After O’Farrell: Writing a New History of the Irish in Australia

A Feature by Elizabeth Malcolm

O’Farrell and Irish-Australian history since 1986

In 1986 Patrick O’Farrell published his prize-winning The Irish in Australia. It was a controversial book, making large claims for the impact of the Irish on Australia’s development as a nation. O’Farrell essentially argued that it was the presence of a substantial discontented Irish minority—comprising about one quarter of the total settler population—that prevented Australia from becoming a mere carbon copy of England. According to him, the conflict played out between the Catholic Irish and the Protestant English, and their descendants, across more than a century shaped the country’s identity and culture in profound ways. And he further argued that this conflict proved ultimately to be a positive phenomenon: the Irish in challenging English dominance helped create a more egalitarian and democratic Australia.

The Irish thus had a crucial and ‘dynamic’ role in the genesis of the Australian national identity; they were, according to O’Farrell, a ‘fun factor’ in the country’s story. As well as contradicting many of the interpretations offered by earlier Irish-Australian writers, O’Farrell also made a conscious attempt to change the way the Irish were treated in general histories of Australia, for he challenged the work of some of his leading contemporaries: historians like Manning Clark, Geoffrey Blainey and Russel Ward.

Over the thirty odd years since then, much detailed research has followed in the wake of O’Farrell’s book, with both university and independent scholars producing numerous significant monographs and articles—David Fitzpatrick’s 1994 Oceans of Consolation, a study of immigrant letters, being a notable high point. A regular series of Irish Studies conferences, begun by Oliver MacDonagh in Canberra in 1980, has also generated a substantial body of published work. And, since 2000, a journal devoted to Irish Studies has been published annually, first from Perth and after 2005 from Melbourne.

In light of O’Farrell’s ambitious claims and all the work done during the last thirty years, it seems timely now to ask: how do Australian historians treat the Irish today? What impact has this large body of Irish-Australian scholarship had on the writing of Australian history by non-Irish scholars?

It seems to me—and I say this with real regret—that the efforts of O’Farrell and many others over the years have had a surprisingly limited impact on the historiography of Australia.

How the Irish have been disappeared from Australian history

Australian historians tend to treat the Irish in three main ways, and these ways have not altered markedly over many decades. The Irish are either: 1) subsumed; or they are 2) ignored; or they are 3) disparaged and sometimes mocked. The rest of this paper will discuss these three approaches, drawing upon the work of historians who exemplify them.

1. Subsumed

By ‘subsumed’ I mean that the Irish-born, and Irish Australians as well, are included in larger groups or categories, so that much of their distinctive ethnic or cultural identity is obscured, if not obliterated entirely. The three main categories the Irish tend to disappear into are those of ‘British’ or ‘Catholic’ or, in more recent times, ‘Anglo-Celtic’.

British

Australia’s early academic historians were anglophiles: the first of them were actually English-born and many later Australian-born historians undertook post-graduate training at universities in England. They focused especially on Australian political and economic history in an English political and British imperial context. They saw Australia as having been settled by the British; it was a colony of the British Empire and later a dominion of the British Commonwealth. Such historians generally had little interest in other groups: before the 1970s, Indigenous Australians were largely ignored, as were immigrant minorities like the Chinese, while the Irish simply disappeared into the broad category ‘British’.

Catholics

But, when such historians came to write about the various Christian churches in Australia, then they were forced to separate the Irish from the British and to acknowledge that there were significant tensions and sometimes open conflict between Catholics and Protestants, extending from the early nineteenth century up to the mid twentieth century. So, the Irish became ‘Catholics’—the Protestant Irish and non-Irish Catholics being ignored—and Catholics were typically discussed in the context of sectarianism, since they were portrayed as a source of division in the otherwise largely homogeneous settler society of British Australia.

Anglo-Celts

In recent decades, new and very different perspectives on Australia’s settler history have emerged, although these have not in fact fundamentally altered how the Irish are treated. There has been a great deal of study of the Aborigines and of the Chinese as well, with a strong emphasis on issues of race and colour. Much attention has been paid, for instance, to bloody frontier clashes between ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’, as well as to attempts to exclude ‘coloured’ immigrants, notably the Chinese, culminating in the ‘White Australia Policy’. Students of race and ‘whiteness’ usually lump British and Irish settlers together, viewing them all as ‘whites’: representatives of European imperialism, in conflict with the ‘coloured’ indigenous peoples of Australasia, Asia and the Pacific. In this approach, the Irish are once again united with the British, despite the long history of conflict between the two peoples. But, instead of the old label ‘British’, we now have the new label ‘Anglo-Celts’. Australian history is then represented as fundamentally being about struggles over race and colonialism, with the Irish figuring among the ‘white’ colonisers, not among the ‘coloured’ colonised.

