Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall, A New History of the Irish in Australia

New South Books, 2018, 448pp, ISBN: 9781742235530 (p/b), RRP: $34.99

In 1986 Patrick O’Farrell published The Irish in Australia. At the time, the book was both feted and criticised for being on the one hand seminal and yet on the other, rather controversial. In it, O’Farrell made some rather large claims for the impact of the Irish on Australia’s development as a nation. He argued that their presence as a substantial minority, both as convicts and later as free settlers, shaped the emergence of a particular culture and national character. Neither formed in the wild terrors of the bush, nor on the bloodied shores at Anzac Cove, the Australian national identity was, according to O’Farrell’s thesis, actually the product of longstanding Catholic Irish and Protestant English conflict. And this religious, political and cultural discord had profound significance, for out of it was born an egalitarian and democratic Australia.

Simplistic, divisive and very partial to be sure. Then again, most national myths often are. In recent years, ‘national identity’ and its formation has become a rather hot potato amongst historians, politicians and the general public at large. The pioneering bush legend of the nineteenth century, has been over taken by the ‘baptism of fire’ Anzac story –  much to the head shaking of many. (For starters, where were all the women?) Likewise, the oft-quoted expression ‘it’s Un-Australian’ is today utilised in political rhetoric, in satirical rebuffs and cartoons lampooning that same rhetoric, in advertisements, merchandising and at all sorts of national sporting events. At times, it can be used in highly amusing ways. However, it is also a lazy, simplistic soundbite, and suggests that there are common characteristics that we all share that stem from a particular magical moment, specific event, lived experience, foreign catastrophe. But just like the creation story in Genesis, all national myths are just that – fabricated and created to define an ‘imagined community.’

Certainly, the Irish contributed in profound and important ways in shaping the society and culture of settler Australia, and continue to do so today. Yet they are just one influence amongst a myriad more. In the thirty odd years since O’Farrell’s book first appeared, Irish-Australian studies has become increasingly popular both within academia and through the endeavours of independent scholars and family and oral historians. The stories of Irish convicts (or were the almost 50,000 involuntary immigrants’ political exiles?); the orphans sent out after the Great Famine of 1845-1850; the role of the Irish at Eureka and as bushrangers; prominent wealthy colonists and politicians and the trajectory of Catholicism in Australia have all been extensively researched and written about. Yet most mainstream Australian historians have been too willing to subsume the Irish under ‘the British’ umbrella, or ghettoise them as a separate race and disparage them as dangerous sectarian agitators, or have even ignored them as a distinctive ethnic group entirely. And, in the midst of all of this, tired anachronistic stereotypes of the Irish remain. In response to this uneven treatment, Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall’s recent book seeks to balance the scales by offering a new general history of the Irish in Australia.

The book ‘aims to take a new look’ at the Irish and it is ‘new’ in various respects.[1] Thus rather than ‘aspire to be a comprehensive account’, instead it focuses upon particular themes and issues. Race, gender, crime, mental health, employment, politics and religion are all here explored, set against the backdrop of Australia, with one eye on Ireland and the other on the wider Irish diaspora in America, England and indeed elsewhere.

The book is divided into three sections. Part one explores race and sensibly starts out with an examination of the long-held idea of the Irish as a separate and inferior race from the rest of the British population. This is a theme which infuses the book. It was particularly germane to Irish Catholics who had long been perceived as poor, un-educated, ignorant and deeply superstitious. They were deemed (by their English overlords at least) to be physically different too. With their seemingly Simian features and indecipherable brogue, to many they were savages and atavistic brutes. Yet at the time of white settlement in Australia, they also perched awkwardly on the colonial hierarchical ladder. Likened to non-whites and Indigenous Australians, at the same time, they were ‘similar in significant ways to the white British’. And so, the Irish were not to be exterminated, nor excluded but rather, they were to occupy a difficult liminal space. For the Irish themselves, this was sometimes a boon, at other times a heavy burden.[2]

Their relationship with Indigenous Australians and Chinese sojourners is explored in detail over two comprehensive chapters. In a nutshell, the authors present a nuanced overview of the Irish as both colonised by the English, and colonisers in Australia. Because, as they suggest, ‘Irish people were part of the story of Australian colonisation in all its complexity.’[3] Some Irish befriended or inter-married with the first Australians, others participated in the brutal violence of the frontier wars. A few were involved in Christian missionary efforts to teach and ‘enlighten’, whilst others later machinated with the removal of ‘half caste’ children from their families. Many more were simply indifferent.

