Journal of a Voyage to Australia 1855-56: Myles Athy, A Recruit for St Mary's Monastery, Sydney.
Publisher: ATF Press, Adelaide, July 2017,
Paperback: xx + 160 pp. + unnumbered facsimile pages.
Reviewed by Michael Hogan (*)
On 27 October 1855 Archbishop Polding boarded the Phoenix in the Mersey at Liverpool, bound for Sydney from a visit to Europe. With him he brought a small entourage: three Benedictine monks, including Abbot Gregory, and three Benedictine nuns, destined for the Australian mission. On board there were three other priests who were not Benedictines. Also in the group was a 37-year-old Irishman who was hoping to become a professed Benedictine when the party arrived in Sydney. His name was Myles Athy--pronounced "o-thigh"--and he is of interest because he wrote a diary of the journey, which is at present lodged in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin. Anne Wark, who was acquainted with Athy because one of the stained glass windows in St James' Church, Forest Lodge (Glebe) was dedicated to him by parish priest Hugh Callachor OSB in the 1880s, obtained permission from Dublin to transcribe and publish the hand-written diary.
Along with the journal itself, Anne Wark has provided a generous (about 60 pages) explanation of the various historical contexts that were familiar to Athy, if not to his readers a century and a half later. These include: the Benedictine mission in Australia and the role of leaders like Polding and Gregory; Athy's education at Downside College in England where he had had earlier contact with Polding; class differences among Irish Catholic families; the international background of the Crimean War; the newly established Marist community of Hunters Hill, and, of course, the daily routine of a sailing ship on a three-month journey in the mid 19 (th) Century.
The author of the journal intended his exercise book to be posted back to his family, so he was certainly not concerned with answering the questions that a modern reader might like answered. That said, however, a modern reader would wish that Athy had been more observant or reflective. All the evidence, including that of his mother, suggests that he was not very bright. He seemed most concerned to provide a summary of what food was available for each meal of every day. A typical commentary for 2 November 1855 begins:
[9.sup.H].[15.sup.M]. Breakfast. Fare: boiled Ling, Sardines, Mashed Ling & potatoes, Boiled Potatoes. Curried fowl, Hot rolls, rather black but pretty good. Ship biscuits, Tea & Coffee. I tried the boiled Ling but had to send it away. I did not like it, not being "the best".
Much of Athy's time, as the ship travelled the great circle route from Liverpool to its first landfall at Melbourne, was spent in preparation for his new vocation. He had almost daily sessions with the Archbishop, polishing up his Latin, learning the elements of spiritual formation, and discussing theological and ethical matters. Polding seems to have appreciated this contact, and he would take Athy as a companion on future trips inside Australia and on a later trip to Europe in 1864, but the younger man was unsatisfactory as a sounding board for serious discussions. Abbot Gregory, in contrast, was a constant point of contact for such issues, even after Gregory's return to England. Athy joined the Benedictine community in Sydney on his arrival, and, after ordination as a priest, served in Orange, Lyndhurst, Waterloo, Haymarket, St Benedict's at Broadway, Brisbane Water, Bulli and Forest Lodge. He was a popular pastor, dying in 1891 at the age of 72.
We are indebted to Anne Wark for this work of transcription from a difficult scribbled hand-written text (as evidenced in the selection of facsimile pages), and for her intelligent editorial commentary. Despite Athy's lack of curiosity about anything but humdrum shipboard life, the journal is an interesting document, providing insights into the daily life of the Benedictine party on the ship, and it also provides a useful contribution to maritime history with its discussion of a ship's routine, the boredom of a long voyage without landfall, relationships between cabin and steerage passengers, even including an example of the Captain's use of authority to quench some drunken Christmas brawling among the crew.
There are insights into the character of Archbishop Polding and Abbot Gregory. The picture painted of Gregory acting as the life of the party, leading deck games for steerage passengers with enthusiasm and jollity, helps to fill out a biography of a man otherwise remembered more for his role in serious ecclesiastical politics.
One aspect 1 regret in Athy's journal is the lack of attention to the relationships among the Benedictine party. The nuns are in the background, but are mentioned only rarely. More significantly, however, he shows no understanding that two of the monks in the party--Anselm Curtis and Mellitus Corish--were returning to Australia after a failed attempt to convince Rome that Archbishop Polding had treated them unjustly. As Wark points out, Polding himself had gone to Rome planning to hand in his own resignation in the face of opposition to his role in Sydney. That request was also turned down in Rome. Surely relationships were strained on both sides. What a pity we don't have a frank diary of the journey written by Dr Gregory! However, we do have this one written by Myles Athy, and it is certainly worth a look.
(*) Michael Hogan. Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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