in 1912), boxer Les Darcy (felled by a low blow in a world welterweight fight in 1915, dead two years later, aged 22), Australian Rules players Jim Stynes and Tadhg Kennelly, and soccer star Lucas Neill, whose father Ed played for both Cliftonville and Linfield in the 1960s.

Neill is related through his mother to Schindler’s Arkauthor Tom Keneally, who is also on the list. Keneally has always been very proud of his Irish roots, but the inclusion of the author of Mary Poppinswill surprise many.

Most assume Pamela Lyndon (PL) Travers was English, but she was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland to an Irish father and a mother of Scottish background.

She changed her name when working as an actress. After moving to England, she worked as a journalist, becoming friendly with WB Yeats and George Russell. Some of her poems were published in the Irish Statesman before Mary Poppins brought her wealth and fame.

Neither Kylie nor Dannii Minogue (Melburnians of Irish ancestry) made the top 100, but Dan Minogue did. Born in Co Clare in 1893, Minogue was elected to Australia’s federal parliament with the Labor Party in 1949.

In 1951, he began a campaign for Australia to have an ambassador appointed to Dublin. After years of being taunted by Liberal ministers with cries of “Get back to the bogs”, he finally got his wish in 1965.

Nicole Kidman’s Irish accent in Far And Away(1992) was at least better than that of her then husband’s, perhaps because her Celtic heritage stretches beyond her pale skin and red hair.

“My paternal grandmother’s side were Irish. They were from Co Clare and came to Australia as free settlers in the mid-l800s with a pioneering spirit,” she said.

Three men – John Moriarty, Patrick Johnson and Kev Carmody – with Aboriginal mothers and Irish ancestry on their fathers’ side are on the list.

Moriarty’s father is from Tralee. Under an assimilation policy, he was taken from his mother at the age of four and shipped, without his family’s knowledge, to a childrens’ home, entering a harsh world of orphanages and poverty. Against incredible odds, Moriarty has found great success as an artist, including painting two Qantas jets with Aboriginal motifs.

He has tracked down his relatives in Co Kerry, knocked on their door and said “G’day! I’m your cousin from Australia.”

Johnson, whose father is from Co Carlow, is Australia’s fastest man. In 2003, he became the first Australian, and the first man of non-African background, to break the 10-second barrier over 100 metres.

Carmody, whose grandfather was Irish, began university at the age of 33, having spent 17 years working as a labourer. He eventually got a PhD.

While at university, Carmody used his guitar in tutorials to tell stories of indigenous history. This eventually led to a successful music career.

His first album, Pillars Of Society, was released in 1989 when he was 43. Australian Rolling Stonemagazine’s review said it was “the best album ever released by an Aboriginal musician and arguably the best protest album ever made in Australia”.

Cantwell is happy with how the list turned out. “I’m sure others could come up with another 100 names. If there wasn’t a fight about this, I’d be very disappointed.”

He need not be disappointed. The Irish Echo’swebsite is currently a battleground of “why wasn’t so-and-so included”?