Irish and Indigenous gathering places


Archie Roach, St Bridgid's, CrossleyAt the top of a hill in south-west Victoria sits the church and hall of St Brigid's in Crossley, surrounded by rolling green hills of fertile volcanic soil. To the south, the hills drop away to the Southern Sea. These fields have sustained the largest rural Irish immigrant population in Australia for more than 150 years.

The Irish migrants came from a country traumatised by the great Famine of the late 1840s. It is estimated that well in excess of one million Irish people died of starvation. It was Ireland's holocaust.

My own great grandmother, Mary Cleary, was the soul survivor of her family and she was sent to Australia to her only known living relative. She sailed out of Cobh harbour in Cork, as a young girl, knowing there was no family to go back to.

Her story is not unique in this area. Many of the migrants who came to the Port Fairy, Killarney, Crossley and Koroit areas were from some of the areas worst affected  by the famine. They came to Australia in desperation as a beaten people, with little but the will to survive.

Before migrants came to these shores, it was Gunditjmara country. The Aboriginal tribal clan lands of the KoroitGunditj, MoonwerGunditj and TarererGunditj. By the time the Irish began arriving in the early 1850s, the Aboriginal population had been decimated by disease, alcohol abuse and killings. Their tribal lands had been usurped and they were reduced to fringe dwellers in their own country.

Last Saturday night, in that country hall in Crossley, Archie Roach, a Gunditjmara man, a child of the stolen generation and multi award winning vocalist, sang in solidarity with the Irish Catholic descendants of those famine migrants.

Five generations after our forefathers built and paid for St Brigid's church at the turn of the 19th century, the people of Crossley and Killarney are fighting to save the gathering place from private ownership. Against the wishes of the local community, the buildings are for sale by tender by the Catholic Church.

At the sell-out fundraising concert to buy back the buildings (pictured), Archie told the audience of young and old, black and white, old residents and newcomers: 'My people know what it is like to have something you love taken away from you. This place belongs to these people. You can't just take it away. They belong here. It's their place.'

This from a man who knows a thing or two about community and the pain of having it taken away. We should not repeat the same mistakes by devaluing our own settler heritage, and the sacred space and communities our Irish forebears built for us.

The principle is simple and universal: people need a place to belong; it is innately human to share song and hand down stories, and find strength, support and salvation in each other. All these things are the glue which binds our communities together.

In 2006, at the annual renowned 'St Brigid's Session' fundraiser, famed Irish musician Mary Black sang a capella, as children practiced their Irish dancing, and locals passed the sandwiches.

A few weeks ago, at the 'Saving St Brigid's' concert, a soft Irish brogue could be heard as familiar faces greeted each other. Children ran free as locals passed their home cooked fare around the outside fire, clapping along to the music.

Mayor of Moyne Shire said 'The Catholic Church might own these buildings but we all know historically and morally they belong to the community'. The church was built for 6000 pounds, paid by our ancestors, of which the Catholic Church donated 750 pounds.

Our ancestors were not wealthy. They made great sacrifices to raise these funds to build a community gathering place. Ironically, today we find ourselves in that very same position — about to indebt ourselves to buy back our buildings so they continue to be a vibrant focus of our community life.

The Friends of St Brigid's was formed in 2006, to uphold the area's unique Irish heritage, by turning the former church into an Australian-Irish Cultural and Heritage Centre, a plan backed by the Irish, Federal, State and local governments. The centre will house the history and culture of the Irish immigrants who came to South West Victoria, a centre of national and international significance.

Ninety five years ago this week, our own forefathers Dan Lane and Dan Madden stood to thank Archbishop Mannix for opening St Brigid's church. They told the congregation: 'We have decided to build a Church. Let us build a good one; one that we can proudly hand down to our children as a legacy.'

We are proud children of that legacy. Let's not lose these stories and memories. They are dramatic stories of endurance and survival, acted out in the fields of south-west Victoria. Let us cherish this great chapter in Australian history and write the next chapters of a society no longer divided by religious or racial differences or intolerance.

Let's ensure our own song and story shared at St Brigid's are kept alive. We owe that to our children's children.

Shane Howard and Archie Roach will join a line up of folk, Irish, Indigenous and contemporary musicians from south-west Victoria on stage at Thornbury Theatre in Melbourne on Friday 3 July at 8.30pm, to help raise funds for their local community to buy back their buildings. More info

Shane HowardSouth West Victorian singer-songwriter Shane Howard has played the world over, to audiences of thousands. He has recently penned a song 'The Church up on the Hill' for a cause that is close to his heart and home.

Regina LaneRegina Lane is a member of The Friends of St Brigid's. She has just completed her Masters of International Development, and will shortly start work as a Climate Change Campaign Organiser for GetUp!

Topic tags: shane howard, regina lane, st brigid's, crossley, archie roach



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Mayor of Moyne Shire said 'The Catholic Church might own these buildings but we all know historically and morally they belong to the community. The church was built for 6000 pounds, paid by our ancestors, of which the Catholic Church donated 750 pounds’.

If all church property belongs to the church legally, that makes it the wealthiest landowner in the world and the reason why the likes of George Pell gets away with banning organizations of which he doesn’t approve from the use of church property, or, in Moyne, church officialdom from putting St Brigid’s up for sale.

The only language the Catholic Church listens to is money – it’s not the only organization guilty of that, of course – so a proven way for the laity to make the playing field level is to stop the constant money supply that allows the high-handed and quite unacceptable attitude and behaviour of the hierarchy to continue unchecked.