Likewise, the Irish had a complex relationship with the Chinese. Intermarriage was quite common between Irish women and Chinese men, but so too was Irish agitation for stricter immigration restriction of the ‘yellow moon faced celestials’. After Federation, many working Irishmen supported the white Australia policy. It was a question of job security and economics and yet many Irish Australians also hoped this stance on race would lead to their own full acceptance within British-dominated Australian society. Whilst this was increasingly the case, longstanding prejudices continued, and the Irish were still rather vulnerable. Many hopeful immigrants were rejected at the border, and during times of social unrest and upheaval, Irish-Australians were deported for ‘political’ offences. It was transportation all over again, only this time in suitable antipodean fashion –  in reverse.

Section two examines ‘stereotypes’ – from the popular, often crude depiction of the Irish in literature, poetry, the press and on the stage, to the idea of the Fenian and the terrorist. In between, there was the buffoon comedian and the sozzled drunkard. All were exploited for political purposes at times, and all harked back to the idea of the Irish as a different race. Such negative perceptions and hackneyed typecasts were regularly used to discriminate when it came to employment. ‘No Irish Need Apply’ was a common sign in shops and businesses through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Not just here, but also in America and across the Irish sea in England. In turn, the Irish responded with their own ‘Catholic preferred’ notices. Often then, racial prejudices were intimately entwined with religious ones. In many respects, they still are today.

Crime and madness are examined in two subsequent chapters and explore whether or not the Irish were more criminal or more mad than others. On occasion, the injurious stereotypes of the Irish had profound consequences for both the criminal and the lunatic. But again, the nuance of the authors’ research comes through, as the book also examines the Irish who policed, condemned and punished the criminals and those who committed, observed and cared for the insane. The Irish on the outside, beyond the high walls of the gaols and the asylums, could also have a profound influence on just who was incarcerated inside them.

The theme of section three is politics – both politics in Ireland and Irish involvement in Australian politics from the colonial era and into the twentieth century. It explores Australian-Irish politicians and premiers, sectarianism, the turbulent years of World War One and the bitter disputes over conscription, to the troubles in post war Ireland. The epilogue briefly examines Irish Australia in the twenty-first century – particularly immigration and Australian responses to the political situation both here and in Ireland since 1945.

The book is highly readable and the authors engage with the historiography in a lively and approachable manner. It is illustrated by a fabulous cohort of cartoons and there are a number of simple, illustrative graphs. It is comprehensively referenced and indexed and offers an astonishingly impressive bibliography.

Throughout, Malcolm and Hall acknowledge that the book raises many questions that only further research will be able to answer. At first, I found this admission of ‘more research required’ rather strange, even somewhat disconcerting.  Later, on reflection, and after I had gone away to look up more information about the ten Irish prisoners who died on hunger strike in Belfast’s Maze Prison in 1981, the historian in me remembered that history books are never finished. Rather, they are merely a contribution at a particular time, to an existing, on-going and continuing discussion. Over identities and politics, culture and society, race, gender and class, oppressors and oppressed. Some histories offer mighty contributions, as does this one. And a very balanced and yet thought provoking one it is too.

Dr Catie Gilchrist

November 2018

Visit the publisher’s website here:  https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/new-history-irish/

Disclaimer:  Catie Gilchrist was engaged as a researcher for this book in 2014, looking at records from the Gladesville Asylum in Sydney, New South Wales.


[1] Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall, A New History of the Irish in Australia, New South, Sydney, 2018, p 18

[2] Ibid, pp 46-47

[3] Ibid, p 72

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