Old Boy's Australia Day honour
author: Paul Nolan
St Patrick’s College congratulates Old Collegian Gavan Breen (SPC 1948-1952) for being awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 2016 Australia Day honours list for his distinguished service to the Indigenous community through the preservation of languages, to the development of orthographies, and to education.
John Gavan Breen was born in St Arnaud in 1934. Gavan, as he had been known throughout his life, came to St Patrick’s College in 1948, and was described in the College Annual as a ‘keen student and model boy’. He was a member of the Sodality of Our Blessed Lady and was elected Prefect in 1952.
Gavan was Dux of Leaving and in 1952 was Dux of the College before studying further at Newman College. He initially studied metallurgy but, after attending a public lecture in 1967 in which he learned that Indigenous languages were dying, he decided to join the efforts of others in trying to record as many as possible before it was too late.
Gavan was awarded a scholarship to study his Masters in linguistics, and received grants to travel to regions of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory to research and record Indigenous languages.
Beginning in 1967 and continuing for over a decade, he recorded at least 49 Indigenous languages across three states. Around 120 Indigenous languages are still spoken in Australia, less than half of those in use at the time of European colonisation. Some of the languages now lost were recorded by Gavan Breen over the course of numerous field trips, using reel-to-reel and audio cassettes.
In 2014 his collection of field notes was digitised and made available online, becoming a free resource for descendants and part of an overall revival of Indigenous languages.
In 2015 he worked with numerous Native Title cases in Western Queensland as an expert witness. He also recently finished a book on some of the last speakers of the Warluwarra language from the Georgina River district in Western Queensland.
Gavan Breen turned 81 in January 2016, and continues to work in the field in which he has spent close to half a century.