‘To foster an Irish spirit’
The Irish National Association, 1915-2015
‘To foster an Irish spirit’ – was, and remains, one of the key objectives of Sydney’s oldest Irish organisation, the ‘Irish National Association’, founded by 40 people at a meeting in the Hibernian Hall in Elizabeth Street on 27 July 1915. If the INA can be said to have had a ‘Founding Father’ then that person was Albert Dryer (pictured), born in 1888, son of a German/Australian father and an Irish mother. Although he received an Australian Catholic education with an Irish tinge from the Sisters of Mercy, as a young man Dryer showed little interest in Irish affairs. Then in 1914, aged 26, he read Alice Stoppford Green’s book Irish Nationality with its impassioned plea for the revival of a separatist national spirit, based on Irish culture and history, to counteract the pervasive Anglicisation of the Irish people. As Dryer wrote:
Ireland’s real history, her glories and her suffering, were revealed to me for the first time.
From that moment on Dryer devoted the rest of his life to the building of an organisation, the INA, which would promote the development of a distinctive ‘Irish’ culture among Australia’s Irish born and, just as importantly, among that much larger community of Australian born descendants of earlier generations of Irish immigrants.
From the meeting that launched the INA in July 1915, and subsequent meetings in August, flowed statements of the overall purposes of the organisation and a constitution. An INA leaflet, produced later, listed seven main aims that can be broadly summarized as supporting the complete national independence of Ireland as a sovereign nation and the encouragement of all aspects of Irish culture – the use of the language, Irish music and dancing, literature and distinctive sports (hurling and Gaelic football). If any member of the early INA could be said to have sacrificed themselves for these aims it was Albert Dryer.
In March 1918 Dryer, along with six Irish born Australians, was interned and placed in Darlinghurst Gaol, Sydney, under the War Precautions Act and accused of being a member of a proscribed organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In the middle of World War 1, members of the IRB had been responsible for the Easter 1916 rising against British rule in Dublin and this had had significant repercussions on the conscription debates in Australia in 1916 and 1917. The ‘Darlinghurst Seven’, as they were called, were accused of seeking Irish independence with aid from the British Empire’s, hence Australia’s, enemy, Germany. An official enquiry by a judge found that there was sufficient evidence for continued detention of the seven, but the six Irishmen were released in December 1918 shortly after the end of the war. Dryer, however, was detained until March 1919
As a result of this detention Dryer lost his job with the Department of Customs. Until he qualified as a medical doctor in 1938, he found it difficult to get regular employment but he was lucky to be able to obtain a loan to put himself through medical school. Throughout those lean years Dryer maintained his commitment to the INA until his death in 1963 although, due to his medical work, he did not serve on the INA committee during the last 13 years of his life. The respect in which he was held was clearly shown by the fact that for a number of years after his death he was named on official reports and circulars ahead of other office bearers as the ‘Founder’. Always dedicated to the cultural renaissance of Ireland, one of the ‘Founder’s’ greatest legacies is the ‘Dryer Memorial Library’ on the top floor of the INA building in Devonshire Street, Sydney, a superb collection of books about Irish history, language and culture in general.
Since its foundation the INA has worked hard to promote its aims. Some sense of the many ways in which it sought to do this can be seen from activities described in various annual reports to the membership and programs of events over a century of bringing Ireland’s distinctive culture to Australia. For example, here are some examples of activities in the 1980s and 1990s:
The St Patrick’s Day Parade: Sydney’s central city parade was revived by the INA starting in 1979. By early March 1981 it was said that the parade being planned for that year would be the ‘biggest and most spectacular date’ yet and that as a result of the INA’s work 17 March was set fair to become ‘the Irish Day in Australia’. Certainly the parade attracted much local attention and the St Patrick’s Day Committee felt that the whole thing was both an expression of Ireland’s heritage and of the contribution of Ireland to Australia’s national life – ‘it is an expression of what we are, of what we hold dearly …our Irishness’. Press reports of the event talked of Sydney going green, of the streets being filled with the sights and sounds of Ireland.
