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Eugene John Ryan (1864–1905)

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Eugene John Ryan, teacher and Irish community activist, was born John Ryan on 21 January 1864 in Turraheen, County Tipperary, Ireland, the son of Daniel Ryan, farmer, and his wife Margaret (née McGrath).[1] He was educated by his uncle Jeremiah Ryan at the local national school to the age of 15, when he entered the Patrician Brothers school at Mountrath in County Laois. There he completed training as a brother, earning a degree from the Royal Irish University and taking the religious name Brother Eugene.[2]

Eugene Ryan was one of eight Patrician brothers who arrived in Sydney on the Rome in 1884.[3] He was sent to Maitland where he taught for four years before the order closed their school and moved the brothers to Armidale. Brother Eugene was the principal at Armidale from 1889 to 1894, starting the high school from scratch in the Bishop’s old house and building it up to 70 pupils. He purchased 11 acres of land to add to the existing 12 acres. His next posting was to Redfern in Sydney, where he was also to serve as Second Assistant Provincial.[4]

About a year after arriving in Sydney Eugene left the Patrician Brothers and found lodging in an inner-city hotel, the California Inn at 20 George Street West (now Broadway).[5] The landlady was 34-year-old widow Ellen Ryan, whose husband William died in 1894. He had taken over the license from his brother Jeremiah who ran the pub from 1872 until his death in 1882. Ellen and Eugene were married on 29 September 1896 at nearby St Benedict’s church, and Eugene negotiated the hotel’s rebuilding with more rooms and an elaborate tower on the corner of Kensington Street. The contractor was George Boothby and the press commented: ‘there is no better planned or handsomer house of its size in the city, and the owners are lucky in getting such a gentleman as Mr Eugene Ryan as their first lessee’.[6]

The new building was renamed Ryan’s Hotel and soon became a centre of Irish community and cultural activity. One Melbourne visitor, Dr Nicholas O’Donnell, claimed: ‘His hotel, in George-street West, was like a miniature Ireland placed as an oasis in the Saxon desert of the big metropolis’. Upstairs children were learning step-dancing, in other rooms there were people conversing in Gaelic, and musicians practising on instruments such as flutes, fiddles and uilleann pipes. Although his parents were not native speakers, Eugene became so proficient in Gaelic he taught classes in Sydney and composed the Gaelic inscriptions on the 1798 Memorial at Waverley cemetery. Describing Ryan as a striking figure with his ‘long, jet black beard and massive frame’, O’Donnell noted that he was inspired to study Gaelic by Ryan’s enthusiasm.[7]

Ryan opened a school in June 1895 which he named University College, initially at 50 Dowling St, Moore Park (now 745 South Dowling Street), and from 1898 at 151 Regent Street, Chippendale, opposite St Paul’s church.[8] He stated that ‘all the masters are members of the Royal Irish University’ and catered for day pupils and boarders as well as holding night classes. By the end of 1898 he had over 100 pupils and was claiming high rates of success in public service and matriculation examinations as well as Pitman certificates for shorthand.[9] A polymath, Ryan was reputed to speak fifteen languages fluently, including French, Italian and Spanish but also Greek, Hebrew and Chinese. In addition he was an accomplished mathematician and musician.[10]

The hotel and school enabled Ryan to support numerous Irish community activities. He helped to formally establish the Irish national sport of hurling in Sydney, as President of the Emmet club based at Botany, and presented a trophy to encourage competition and the establishment of more teams.[11] He was closely involved in the campaign to build the 1798 Memorial at Waverley Cemetery under the leadership of Dr Charles MacCarthy, and in 1905 gave a tour of the completed monument to visiting Irish MP William Redmond.[12] Ryan was a foundation member of the United Irish League in 1900, which had as its aim ‘the preservation and cultivation of Irish history, language, literature, and traditions’.[13] As well as running the League’s Irish language class, Eugene also provided office and meeting space for the League at his University College.

