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O'Donnell, Nicholas Michael (1862–1920)

by Chris McConville

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Nicholas Michael O'Donnell (1862-1920), Irish nationalist and Gaelic scholar, was born on 9 June 1862 at Bullengarook, Victoria, son of Michael O'Donnell, farmer, and his wife Johanna, née Barry. Showing early scholarly ability, he was sent to study at St Mary's, West Melbourne, in 1871. Next year he returned to Gisborne with his widowed mother and brother David, but in 1876 again set out for Melbourne, to complete his schooling at St Patrick's College and to study medicine at the University of Melbourne (M.B., 1884). On 30 December 1884 at St Francis' Church he married Mary Anne Josephine Bruen. He established a medical practice in Victoria Street, North Melbourne, the most Irish part of the city.

O'Donnell quickly became a central figure in the West Melbourne parish and a participant in Catholic activities in the metropolis. But his greatest devotion was to the cause of Irish nationalism, a commitment first fired at university by a meeting with the ardent Irish nationalist Joseph Winter. With the establishment in 1887 of the non-sectarian Celtic Club, of which he was president in 1907-09, O'Donnell found a role in Home Rule affairs. He became the key figure in the Irish National League of Victoria and its successor in 1900, the United Irish League, their long-term president and organizer of the many visits of Irish nationalists.

From the 1890s O'Donnell promoted Irish cultural activities. Almost alone at first, he seized on the Irish cultural revival and battled to revive Gaelic while the Irish-born in Victoria were dying out. His enthusiasm kept the Gaelic League alive in Melbourne and he became one of Australia's outstanding Gaelic scholars, writing extensively on Irish language and politics in both Gaelic and English. His collection of Irish language books is now held at Newman College, University of Melbourne. He was a keen supporter of the Melbourne Irish Pipe Band and of an Irish National Orchestra.

The Easter Rebellion of 1916 and the anti-conscription campaign undid most of O'Donnell's lifelong efforts. O'Donnell and a few others remained loyal to John Redmond and the old guard of the Home Rule movement while younger Catholics in Melbourne clustered round Archbishop Daniel Mannix and the fervent republicanism of Sinn Fein. The ensuing campaign for Irish independence left O'Donnell stranded as the local tide of Celtic enthusiasm swept past him and speedily destroyed most of the organizations for which he had laboured. The Celtic Club, the U.I.L. and even his cherished Gaelic clubs split over the national question. In 1919 he withdrew from public Irish affairs and closed his surgery. He died of cerebral haemorrhage at his daughter's Elsternwick home on 14 January 1920 and was buried with Catholic rites in Melbourne general cemetery. His daughter, wife of Frank Brennan, and three sons survived him.

O'Donnell was a founder and second president of the Australian Natives' Association in North Melbourne and a councillor of the (Royal) Victorian Historical Society. The drive with which he tackled Irish questions might in different circumstances have been concentrated on these Australian activities. Despite his blindness to the changes occurring in Ireland during World War I, O'Donnell remains a towering figure in Australian Irish affairs. A staunch Catholic, he saw no reason to divorce his religion from his politics, but for the most part he strove for a non-sectarian Irish nationalism.

Select Bibliography

  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 8, no 29, Nov 1920, p 14
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 11 Dec 1915, 24 Jan 1920
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 22 Jan 1920
  • G. M. Tobin, The Sea-Divided Gael: A Study of the Irish Home Rule Movement in Victoria and New South Wales, 1880-1916 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1970)
  • Redmond papers (National Library of Ireland).

Citation details

Chris McConville, 'O'Donnell, Nicholas Michael (1862–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/odonnell-nicholas-michael-7879/text13697, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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