Long after Susan’s passing, Australians, and Irish-Australians in particular, will continue to be enriched by the legacy that this daughter of St Brigid has left us.’
Soon after news reports appeared announcing the sudden death of Susan Ryan on 27 September 2020, tributes began to flow. Most recounted Susan’s pioneering political career and her contribution to the rights of women and to the aged. Many also mentioned her Irish background, but without much detail. Susan was in fact very proud of her Irish heritage and had a deep love of Ireland and of Irish culture.
Born in 1942 in the inner Sydney suburb of Camperdown, Susan’s Irish forbears were not recent arrivals – Susan was a third and fourth generation Australian. According to Ancestry.com there were Irish on both sides of her family, but with English, too, on her mother’s side – great-grandfather Thomas Hodson was born in Hackney, London in 1829. But Irish surnames abound: Ryan, Gillon, Bradey, McConnell, McCartney and Stafford. The last, a surname of Norman derivation, belonged to her great-great grandfather William Stafford, who in 1829 came from County Wexford to New South Wales at His Majesty’s expense, transported for seven years for larceny.
Susan represented the traditional trifecta of Irish, Catholic and Labor that figured prominently in the progressive side of Australian politics for much of the twentieth century. Growing up in the beachside suburb of Maroubra, she was educated at the local Brigidine convent school. According to a special edition of the Irish Echo of July 2019 celebrating ‘The Top 100 Irish Australians’, it was there that Susan was allowed to ‘reconnect with her heritage that had been diluted since her great-grandparents emigrated to Australia’.
Susan often spoke of the influence on her of the Brigidines, a teaching order of sisters founded in Ireland in 1807 and named for St Brigid, one of Ireland’s patron saints.St Brigid was celebrated for her generosity to the poor and particularly poor women. With the abolition in 1880 of state aid for denominational education, Catholic bishops in New South Wales relied heavily on the Irish teaching orders to staff their schools.
Well into the twentieth century these orders continued to instil in their students a sense of their Irishness. But that was not all they taught. As Susan explained in July 2018, when addressing the Aisling Society of Sydney, an Irish-Australian cultural group founded in 1955: ‘Students in these schools were exposed to the principles and practice of social justice, typically through an Irish lens. … Social justice values were a dominant element.’
Susan acknowledged that accounts of the persecution and denial of the rights of the Irish in Ireland and in early colonial Australia informed her attitude to the struggle for justice for indigenous Australians through a sense of a shared history of the destruction of culture, language, religious or spiritual belief and the loss of land.
In 2008 Susan enrolled in Scoil Gheimhridh (the annual Irish Winter School held in Sydney) in an endeavour to learn the Irish language so that, in the words of her language teacher, ‘she would feel that she belonged when she visited Ireland’. Although she attained a basic level of the language she was not known as an Irish speaker.
It was also the Brigidine sisters who engendered in Susan the self-assurance she showed when breaking through glass ceilings: ‘We did somehow get the sense that women could exercise authority, master academic challenges, had voices and could use them.’
It was through the Aisling Society that I came to know Susan. She and her partner, Rory Sutton, were regular attenders at Aisling functions and Susan often came to monthly meetings at which a guest speaker would address members on a subject of Irish or Irish-Australian interest. She would sometimes move the vote of thanks and her insightful comments betrayed her deep knowledge and love of things Irish, particularly Irish poetry and theatre. When visiting Ireland, the opportunity to pursue her interest in the arts of her ancestral home was one of the highlights.
Susan served on the council of the Aisling Society and in 2018 gave the society’s annual Joan Ward address in which, as noted above, she recounted her early years of education by the Brigidines. An abridged version of her talk was published in Pearls and Irritations in July 2018.
But it was not only the Aisling Society which benefited from Susan’s interest and patronage. She was a strong supporter of the project to erect in Sydney a monument to the Great Irish Famine, an idea that arose out of the visit by Irish president Mary Robinson to Sydney in 1995.
Unveiled in 1999, the monument is dedicated to the more than 4000 Irish girls and young women who were brought from the workhouses of Ireland to Australia in the late 1840s to escape the famine. As guest speaker at the fifth annual commemoration ceremony in 2004, Susan spoke of ‘the particular influence of the orphan girls on our national temperament’:
‘The memorial reminds us so powerfully of those young girls, the mothers and grandmothers of Australians, the creators of so many of today’s Australian families, that we can feel a personal affection for them. … The famine memorial … reminds us gently of those Australians we gained from the tragedy of the Irish famine.’
But, for Susan, the monument was more than a memorial of the past:
‘As we recall the names of those girls who escaped the Great famine over 150 years ago to become Australians, we should also renew our determination to continue to provide opportunity and asylum to those who are seeking it from us today.’
Another beneficiary of Susan’s enthusiasm for things Irish was Opunksky’s Theatre, a Sydney-based theatre company founded in 1990 by Irish-Australian actors Maelíosa Stafford, John O’Hare and Patrick Dickson, which performs plays by Irish writers.
On learning of Susan’s death, Maelíosa told me, ‘Her knowledge and love of all aspects of Irish culture was palpable. She always remained hugely supportive of Irish theatre in Australia and never hesitated to support our endeavours.’ He recalled that Susan ‘personally took the stage with us one year when we organised the Bloomsday readings at Bondi Pavilion.’
Many of the tributes in the media have provided details of Susan’s ministerial career. But none I have seen has mentioned that in 1983, as Minister for Education, Susan was instrumental in the establishment of a permanent endowment for the Chair of Australian History at University College, Dublin, superseding the previously precarious system of annual grants that had existed since 1976. The chair continues to exist today and, having held the position in 2014, I, too, am a grateful beneficiary of Susan’s interest in Ireland.
Susan’s contribution to Irish Australia did not go unrecognised. Apart from the Irish Echo‘s including her in its ‘Top 100 Irish-Australians’ in 2019, Susan was one of twelve Irish-Australian women in 2016 to receive a Brigid award recognising the work of women of Irish heritage who have made a significant contribution to Australia.
Over and above her many achievements, Susan was a lovely person, a common theme in replies to my email to Aisling members informing them of her death: ‘a great woman in every sense’; ‘a cheerful and engaging conversationalist’; ‘a wonderful lady and so down to earth’. Another common theme was the sense of loss at her passing, well expressed by one of Susan’s favourite Irish poets, Seamus Heaney, as ‘a space utterly empty’, yet, nevertheless, ‘utterly a source’:
Long after Susan’s passing, Australians, and Irish-Australians in particular, will continue to be enriched by the legacy that this daughter of St Brigid has left us.
Dr Jeff Kildea is an Adjunct Professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales and Honorary Secretary of the Aisling Society of Sydney.