Irish Dancing: The expression of Irishness through music and dancing has always been of vital importance to the INA. In the 75th anniversary year of the INA, dancers from the Irish National Dancing Association performed on the INA’s own float in the St Patrick’s Day Parade, and in his President’s report for 1986 Denis O’Flynn drew attention to the work of the INDA and its significant contribution to the INA’s finances. One of the key events of the dancing year in 1991 was the INDA’s St Patrick’s Day Feis, attended by dancing schools from throughout NSW, during which there was keen competition for prestigious awards such as the Molly McCabe perpetual trophy. Molly McCabe, who died on 1953 aged 55, was one of the top Irish dancers in Australia in her day, having won virtually every competition in Australia and New Zealand over a forty year dancing career. An obituary described her as ‘a staunch supporter of the Irish National Association’ who ‘for many years conducted INA dancing classes’.
The Irish language: From the beginning, as stated in its constitution, the INA sought ‘To encourage the use of Irish as a written and as a spoken language’. Albert Dryer taught himself Irish regarding language proficiency as an effective weapon against the ‘de-nationalising influences which operate against us so incessantly’. Just a year after the founding of the INA the language class was ‘consistently and regularly attended by a number of ardent Gaels’ although it was regretted the fact that more members were not availing themselves of ‘the opportunity afforded them of acquiring some knowledge of their native tongue’. While never hugely attended language classes were still being provided in the 1980s and 1990s, one report mentioning that despite some falling away of enrollments it had still proved possible to hold a beginners, an intermediate and an advanced class.
Easter Commemoration: If the INA can be said to have a place that gives particular meaning to all its work that place is the 1798 Memorial in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery. Unveiled on Easter Sunday 1900 the memorial commemorates by name many of the great patriots who have died for Irish freedom both during and since the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. Specifically, beneath the monument’s great Celtic cross were laid the remains of Michael Dwyer and his wife Mary, Dwyer having been one of the key leaders of the rebellion in County Wicklow, exiled to New South Wales in 1805.
Over many decades the INA has organised an Easter ceremony at the memorial that includes the celebration of a Catholic Mass and the presentation of a suitable ‘oration’ by a specially invited guest speaker. It has always been primarily an occasion to remember and reflect on the Irish struggle for complete separation and independence and possibly the first newspaper report of the event was that in the Freeman’s Journal of 2 April 1931. At the 1935 ceremony language and history came together as the rosary was said in Irish. But of all the ceremonies held there none perhaps was more significant than that of Easter 1947 which was attended by Ireland’s first Minister Plenipotentiary (in effect Ambassador) to the Commonwealth of Australia, Dr Thomas J Kiernan, and his family. What made the occasion so special was that the monument had been recently renovated by the INA, and additionally the names of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising had been added to those of previous patriots, on the memorial’s back wall. Thousands attended the ceremony and Kiernan, the representative of that independent Ireland for which the men of 1916 had died, unveiled the new names.
The above brief account of some of the key elements of the INA’s activities over a century do not do anything like justice to what is a complex and involved history. A fuller account would lay bare the struggles within the organisation over policy, administration and the often intense and divisive internal battles. It would talk of the many, many other activities, dedicatedly run by volunteers, to keep the INA economically viable, such as the famous ‘housie’ nights of the 1950s and 1960s and similar fund raisers of earlier times. A large chapter of such a history would need to be devoted to the story of the purchase and development of the site in Devonshire Street which in 1956 was opened as the INA’s Irish cultural centre. Thousands, Irish immigrants and Irish/Australians, would remember the weekend dances at the INA where romance blossomed and marriage followed as couples took the floor for the ‘Walls of Limerick’ or the ‘Siege of Ennis’. To this day the INA continues its mission of offering Irish classes, supporting the learning of Irish dancing and music, looking after the 1798 Memorial and holding the annual Easter commemoration for the patriots of the past.