A BOOK REVIEW by Renée Leen-Huish
John Tully, Robbed of Every Blessing, Hybrid , Melbourne, 2015
John Tully’s Robbed of Every Blessing is set in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, and the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Through the creation of over a dozen fictional characters, and considerable historic research, Tully presents valuable insights into a dark period in history, and its effect on individuals.
Following in the footsteps of his father, a Rebellion survivor, we meet Maurice O’Dwyer, the son of a relatively prosperous Catholic Tipperary farmer. Maurice O’Dwyer’s political activities result in deportation to Van Diemens Land.
It was with some trepidation that I approached this book given the title, and my prior knowledge of most of the subject matter. However, I found freshness in Tully’s writing style that took the edge off the relentless misery. Tully is a Professor of History and has published in the areas of social history and politics but is also a prolific fiction writer. Tasmanian by birth, he no doubt also draws on the experiences of English and Irish forbears to create a graphic picture of the effects of colonialism on ordinary people. It puts me in mind of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the popular anti-colonialism book of the 1960s, in that it examines the effects of brutal expansionism not only on the oppressed but on those who would oppress them.
It took me a while to appreciate the style of his writing, especially in the use of a dialectic style for the characters. I had no problem with the Irish words, but to one unfamiliar with the language this may be an issue. However, there is a comprehensive glossary of the meaning of these words at the start of the book. It also addresses English local dialect words and language of Tasmanian Aboriginals. As the characters become more familiar the use of dialect is less an issue.
On arrival of the Adeline in Australia the narrative soared for me. Dwyer’s farming background saw him assigned as a farm labourer, and it looked as though things may improve. His innate hatred of injustice was to prove otherwise and he finds himself on the run, with the assistance of Aborigines, in recognition of his help to an injured Aboriginal child. Now on familiar territory, Tully, the fiction writer, came into his own. From his boyhood experiences in the Tasmanian Highlands, he paints beautiful pictures of the Tasmanian landscape, and I could almost feel myself on one of those glorious bushwalks, although I was never pursued by trackers, dogs and soldiers. The final act of Dwyer and Kiuntah reminds us of the countless times, and locations Australia wide when the Aborigines thwarted the bloodlust of their pursuers.
For those who are unfamiliar with Australian white settlement history this book would make a great introduction. In just 232 pages Tully lays the groundwork for research into European and British/ Irish history over the last two hundred years. Colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, slavery, transportation, and the dispossession of the Tasmanian Aborigines are all knitted seamlessly into the narrative.
I found this short book quite unsettling and the cause for this is addressed by Tully in the Afterword. Whilst the days of transportation are long gone, the culture that allowed it to happen is still with us. There are close parallels between the cruelty and savagery of the penal system and the institutional degradation of helpless children at the hands of the Church now being explored by a Royal Commission. There are also parallels between the penal system and the refugee policies now practised by the Australian Government where children are detained for over four years, with the consent of a voting public. Above all, it is unsettling that we do not officially recognise the genocide of Aboriginal people preferring to believe ‘according to the Prime Minister in 2014 that The Great South Land was “unsettled, or, um, scarcely settled” before the arrival of the British’ (p 232).
In the lead up to 100th Anniversary of the 1916 Easter uprising, this book makes a valuable contribution to the history of the Irish struggle for Independence, and the effect that mass transportation of Irish people to Australia had on the emergence of the post White settlement identity.
I would recommend this book to book groups, or other forums, where it would provide the opportunity for useful discussion on headway towards a real democracy, and not one dogged by‘captains calls’. That smacks too much of the power of former colonial governors.