For starters, think collections at Mass, money and property bequests, the annual ‘Peter’s Pence’ …..

Richard Flynn | 02 July 2009  

That's the place! - after the Port Fairy folkfest, we and the Wiltshires enjoyed the wee girls dancing by candlelight and the long table thronged with musicians variously playing and combining... best from Max

Watsons | 02 July 2009  

Many thanks Shane & Regina. This story reverberates with a certain irony and sadness. Irony in that the spirituality of both Indigenous and our celtic ancestors had so much in common. Both were born in readings of the land, of Nature from which personal identity grew.

Sadness now that the institutional church, the book-keeping church, is now almost alien from our own ancestral traditions. How do we learn from those past messages?
Your battle is a wonderful example.

Jim Bowler | 02 July 2009  

I'm a little bemused here. Your ancestors were Catholics and I think the legacy they were hoping to leave was a religious one. The building was intended as a place for people to gather and give glory to God. Clearly another focus is at work here. Did the original people set up a fund to maintain it? Probably not. They assumed their descendants would. And since the descendants seem to have tossed out their ancestors' religiosity and have no intention celebrating the building as the focus of a their desire to give glory to God, they might as well put their hands in their contemporary secular pockets to celebrate something else. Just not comfortable with the implication that the church shouldn't have put it on the market, or that it has stolen something from the community. The community abandoned it and the legacy for which it was intended. I wish the community and cultural centre/community museum well. In honouring the place of ancestors in the story, I hope the sacredness of their purpose is honestly honoured. At some point it was about God being sacred and discovered within the story of hardship, rather than memories themselves being sacred and the point.

Judy Hall | 02 July 2009  

To (i) avoid the appearance of a hierarchical heist and (ii) to recognise the various (often intertwined) manifestations of sociability, spirituality and religiosity within the local community [as the church once did], a shared equity model might be considered when the buy-back is negotiated.

Brian Abbey | 02 July 2009  

Judy Hall's piece resonates with the sort of separation of the sacred from the human that the last century of Catholic thought has moved away from. As Vincent Buckley and others argued so cogently during the 50s and 60s the Incarnation means that something happened to change our valuation of all that 'merely human' stuff like community memories and identity. It doesn't need the recognition or the approval of legalistically thinking churchmen to be part of the divine.

Joe Castley | 02 July 2009  

I read this and think of the Triffids:

There is a chapel deep in a valley.
For traveling strangers in distress.....

Where does one donate?

Bronwyn | 02 July 2009  

Writing from Ireland, the land where Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick are still spiritually omnipresent I strongly support the campaign to save this Church from those who would ignore work, sacrifices and devotion of those responsible for its being. More power to those on the frontline of the fight. May God bless the work.

Denis O'Leary | 02 July 2009  

Still bemused. Not catholic, never catholic and always bemused by thought defined in sectarian terms, past or moved on from. I was attempting to place thought of God and the sacred squarely in the centre, and suspect it of being left out in the rhetoric about identity. Has there been the same outpouring over the sale of ugly protestant churches in valleys? Bendigo is currently having a similar debate over identity and community desire to hold collectively a beautiful historic property on a hill as a focus for a sense of history and creative community celebration. It's not owned by a church, so the debate has a different flavour. I repeat my musings re the place of God and the sacred in the debate. Good luck with the fight to retain a historic building in public hands. Regardless of who owns it.

Judy Hall | 02 July 2009  

Keep up the effort; my maternal grandfather was one of the builders and appears in the photo and my mother and father were married there in 1939 as were several of my aunts and uncles. The blood of the area runs through my veins.

GM | 02 July 2009  

While I am supportive of the cause it's disappointing when an article appears in a journal such as Eureka Street that the issue is not fully explained. This article only presents one side. I'm not saying that I disagree with the authors' standpoint but I would like to know the viewpoint of the Church. Is it expensive in upkeep, where is the money from the sale expected to be directed etc. It's important to have the full story!

Carol | 02 July 2009  

Fantastic article Shane and Regina,our ancestors would be proud! For more information or to donate go to

L lane | 02 July 2009  

as a great grand daughter of Catherine Mc Gann Clarke who was born on the castlemaine golfields and at the age of 15 was sent by the parish priest of Kyneton to East Trentham. Her task was to teach english to all the young gaelic speakers who were arriving and needed english in order to find employment. i'm sure that Catherine would want to say "well done to the supporters of the St Brigid's and keep up the good fight".

debbie clarke | 03 July 2009  

Is the church no longer in use as a place of worship? Is there no priest to serve it? Has the population declined? Why does the church want to sell? Who would buy it apart from the community? The article raises many questions. It is powerful to see the alliance that has developed between the dispossed Irish and the dispossed indigineous people. Has the church aligned itself with the oppressors?

JL | 04 July 2009  

The church in which our four children were baptised is now a respite centre for dementia sufferers. Its neighbouring school buildings are now utilised by a Christian school. Four churches within 50 km of where I live have over the past ten years been sold.
With no young priests and dwindling particularly rural congregations where should the Eucharistic life of the church which sustains what Catholicism is about be conducted?

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. If a church congregation large enough to maintain a church building and the young population to support a viable catholic school do not exist should the bishop be expected to find funds to maintain buildings? I am sure there is now no local bank in this area. There almost certainly was in the past. Have the local community who after all paid for that building asked for the bank to maintain that building?
The local bishop like the bank management has to make decisions which upset the wishes of some locals but church buildings without a celebrating Eucharistic community may not contribute to the role of Catholicism in relating to God.

Gerard Gill | 06 July 2009  

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