Introducing the 2015 NSW History Fellow, Paul Irish

Sydney historian Paul Irish.

Sydney historian Paul Irish.

For Paul Irish, studying ancient history in high school sparked a lifelong passion for discovering the ‘real story’ behind cultures.

Thanks to a history fellowship awarded by Arts NSW, Mr Irish will undertake a 14-month study into the lives of ten influential Sydney Aboriginal people and examine how they dealt with significant events in post-European settlement Australia between 1830 and 1930.

Mr Irish is an emerging historian and archaeologist specialising in Aboriginal heritage. His project, This is Where They Travelled: Historical Aboriginal Lives in Sydney, explores how the Aboriginal community shaped their own lives in a time of immense change.

The project will investigate and record the changes in the lives of these Sydney Aboriginal people, who engaged creatively with the European settlers and the economy. In collaboration with the Eastern Zone Gujaga Aboriginal Corporation , Paul will map the activities, movements, family and cultural connections of a number of Aboriginal people over a 100 year period.

“As a heritage consultant, I’ve worked on other projects related to the Aboriginal heritage of the pre-European contact period. When in 2006 I started studying the archaeological records related to post-European settlement , I was surprised to discover that there wasn’t much information available on how Sydney’s Aboriginal community was impacted and this sparked my interest in researching this topic.”

Three years after this discovery, he started archival research in collaboration with members of the La Perouse Aboriginal community through different community and privately funded projects.

Mr Irish said, “In the research phase, it became obvious that little was known about a number of Aboriginal men and women mentioned in 19th century historical records of Botany Bay.”

However he says their lives hold the key to understanding how Aboriginal people were able to survive more than 200 years of European occupation in colonial and suburban Sydney.

Mr Irish said that information will be collected through detailed archival and oral history research.

“I’ll work with an Aboriginal community researcher to undertake archival research and engage with Aboriginal knowledge holders using oral history interviews or informal discussions in their homes or the community owned Yarra Bay House,” explained Mr Irish.

A series of biographical maps of Aboriginal people, showing how they lived and the influences on their way of life over time, with images and other historical materials, will be on display in a public exhibition after project completion.

Findings from the project will be shared in July 2016, through public presentations, an exhibition and talks, to coincide with NAIDOC 2016 (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee).

“I regard such projects as a valuable two way learning experience. From previous research programs, I’ve been able to contribute new knowledge and perspectives on the history of Aboriginal communities, whilst in turn learning so much from my Aboriginal colleagues,” said Mr Irish.

The 2015 NSW History Fellowship (Emerging) is offered by the State Government to enable a person working with history, as a historian, artist or cultural worker, at the beginning of their practice to undertake a self-directed program of professional development. 

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