Interviewer: Siobhán McHugh for National Library of Australia
There can be few Irishmen who have sat in an Australian boardroom meeting and who, when asked, have said that their ‘second’ language was English. Maurie O’Sullivan is very proud of his fluency in Irish although, living now in retirement out of Sydney, he gets little chance to converse with others in the language. Instead he conducts an Irish conversation with himself, with his horse and dog, and sings old Gaelic songs. It is a measure of his respect for the traditional culture of his homeland and of a language that has managed to survive centuries of colonisation:
I have a native language, a lot of people don’t have a native language, they pick up somebody else’s language. I have a native language and to the day I die that language will be Irish.
Born in Ireland in 1941 into a family in Youghal, Cork, where lack of employment virtually forced his father to seek work in England, it could be said that Maurie learned all about the economic and social disadvantage suffered by the less well off. He recalls local fishermen, in a supposedly independent Ireland, battling hardship by being forced to pay a levy simply to fish the Blackwater River still under the control of the estate of the Duke of Devonshire. An education by the Christian Brothers, provided him with a strong nationalistic outlook on Ireland’s past, but he eventually found the Brothers too conservative in their approach to ongoing Irish republican activity in the 1950s which sought to undermine continuing British control of the six counties of Northern Ireland. The Brothers were not too keen on his desire to have a prayer said for two IRA men, Fergal O’Hanlon and Sean South, killed in a cross border raid in 1957.
Maurie went working in England in the early 1960s in order to qualify for the Commonwealth Government’s ‘10 Pound’ assisted passage. His choice of Australia as an emigrant destination, as opposed to the much more popular USA, came after seeing that classic film of the outback, ‘The Sundowners’, starring Robert Mitchum, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov. Not surprisingly, therefore, after arriving in Sydney in 1964 he spent some time working up country as well as in a suburban Sydney factory.
In those early Australian years Maurie played hurling and Gaelic football at Moore Park. He delighted in asking Australian friends along to see the action during Sunday games:
… let’s go out and see Morrie with this stupid game he plays with a stick … I loved that and I thought it was a simple way of giving them an orientation they never had before, a bit of a tick for Gaelic football and hurling. It’s all very well to bring Irish people out to watch the games … bring people out who are going to experience something.
On one occasion Maurie also gave the ‘oration’ at the INA’s annual Easter commemoration at the 1798 Memorial at the Waverly Cemetery. He chose as his subject one of the most dreadful experiences for the people of Ireland in their long history – the Great Famine of 1845 to 1850. What saddens him today is that the ranks of those attending the commemoration are getting thinner and he has maintained his support for those such as the Irish Republican hunger strikers of 1981, who fought what they saw as British injustice in Ireland.
The turning point in Maurie O’Sullivan’s Australian life came in the late 1960s when he joined the NSW Department of Community Services (today the Department of Family and Community Services). For almost 20 years he was a case worker dealing with some of the most challenging family situations in the state, situations which involved young children at risk of violence and neglect in the family home. Working with DOCS, Maurie feels, one saw ‘the shocking sadness of life’ and he is full of admiration for his co-workers, caught up in huge case loads, and where higher officials, and regrettably some counsellors, had no concept of the reality of these situations:
… they hadn’t a clue, very few people have gone in and done the hard work of dealing with drunken [people] … like a house full of adults all of them on drugs and so on, kids lying in shit where they haven’t had their nappies changed for days, to go into the middle of that and do something.
This was work, according to Maurie, where inevitably one’s own family often came in second after the insistent demands of children in danger.
In 1993 Maurie O’Sullivan was elected President of the Public Service Association and from 1999 to 2003 he was the union’s General Secretary. These years gave him an opportunity to do what he could for disadvantaged workers and he is proud of the significant wage increases the union was able to negotiate for the less well paid. He also fought the idea that the union should be affiliated to the Labor Party despite himself being a party member. Part of his negotiating style was to always ensure that your adversary – the bosses – could always find a way out to a successful compromise.
Today in retirement, Maurie still feels great affection for and attachment to Ireland. For a long time he visited the country on a yearly basis to see his mother, who lived to be over 100. She was a lady who, in her 100th year, could still sing a song about the death in 1920 on a protest hunger strike against British rule in Ireland of the then Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney. Maurie is also very pleased when he hears Australians voice any sense of connection with an Irish ancestral past, but feels that in every way he has thrown in his lot with his adopted land:
I’m Australian, I couldn’t live in Ireland now – I love Australia … it’s done a lot for me and I’d like to feel I’ve put a little bit back into it too.