Memories of a 1950s Irish leftie in St Kilda, Melbourne
by Dr Dennis Walker
The extraordinary cultural mix of St Kilda inevitably brought together people of radically opposing ideologies. Dr Dennis Walker sheds some light on one aspect of this diversity remembered from his childhood: the Irish immigrant nationalists.
My father, Patrick Joseph Walker, was born in Euroa in the Victorian countryside on November 28 1912 and died August 7 1997 in Edgley Nursing Home after living sixty-eight years in St Kilda. He worked as a labourer for the Board of Works in Melbourne.
Irish nationalists and leftists were active in the St Kilda area in the 1950s. Patrick Walker often came across them in the street or at work and some visited his home, but he did not join any nationalist organisations.
Although he lived almost without break in St Kilda from the 1930s, my father never ceased to talk about Euroa, the country town in which he grew up but had to leave in the late 1920s due to lack of work. He came to St Kilda, married my Protestant mother, Grace Bates, and had two children. He gave up hope of returning to Euroa ‘to farm some land’ only when he turned fifty-five. It was only then that he finally accepted St Kilda as his home.
My father was of half Anglo-Saxon-French and half Irish descent, but the Irish part of him predominated. His maternal grandfather, a Lonergan, had migrated from County Cork and spoke the Irish language. Family lore says that my father’s mother, Katherine, although she had been born and grew up in Victoria, still swore and shouted in Irish when she hit him as a child. In 1974, I played an Irish sean-nos song by folk-singer Seamus Heaney on the record player, saying that it was a Yugoslav folk song, but my sixty-two year old father at once said ‘That’s an Irish song!’. It was clear that he was familiar with this type of traditional Irish singing from his childhood. However he regarded Irish culture, the Irish language, and the Irish people in Ireland as ‘primitive’ and could not abide the stereotypical wakes or leprechauns.
Here are some of Patrick Walker’s reminiscences that he wrote down shortly before his death:
When I was a boy and teenager, horse-driven coaches were everywhere. The coaches were armed when they carried gold and armed guards used to ride in the turrets. There was still a bit of gold around in those days in the countryside. Euroa had one coach of its own. They used to be in all the provinces in later years. Then they started to carry the gold in the trains and all that. Before I was born, the heroes like Ned Kelly used to take the gold in hold-ups. But by the time I came along that was rare. Yet when I was a young man in Euroa, they robbed the gold in the station.
Ned Kelly had his ways with women. When he used to come in to Euroa to spend his gold all the women used to think that he was a very handsome fellow.
My maternal grandfather Lonergan came from County Cork in Ireland. Once he saw the Orangemen marching at Bonnie Doon near Mansfield. They didn’t want the Irish rule. Old man Lonergan had no time for them so he attacked them with a paling he tore from a fence. That scattered them! That happened before I was born. There was a lot of bigotry in the Victorian [Australian] countryside in them days.
The Immigrant Irish influence in St Kilda
Writing up notes in the mid-1990s on my father and his recollections of life in St Kilda, I began to think more about the Irish immigrant nationalists and leftists in St Kilda -Windsor-Prahran-Elsternwick in the 1950s and 1960s. I have concluded that there were quite a lot of them, although my father was friends with only two. I think they used to hold meetings in Ripponlea. They finally got organised in the 1980s and sent a lot of money to the IRA. When I was a child, though, they were a bit picaresque.
Christopher O’Kelly grew up in a Dublin slum, emigrated to England as a young man and from there migrated to Australia. My father met him in the street and the two Irishmen recognised each other. From around 1954, O’Kelly visited us on Sunday mornings, joining us in lunch of sliced corned beef, talked to us in the afternoon, and left just before sunset. The burly O’Kelly had fought with the left forces against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. He had been wounded in the chest. He had hoped to migrate from England to the Soviet Union and live on a Soviet war pension but went instead to Australia where, although a trained industrial chemist, he was unemployed. O’Kelly was a wide-shouldered man with a round florid face, a wide forehead with receding hair, a flat wide nose, and blue eyes, as my memories run after a half-century. He had a thick neck which used always to threaten to burst out from under his collar and bow tie. O’Kelly’s accent was unique. He told us that he had published pamphlets refuting the ‘cupitulist’ system and setting out the road to socialism that the working class now could take.
O’Kelly used to sit with us at the green laminex table in his green sports coat and bow tie, as we all listened to the 11 am radio news. He would voice solidarity with the Communists and progressives around the world. When Egypt’s military dictator Gamal Abdul-Nasser threw off the American attempt to control the Suez Canal by concluding an independent arms deal with Communist Czechoslovakia in September 1955, O’Kelly warned us not to deceived by that corny act. Nasser could not become an anti-imperialist because he was the one who had put the Communists and the progressives, the hope of Egypt, in prisons.
Don’t be fooled, Pat, don’t be fooled. Nusser is no friend of the Egyptian people. Why, he’s just a fuscist puppet of the English and the Americans. Nothing more.
