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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Narelle, Marie (Molly) (1870–1941)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Marie Narelle (1870-1941), by U.S. Lithograph Company, 1906

Marie Narelle (1870-1941), by U.S. Lithograph Company, 1906

Tasmaniana Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125297531

Marie (Molly) Narelle (1870-1941), singer, was born on 28 January 1870 at Combaning station, near Temora, New South Wales, fourth child of native-born parents of Irish lineage, John Ryan, goldminer, and his wife Catherine, née Comans, daughter of the occupier of Combaning. Registered as Catherine Mary, the child was known as Molly. She was educated locally and at the Presentation convent (Mount Erin), Wagga Wagga, where she learned music and singing. After an itinerant life mainly around southern New South Wales, the family settled at Candelo, near Bega. Molly had already gained a reputation singing at concerts for local charities. On 29 January 1891 at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, she married with Catholic rites Matthew Aloysius Callaghan, an attorney's clerk. A drunkard, he left her about 1894 with three small children to support. Finding few opportunities in Sydney, she became a music teacher at Candelo, visiting her scattered pupils on horseback and by horse and sulky.

After Bishop Joseph Higgins heard Molly singing at Cobargo Catholic Church and offered introductions in Sydney, she took a studio in W. H. Paling's building in George Street. She studied first at St Vincent's Convent, Potts Point, with Mary Ellen Christian (Sister Mary Paul of the Cross), who had taught Melba and had been a student of the renowned Manuel Garcia (1805-1906) of the Royal Academy of Music. Later, Molly studied in Sydney under Roberto Hazon and Signor Steffani.

Molly Callaghan adopted the stage name 'Marie Narelle', reputedly taking the surname from an Aboriginal 'Queen of the Moruya tribe' as a 'sort of talisman'. In 1898-1902 she gave concerts in New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania, managed by the flautist John Lemmone, some in association with the contralto Eva Mylott (1875-1920). Irish and Scottish ballads were Narelle's specialty, but she sang operatic arias and oratorio as well. During the tours, Mrs William Bourke, a cousin, cared for Narelle's children. Invited by the visiting Irish politician William O'Brien to sing in Ireland at the close of the Cork Exhibition, she left Australia in July 1902. Narelle was acclaimed in Ireland, where Michael Davitt, the socialist, opined that it 'took an Australian to teach the Irish to render their own songs', and gave the then unknown tenor John McCormack (1885-1945) a place on her programme. In London she renewed lessons with Steffani and studied Gaelic. On 8 June 1903 she shared the platform at the Royal Albert Hall with (Dame) Clara Butt and Ada Crossley.

Narelle and McCormack went to the United States of America in the Irish cultural delegation to the St Louis World Fair; for seven months from April 1904 they were the principal artists in the 'Blarney Castle Theatre' at the fair's Irish village exhibit. Following many American engagements, and having made wax cylinder recordings for T. A. Edison, in June 1906 she returned to the Australian concert circuit; she also sang in New Zealand then went back to Europe.

During another Australian tour in 1909, including Western Australia, Narelle obtained a divorce from Callaghan in Sydney on 2 June. Next year she settled in New York and in 1911 gave recitals throughout the U.S.A. with McCormack. On 9 December at the West End Presbyterian Church, Manhattan, she married Harry Allen Currie, a Canadian-born electrical engineer. The couple lived in New York, where her hospitality to Australian soldiers passing through the U.S.A. in World War I was famous.

Narelle made her last Australian tour in 1925-26, revisiting the New South Wales scenes of her youthful successes, including Temora, Candelo and Boorowa—'the Tipperary of Australia'. After her husband's death in 1934, she moved to England. Reconciled with the Catholic Church, Catherine Mary Narelle Currie died on 26 January 1941 at Clevecot, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, England, and was buried in Holy Trinity churchyard. She was survived by her son Reginald and daughters Kathleen, a pianist who had sometimes accompanied her, and Rita, a coloratura soprano. When the churchyard was resumed for a children's playground, Marie Narelle's headstone was sent to Australia and re-erected in the grounds of the Temora Rural Museum in 1980.

'The Australian Queen of Irish Song' was noted for a voice 'not unlike Melba's', for her marvellous diction in four languages and for the passion with which she performed. Commenting on the pre-eminence of Australian singers such as Melba and Crossley, she held that, rather than physical influences like climate, it was 'the Australian personality that has made the Australian voice. We are a natural people . . . free in all we do and say and think and it is that freedom, I believe, that makes us good singers'.

Select Bibliography

  • B. and F. Mackenzie, Singers of Australia (Melb, 1967)
  • H. V. Lloyd, Boorowa (Syd, 1990)
  • W. Bebbington (ed), The Oxford Companion to Australian Music (Melb, 1997)
  • Sydney Mail, 9 Sept 1899, p 637
  • Catholic Press, 29 Mar 1902, p 14, 28 Dec 1905, p 5
  • Freeman’s Journal (Sydney), 23 June 1906, p 14
  • Bulletin, 17 Feb 1921, p 42
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Oct 1925, p 6
  • Narelle material (National Film and Sound Archive)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Narelle, Marie (Molly) (1870–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Marie Narelle (1870-1941), by U.S. Lithograph Company, 1906

Marie Narelle (1870-1941), by U.S. Lithograph Company, 1906

Tasmaniana Library, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125297531

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ryan, Catherine Mary
  • Callaghan, Molly
  • Currie, Catherine Mary

28 January 1870
Combaning station, New South Wales, Australia


26 January 1941
Clevecot, Oxfordshire, England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence