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Nicholas O'Donnell's Autobiography.

Editor: Val Noone

Published: Ballarat Heritage Services 2017

ISBN 978-1-876478-32-2

Format: 343 pp.

Price: $38.50

Reviewed by Pamela O'Neill (*)

Dr Val Noone's work on the Irish in Australia, and particularly in Victoria, is well-known to those with an interest in the field. He has for many years pursued an interest in the leading figures of the Irish home rule movement and Irish cultural organisations in Melbourne around the turn of the nineteenth into twentieth centuries. Notable amongst these figures was the medical doctor, Nicholas O'Donnell (1862-1920). With his extensive network of contacts amongst the descendants of Irish migrants to Victoria, and his keen eye for historically important material, it was perhaps inevitable that Noone would happen upon what O'Donnell's descendants called 'the diary', and recognise its importance. The result is this very fine work of scholarship, in which what O'Donnell himself called 'My Autobiography' is edited and annotated.

Although Noone could not have done better than to adapt the title O'Donnell gave to his work, that title obscures the work's real importance. It is, in fact, a wide-ranging work of family and local history. It will be of great interest to the many descendants of the complex web of families detailed by O'Donnell (including but not limited to O'Donnell, Spillane, Barry, Blake, Bruen and Taylor), to historians interested in Irish emigration, particularly from County Limerick, and those interested in the Irish home-rule, cultural and language scenes in Melbourne and in Australia more widely.

Nicholas O'Donnell was born in June 1862 at Bullengarook, Victoria, of Irish immigrant parents, and was educated partly in Gisborne and partly at St Mary's, West Melbourne and then St Patrick's, Melbourne and Melbourne University. He became a doctor, formed a lifelong friendship with monumental mason and fellow Irish home-ruler, cultural and language enthusiast Morgan Jageurs, and contributed extensively to Irish-language publishing and book collecting in Melbourne.

O'Donnell felt that his Catholicism was fundamental to his identity. He expresses the wish (p. 54) that his descendants 'be unflinching in their fidelity to the Catholic faith. It ought to be part of their nature like their nationality. Because they are Irish they ought to be proud to be Catholic and they ought to be truly Catholic because they are Irish'. These sentiments may at first seem at odds with his commitment to non-sectarian Irish nationalism, and even Noone refers to 'conflicting messages' on this point. However, an alternative reading is that O'Donnell, without wishing to see his own descendants abandon their heritage, was able to value the contribution of non-Catholics to Irish nationalism, perhaps perceiving figures such as Emmett and Parnell as welcome incomers whose value to the collective Irish identity did not rely on homogeneity: a lesson for many in today's world.

O'Donnell hand-wrote the large manuscript he titled 'My Autobiography' beginning in 1908 and continuing to update and annotate it sporadically almost until his death. It seems likely that O'Donnell intended to continue from his memoirs of the first thirty-three years of his life and recount more of his involvement in Irish cultural and political affairs, but this did not happen. After the events of 1916 and the loss of the home rule ambitions he had so keenly supported, O'Donnell had what might be considered a breakdown, closing his medical practice, abandoning his cultural involvement, and seemingly becoming disillusioned with much of his earlier work. The handwriting in the manuscript dated 1916 shows a deterioration from O'Donnell's initially neat, legible hand--perhaps another sign of the emotional trauma of that year. We may surmise that this is why the story of O'Donnell's own life does not continue beyond 1894. This want is partially remedied by Noone, who draws on painstaking research by himself and others to describe the last 25 years of O'Donnell's life in an epilogue.

In making this important historical source accessible for a wider audience, Noone has done a great service to a wide range of audiences, present and future. In this, as in everything, he has been ably assisted by Mary Doyle, whose handiwork can be seen in the family tree reproduced on pages 20 and 21, and is less visibly present throughout. The manuscript has been painstakingly and sensitively edited to a high scholarly standard. Noone has given considerable thought to how best to represent O'Donnell's work in a way that will be most helpful and clear for his readers, with excellent results.

The edited manuscript is preceded by a very useful introduction, which helpfully details Noone's editorial method alongside much other contextual information. It is followed by the epilogue referred to above; two appendices giving further details of sources and transcripts of some letters; a useful bibliography; and an excellent index. It is punctuated by a helpful and informative collection of photographs and maps, some selected from O'Donnell's collections by Noone, and others provided by Noone himself.

If one must nitpick, one could point out that Noone's outstandingly high-quality editing of the manuscript is not always matched by the standard of copyediting of Noone's own text. This is a common problem for good editors, who can never treat their own work quite as well as that of others. The text is of a higher standard than one often finds in commercial publications of recent years, but a small few infelicities of expression and punctuation, and occasional typographical anomalies (like opening quotation marks in place of apostrophes in abbreviated years) survive. But this is to nitpick indeed.

The final word must be given to presentation. The volume is very handsome, in keeping with the photograph of the equally handsome O'Donnell on the front cover. Facsimiles of the manuscript on the endpapers are aesthetically pleasing, as well as giving a taste of the original artefact. Typesetting and layout are elegant and easily read.

(*) Dr Pamela O'Neill, University of Sydney.
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Author:O'Neill, Pamela
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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