During the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, I was an 11 year-old pupil at Brighton Road Primary State School. Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal was a final challenge to Britain’s residual global imperial role: the newspapers, radio and teachers of Anglo-Australia echoed British fury against Egypt’s dictator. In the wood-work room at school, we eleven year-olds, in fairly excited conversations, duly wanted Mother England to send in the Tommies and finish Nasser.
However in my home in Gourlay Street, the values diverged from Anglo-Australia. I remember Chris O’Kelly, in his sports coat and bow-tie as ever, seated one late afternoon on the front lawn discussing Suez with my parents as tiny insects buzzed around him. At first, even O’Kelly thought Nasser should not be allowed to keep control of the Canal. He wondered if the UN should not take it over. However, when Australia’s Prime Minister Menzies, whom he hated, became involved in British PM Anthony Eden’s diplomatic pressurising of Nasser, and when Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt, Kelly defined that as ‘aggression’.
In that mellowing sunlight, before our weatherboard Victorian house, O’Kelly derided the ‘cupitulist’ Menzies’ old promise that he would put value back into the pound. Science was making it easier and easier and cheaper and cheaper to manufacture goods en masse. ‘So how come’, he asked my grandmother, ‘working people have to pay higher and higher prices for goods?’ But a new system that would bring them all relief was on the way. The gnats wheeled around in that singing air, as they always had wheeled and ever will in Melbourne’s warm summers at day’s decline.
One morning in 1956 I reported to my father the British cinema newsreels that portrayed hopeless squalor and poverty in the Canal zone cities the British troops were occupying (squawking emaciated chooks running down an alley from advancing British troops). My father replied: ‘
Nasser’s done a lot for his country and he has a right to the Canal. Egypt needs the money [from its revenues for development]. No. I wish Nasser well.
Lebanese immigrant laborers were to tell me in 1964 that they had met some solidarity with Nasser from their Australian co-workers.
Around the same time, an uprising was taking place against Russian control in Hungary. Listening to the radio coverage of the mayhem from the top of the gray high kitchen-cabinet, the Communist O’Kelly dismissed it as
just cupitulist prupugunda, Put, that’s all it is — just cupitulist prupugunda, neither more nor less. The Hungarian working people support the USSR because it was the USSR that set them free.
Still, O’Kelly had the bitterness of all conquered nations to all large empires When I echoed my Central school’s appreciation of the Romans, he snapped ‘ah, they were just conquerors: they were savages and barbarians, that’s all they were. They wanted to grab everything for themselves’. My Irish priest who gave us religious instruction for an hour per week at Caulfield Central School quashed the epithet ‘barbarians’ for the Romans when I handed it on when we were all discussing the Crucifixion. That priest had spent years in Malta or Gibraltar. He had sat on those beaches and appreciated that Mediterranean boys ‘matured’ (his word) earlier in all that sunlight than did teenagers in the British Isles and Australia. He said that England had treated Ireland badly. I believe that that priest may have come from Western Ireland and that he may have been able to speak Irish.
O’Kelly’s positions seemed to be at odds with those of the media and the things ordinary Australians said about the world among themselves. He kept my mother neutral by always bringing a large tin or box of Cadbury’s chocolates. She would allow me and my brother to choose two each and then the box would disappear for good into her wardrobe, to be consumed at leisure.
O’Kelly more and more termed Ireland ‘priest-ridden’. [Had he made a getaway to England from that?]. He said that the Catholic Church was the enemy of the working people around the world that helped the ‘cupitulists’. The clerical DLP [Democratic Labor Party] of Santamaria in Australia was just the local instance. One day my grandmother voiced regret that Franco’s soldier had not managed to get his bullet two inches closer to O’Kelly’s heart and kill him. On one visit in later 1957, O’Kelly began to wonder aloud if Jesus, the Son of Mary had ever risen from the dead. When he had gone, my father said that you could not get much worse than an Irishman who had turned on his Church like that. Christopher O’Kelly did not visit us anymore.
My father was astonished when we all saw in The Sun newspaper in March 1961 that Chris O’Kelly had been detained with some other Irish people for soliciting donations for IRA prisoners in the City. What struck me then, aged sixteen, was that the defendants gave their names in Irish versions as well in their English forms, reminding us all that once we had had our own language. Through the theatre and publicity of the (quickly aborted) trial, those Irish nationalists did jog the memory of maybe a hundred thousand old Irish Australians that once we had had a national language that was very distinct from English. But for everyone in my family, all that 1961 Irish nationalism seemed so out of character because O’Kelly had never said much that was good about Ireland, or ever mentioned any Irish cause, during his numerous visits to us.
