Hidden evidence

Hidden evidence
Discovering a poet's life through an unexpected find
14 June 2016

Sometimes we find answers in the most unexpected ways. I recently received an Ask a Librarian question about the life of an Australian poet. Initially, I had very little hope of being able to help; all we had was the name of a book of poetry, the author’s surname and their first initial:

I would like to find out more about the author of Melbourne's armageddon : and other verses  by M. Sweeney, including his full name, dates of birth and death, and details of his life.

There are a number of resources we can use when looking for biographical information, and the Library has a Research Guide on this topic. One of the suggestions in the guide is to use the digitised newspapers at Trove, but we would usually need more information to go on.

To begin, I requested the copies of the book to be sent from the stacks so I could take a look.

cover of the book

Melbourne's armageddon : and other verses, Melbourne : Colonial Press, [1912]  by M. Sweeney

Most books in the Library’s collection don’t provide extra information about the author, other than the publisher’s blurb. Even so, when looking for author information, it's always a good idea look at the book itself. Books donated to the Library from private collections may have an inscription, perhaps from the author to a friend, which could give a date and place. Sometimes the owner may have tucked in a relevant newspaper cutting.

But with Melbourne’s Armageddon I found a surprise in the copy numbered Np 821A SWE. This copy has a photocopied note pasted in the front of the book, an unexpected but happy detail. The note is somewhat difficult to read.

Note by E.J. Brady, dated 1937, found pasted in the front of one of the copies of the book

Looking for the information requested we find out:

  • M Sweeney was Irish-Australian, and known as "Mac"
  • He was a clerk in the Victorian Lands Department, and later a published journalist
  • He died in 1936 of cancer

The note was written by E.J. Brady, himself a well-known poet at the time, as seen at the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Armed with the information in the note, I could use Trove newspapers to search for Sweeney and “Lands Department”, limiting the results to Victoria. I found the following article. As the picture shows, the original is difficult to read, but helpfully, there have been 5 text corrections. 

Argus article

Strenuous football. James Martin's Case. (1911, September 1). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957) nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11612841

There is a reference to a ‘Michael Sweeney, clerk, Lands department.’ It appears he was giving evidence in this case.

We now have the name Michael Sweeney (known as Mac), Irish, who died in 1936, probably in Victoria. This should make it easier to find more information about him, perhaps using family history resources such as the databases Ancestry or FindMyPast. A more thorough search of the newspapers on Trove could also help, keeping in mind that Michael Sweeney may be a relatively common name. By including the search term ‘poet’ I also found this interesting article from 1932.

A copy of the note in the book was sent to the enquirer, and I hope this lucky find gave her a good starting point for further searches.

Not sure where to start your research?  Stuck somewhere along the way? Ask a Librarian.

Yes, I concur with all of this as I am currently on my own expedition to find out as much as I can about another Australian poet. Trove has been wonderful; it has filled in so many gaps for me (as a PhD student) and will continue to do so.