Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Hara, John Bernard (1862–1927)

by Margaret M. Pawsey

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

John Bernard O'Hara (1862-1927), by unknown photographer, 1920s

John Bernard O'Hara (1862-1927), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23479393

John Bernard O'Hara (1862-1927), schoolmaster and poet, was born on 29 October 1862 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, son of Irish parents Patrick Kelly O'Hara, teacher, and his wife Mary Ann, née Connelly. O'Hara's school years were troubled by his father's two insolvencies and the loss of the family home. He unsuccessfully attempted matriculation at 15 from George Street State School, Fitzroy, succeeded a week before his sixteenth birthday and then belatedly attended Carlton College, possibly earning his fees by coaching. Here his unusual combination of talents unfolded: when he enrolled at the University of Melbourne in 1881 he had won two prizes for poetry and demonstrated marked mathematical ability. He won the mathematical and Stawell exhibitions in his first year but the need to augment the family income, despite a scholarship to Ormond College, affected his work and he graduated in 1886 with third-class honours. He took his M.A. two years later.

O'Hara taught briefly with the Christian Brothers before being offered a lectureship in mathematics and natural philosophy at Ormond. His association with the college admitted him into the ranks of Melbourne's cultural and academic establishment, to which few Irish Catholics had access, but it did not bring enough money and O'Hara built up a private coaching business and published examination guides. In 1889 he accepted the offer of a partnership from Thomas Palmer, the owner and principal of South Melbourne College and in 1894 he became sole proprietor.

Under O'Hara's leadership the college was co-educational, its curriculum academic and its ethos competitive. Its students prided themselves on being an educational elite. Girls and boys were encouraged in similar ambitions and competed on equal terms. The senior classes were taught by specialists and all students came under O'Hara's personal care and influence. Though traditional in his methods, he was an outstanding teacher. Affectionately nicknamed 'Teddy', the short, stout and lively O'Hara inspired his students and tempered his discipline with humour. Katharine Susannah Prichard remembered how he recorded her unsuccessful bouts with arithmetic: 'Miss Prichard—a duck'. She also remembered the pains he took to coach promising students individually outside class hours. The college's record in matriculation examinations was remarkable and its students won numerous scholarships and exhibitions. By 1917, when ill health forced O'Hara to close it, hundreds of its pupils were occupying important positions in the professions, universities and politics.

Meanwhile, O'Hara had developed his literary gifts. In 1891 he published his first book of poetry, Songs of the South. Eight volumes followed to 1925 including The Poems of John Bernard O'Hara (1918). He was joint vice-president of the Australian Literature Society in 1904-11. Critics praised his perfect metrical ear, his melody and his mastery of form, but noted a lack of depth and a tendency to concentrate on manner rather than matter. While the Bulletin writers sought to develop a native idiom, O'Hara remained attached to the English romantics and expressed his new-world experience through a derivative medium which was ultimately inimical to it. His best known poem, 'Happy Creek', was set to music and became familiar to two generations of Victorian schoolchildren.

An outstanding district cricketer in his youth, O'Hara listed tennis, billiards, cycling and sea travel as recreations. He had little opportunity to indulge them in his retirement which was overshadowed by kidney disease which ended his life on 31 March 1927. He was buried in Brighton cemetery. His wife, Agnes Elizabeth, née Law, an ex-student whom he had married at Collingwood on 3 December 1910, and their four children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Prichard, Child of the Hurricane (Syd, 1963)
  • Australasian Schoolmaster, 1886-94
  • South Melbourne College, Collegian, 1907-13
  • O'Hara papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Australian Literature Society papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • reports and prospectuses of South Melbourne College, 1910, 1913-15 (State Library of Victoria)
  • University of Melbourne Archives
  • Education Department (Victoria), teachers' register, Education History Services, Education Department, Melbourne
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret M. Pawsey, 'O'Hara, John Bernard (1862–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/ohara-john-bernard-7893/text13725, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

John Bernard O'Hara (1862-1927), by unknown photographer, 1920s

John Bernard O'Hara (1862-1927), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23479393