However, those IRA nationalists proved unable to keep that crucial notoriety flowing in the media. In addition, they did not have the desire to try to incorporate the Australia-born old Irish, which they might have done, if they had had the necessary skills and vision. On the other hand, as I found out in 1974 when I tried to reconnect to my Irish roots (if I could still find any), that many migrants from Ireland regarded Irish-Australians as just vague atomistic ‘friends’ who were not part of the Irish Nation. For these two groups, Irish-Irish and Irish-Australians, were indeed highly disparate in their contrasting experiences and in their respective balance of cultural elements, Irish and Anglo, and touchy in interaction. So O’Kelly in the 1950s may have had Irish nationalist feelings but not communicated them to us because he may have seen us as just atomistic Australian friends, not as Irish. However, I do remember that he once ruffled my younger brother’s ginger hair and observed that he was growing up to be a fine Irish lad. Or maybe 1956 in Central Europe did finally discredit Communism to him and he may have leapt back to Irish nationalism.
But unless my memory tricks me, at the age of sixteen in 1961, I read in a municipal library’s faded-pink issue of The Bulletin a letter to the editor from a Christopher O’Kelly in which he dismissed the social democratic parties such as the Australian Labor Party as nothing more than instruments by which the capitalists confused the workers. It was boiler-plate Stalinist stuff that could have jumped out of some cynical ‘Short History of the Communist Party of the USSR’, and the editor had no doubt run it in the spirit of that joie de vivre that gives one hug at least once to all diverse humans.
In retrospect, O’Kelly may not have communicated Irish nationalism to us because his real ideology may have been Moscow-line Communism, to which he may indeed have been trying to convert my father. We were not part of the web of the Irish-born in Australia, so he could talk frankly to us. Among migrants from Ireland he could have assumed Irish left-nationalism as a cover from which to propagate a residually Stalinist Communism.
My ancestors on both sides had come to Australia from Ireland around 1860. So how, a half-century later did I react to Chris O’Kelly? I do not remember that I felt hostile to his Communism or quasi-Communism. It did not get to me. For me, although he spoke little about his homeland, what he radiated was Ireland: his Irishness was what struck me. Still, he did not try to draw us into any Irish national identity, and what data he did give, reinforced in my pre-teen mind that Ireland, like Scotland, was a declining, small place not to be put on agendas in our modernist country Australia.
Yet, I did sense that we Irish-Australians and his migrant Irish group, were related. That we stood in some line to the Irishness he poured out, and had once been the same, long before. I do not recall being offended by the punches O’Kelly swung at the Catholic Church. Before everything, a visit by him represented for me an infusion of color into our household. When ‘Chris Kelly’ mentioned that he published anti-capitalist pamphlets it caught my interest — that print-discourse does not just come down in newspapers published by those with power. Any group or any individual could publish a brief discourse and their truth would always be contested in argument and polemics (but for me it is the multitude of truths of incompatible parties). I glimpsed then that I too might one day pen and publish pamphlets, which was to prove all too true.
I believe that Christopher O’Kelly did hand out something worthwhile, despite his Stalinist ideology, when his Communist dissent from the concrete Anglo verities of Australia’s Menzies-era newspapers warned us that we might have to think for ourselves in life, read diverse things and even write, that there might be plural truths. (But Christopher O’Kelly saw only one quarter-truth set in many lies and a lot of blood).
Most global ideologies that try to span nations do create some links to faraway peoples, that leap across the barriers of the categories that imprison most of us. O’Kelly’s solidarity with Egyptian Communists and ‘progressives’ without regard to separate religions, separate languages, races and distance, was a precious gain for broader sympathy with humans in the racist WASP Australia of 1956. [My own firm perspective 52 years later has to be that Nasser was correct to clap both the Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood in his small-scale camps in the Western Desert because if either had seized power they would have destroyed an Egypt they could never have made fit within their ideologies, just as the Afghan Communists and the Soviet Union were to destroy Afghanistan, and as another Muslim Brotherhood have destroyed the diverse Sudan. Nasser saved the Egyptian people from terrible suffering].
In one day about 1997, I ran into a slight acquaintance, Seamus McGettigan, who told me he always kept his aid for the Irish nationalists in Ulster on the right side of Australia’s Anglo law. I asked him about ‘Chris Kelly’, as my family had known him. The phlegmatic McGettigan smiled slightly, and said that Chris had once started a fire with his chemical experiments, that burned out his St Kilda flat after he returned to that suburb from Carlton. I believe that McGettigan also told me that O’Kelly had died around 1975.
Although without any real print media of their own, working-class Irish-Australians in St Kilda in the 1950s,orally transmitted their own critical perspectives on Britain and Anglo-Saxon states, and on power structures in Australia. True their ethos had been watered down by the Anglo-Australian culture and ideas flowing all around them. Indeed, we can at this remove, now see ways in which Marxist ideas worked to alienate them from Third World nationalist movements, and fitted well into WASP racism. Still, while they were not revolutionaries, working-class Irish-Australians could think for themselves, about overseas countries and about the narrow society of WASP-dominated Australia.
Dr Denis Walker.