Sing Street - Frank McNally on the Irish contribution to modern Singapore, which is 200 years old today

Singapore. Photograph: iStock

Singapore. Photograph: iStock


Apart from a couple of hours spent in its famously beautiful airport once, I have never visited Singapore, which is officially 200 years old today. But I know it has at least one major distinction among the great cities of the world. It’s the only one I’m heard of with a “McNally Street”.

Alas, the street and I are no relation. The Joseph McNally it’s named for was a Mayoman, born near Balltintubber in 1923. He joined the De La Salle Brothers in his teens and soon afterwards discovered another life-long vocation: art.  

It was the former that brought him to Singapore, as a teacher. Then the latter brought him home for a time, to study at the National College of Art in Dublin. But after his first solo exhibition – in Brown Thomas’s in 1951 – he went back to southeast Asia and spent most of the rest of his life there. 

After an already illustrious career in teaching, he went on to found Singapore’s St Patrick’s Art Centre, now the LASALLE College of the Arts (it’s at No. 1 McNally Street, naturally). And by the end of his life (2002), he was considered the most important influence on arts education in the history of his adopted country.

The legacy of Irish religious missionaries was an accidental accompaniment of British Empire, and in the case of Bro Joseph, at least, seems to have been a positive one. The legacy of colonialism in general, however, is more mixed. 

So I gather that modern Singapore is not quite celebrating the bicentenary of its establishment by Sir Stamford Raffles, who on February 6th, 1819, signed a treaty that would turn the Malayan island of Singapura into a region-dominating port. Instead, the emphasis of a year-long series of events will be in the more sober keys of reflection and commemoration.

More than a century before Joseph McNally arrived there, by the way, there was an Irish accent on the city’s early development too. It belonged to George Drumgoole Coleman, a young civil architect from Drogheda, who had just started a career in India and Malaysia when he secured an introduction to Raffles and thereby landed the job of planning the new Singapore’s centre.

His works include the city’s oldest Christian church: the magnificent Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator.  

And of course he has a street named after him too.

As for the founder, it used to be said that behind every great man was a woman. That’s not such a fashionable concept any more. But it probably was true of Raffles, and the woman behind his rise to greatness was yet another Irish emigré.

By the time he established Singapore, unfortunately, she was behind him historically too, having died in 1814. Until then, Olivia Fancourt (née Devenish) had been his senior by 10 years, and a woman of great social influence, which she used for his advancement. 

The Malayan writer Munshi Abdullah eulogised her “charm” and “friendly and courteous manner to the rich and poor alike”. He also noted how Raffles always consulted her on important decisions, and that she was herself fiercely diligent, “forever working away at one thing or another”.

But there had been scandal in her past, and even in her conception. Like the city Raffles founded, she too may have been a colonial creation.  

According to the Singapore National Library Board, she was the “illegitimate child of George (or Godfrey) Devenish of Casheltauna, Four Mile House, Co Roscommon” and an unnamed “Circassian woman in India”.

Born in 1771, she was brought to Ireland in childhood, but as a teenager sailed east again. En route, she had an affair with the ship’s master, bearing him a daughter in India (and leaving the child with him), before marrying a different man, surgeon Jacob Fancourt, who died a few years later.

It was back in London she met Raffles, with whom she married in 1805. She is also said to have been at some point an “inamorata” of Thomas Moore. To complicate the story further, when Olivia died, Raffles married another wife “of Irish descent”, Sophia Hull.

In the meantime, he and the Roscommon-Circassian spent an influential decade of his life in West Java, where she is commemorated in the Botanical Gardens. She does not have a street named after her, so far as I know.

But unusually – again according to Singapore National Library – she does have a “hillock” in her honour.

It’s the location of a house where she and Raffles once lived, on the island of Penang, and is now known as “Mount Olivia”.

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