Ryan was taken suddenly ill and died on 7 July 1905 at the age of 41. On hearing the news Dr O’Donnell commented: ‘His death is, I think, the biggest blow the Irish cause in Australia has suffered for years’. William Redmond wrote to Eugene’s widow: ‘your husband was loved and esteemed by all, and … his noble work for the Irish cause will never be forgotten’. His funeral procession included over 350 vehicles and an estimated 5,000 people, with thousands more lining the route to Waverley Cemetery. Members of Parliament joined representatives of every Irish and Catholic association, and members of religious orders including the Patrician Brothers.[14] Eugene’s widow Ellen died nine months after him on 25 May 1906 at the age of 44; they had no children.[15] The family erected a Celtic cross gravestone which includes inscriptions in Gaelic and the ancient Ogham script.[16]

Eugene was joined in the Patrician Brothers by his younger brother Daniel, who took the name Brother Bernard (1868-1951). Bernard followed Eugene to Australia in 1889 and taught in Bathurst for 40 years before returning to Ireland.[17] Their cousin Mary Ryan joined the Sacred Heart sisters taking the name Sister Mary Xavier (1856-1933). She was one of the founding group who arrived in Australia in 1885, and served in Sydney and Thursday Island.[18] Two other cousins joined the Josephites, Hannah Dwyer (1861-1936) as Sister Dominick and Mary Dwyer (1867-1953) as Sister Patrick.

Footnotes
[1] Clonoulty Parish Register, microfilm no 02503/01, National Library of Ireland.

[2] ‘Death of Eugene J Ryan’, Freeman’s Journal, 15 July 1905, p 16.

[3] ‘Labourers for the Vineyard’ Freeman’s Journal, 13 September 1884, p 8.

[4] ‘Departure of Brother Eugene from Armidale’, Freemans Journal, 17 February 1894, p 15.

[5] ‘Brother Eugene J Ryan - Larger Than Life’, Green Sash, vol 7, no 2, June 2000, pp 148-152; E J Ryan, ‘A Worthy Tribute’, Freeman’s Journal, 6 April 1895, p 20.

[6] ‘A Pleasant Function’, Truth, 2 May 1897, p 2.

[7] N M O’Donnell, ‘Death of Eugene Ryan’, Advocate, 15 July 1905, p 14.

[8] ‘Moore Park University College’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 June 1895, p 6.

[9] ‘University College Redfern’, Freeman’s Journal, 31 December 1898, p 22.

[10] ‘Death of Eugene J Ryan’, Freeman’s Journal, 15 July 1905, p 16.

[11] ‘The Game of Hurling’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 29 July 1899, pp 36, 51-52.

[12] ‘Death of Eugene J Ryan’, Freeman’s Journal, 15 July 1905, p 16.

[13] ‘United Irish League of Australia’, Daily Telegraph, 22 March 1900, p 9.

[14] ‘Death of Eugene J Ryan’, Freeman’s Journal, 15 July 1905, p 16; ‘The Late Eugene Ryan’, Freeman’s Journal, 15 July 1905, p 19.

[15] NSW deaths 3963/1906.

[16] ‘Aeta Populi’, Freeman’s Journal, 28 April 1906, p 34.

[17] ‘Brother who taught Mr Chifley celebrates Jubilee’, Advocate, 30 June 1949, p 4.

[18] ‘Death of a Pioneer Nun’, Catholic Press, 25 January 1934, p 6.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

  • funeral, Advocate (Melbourne), 15 July 1905, p 14

Citation details

Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'Ryan, Eugene John (1864–1905)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/ryan-eugene-john-33139/text41338, accessed 23 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Eugene Ryan

Eugene Ryan

Australian Town and Country Journal, 12 July 1905, p 25

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

21 January, 1864
Turraheen, Tipperary, Ireland

Death

7 July, 1905 (aged 41)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

stroke

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