Old Collegian awarded national honour

January 27, 2016

St Patrick’s College is delighted to learn that Old Collegian Gavan Breen (SPC 1948-1952) was awarded the Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 2016 Australia Day honours list, for 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 the northern Victorian town of St Arnaud in 1934, to John William Breen, an insurance agent, and Margaret Alice Breen. 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 (the equivalent of Year 10), and in 1952 was Dux of the College. After leaving St Patrick’s he went to Newman College at the University of Melbourne. He initially studied metallurgy but, after attending a public lecture at the University in 1967 in which he learned that Indigenous languages were dying out, he decided to join the efforts of others in trying to record as much as possible before it was too late. He says he thought, -‘that sounds like a good way to spend a holiday. I had always been interested in languages and anthropology’.

Gavan was awarded a scholarship to do his Masters in linguistics, and received grants to travel to regions of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory for the purpose of researching and recording Indigenous languages.

Beginning in 1967 and continuing for over a decade, he recorded at least 49 Indigenous languages across three states – work conducted for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra. 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 huge 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 has 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.-