2. Ignored

Subsuming the Irish in these different ways is, of course, one way of ignoring them as a distinctive ethnic or national group. Despite O’Farrell’s work and all the Irish-Australian research of the last thirty years, in many recent general works of Australian history, the Irish have continued to be subsumed, or they are simply ignored. Just two examples will suffice to illustrate this point, although many other works take a similar approach.

Lyons & Russell, eds, Australia’s History (2005)

A collection of essays was published in 2005 under the title Australia’s History. The blurb on the back cover explained that the book offered a ‘compelling’ and ‘up-to-date account’ of current important ‘issues and debates in Australian history’. Yet, in the collection’s many bibliographies, there were no works at all dealing specifically with the Irish. Under the entry ‘British’ in the index appeared the direction ‘see also…Irish’. The chapter on immigration followed this lead by largely subsuming the Irish into the category ‘British’. The book contained in all only seven fleeting references to the Irish. Readers were told that the Irish were seen as ‘violent, impulsive, degraded and unregulated’ and, as a result, they were ‘systematically poorly treated’. In this collection devoted to ‘compelling’ issues in Australian history, the Irish were portrayed as a marginal group, whose story was clearly not of great significance for it was not included among the major ‘themes and debates’ with which Australian historians were then preoccupied.

Bashford & Macintyre, eds, The Cambridge History of Australia (2013)

Nor has the situation changed much during the last decade either. The massive 1,200-page, two-volume Cambridge History of Australia, published in 2013, omitted O’Farrell’s 1986 book from its 44 pages of bibliography, only citing one of his earlier works on the history of the Australian Catholic Church. In the index to the first volume, there were just eight entries on the Irish, compared with 42 on the Chinese; in the index to the second volume, there were no entries on the Irish at all. These volumes continued to deal with the Irish in the same way that much mainstream Australian history had dealt with them prior to the 1980s: that is to relegate them to the category ‘Catholic’ and discuss them in the context of religious history. The words ‘Irish Catholic’ were used in volume one, rather than ‘Irish’ or ‘Irish Australian’, or even ‘Catholic Irish’, indicating that the Irish were being classed, not as a distinctive ethnic group, but as members of one Christian denomination. And this treatment was far from flattering, with Irish Catholics often discussed in the context of sectarianism.

3. Disparaged

But it is not just that the Irish are absent from much of Australia’s history as it is currently being written—or, if present, we catch only fleeting glimpses of them—it is that, when they do appear, it is often in a far from flattering light. O’Farrell portrayed Irish influence on Australia as a positive thing, but other leading historians have taken a very different view.

Dixson, The Real Matilda (1976)

One historian who has dealt with the Irish as an ethnic group, not just a religious one, is Miriam Dixson. She devoted a chapter to them in her pioneering book on women’s history, The Real Matilda, first published in 1976. In that she quoted Russel Ward’s argument that ‘Irish working-class attitudes’ were an ‘important ingredient’ in the development of the ‘distinctive Australian [mateship] ethos’. But, unlike Ward and O’Farrell, Dixson saw Irish influence in a very negative light. She claimed that what the Irish essentially contributed to the mateship ethos was, as she put it, a pre-modern ‘clan-based collectiveness’, of which ‘misogyny’ was a major characteristic.

Drawing upon the work of the post-colonial theorist, Franz Fanon, Dixson argued that ‘the Irish male, like the black, became a “victim” of English colonial arrogance’. The ‘humiliation and blighted self-image’ that imperialism had forced upon Irish men was then in turn imposed by them upon Irish women. In addition, ‘Irish fear of sexuality’, a product of their Catholicism, helped ‘shape the curiously low standing and impoverished self-identity of Australian women’. Dixson demonstrated some sympathy for the Irish as ‘victims’ of British colonialism, but no sympathy for Irish men whom she considered were substantially to blame for Australia’s deep-seated misogynist culture.

Blainey, A History of Victoria (1984/2006)

Whereas Dixson held the Irish responsible in large part for Australian sexism, other leading historians blamed them for introducing additional undesirable traits into Australian public life. Geoffrey Blainey, in his 1984 history of Victoria, reissued in a new edition in 2006, included three entries in the index under the heading ‘Irish’. They were: ‘sectarianism’, ‘Catholic church’ and ‘negative nationalism’. Readers were informed that sectarianism involved either ‘Ireland versus the Rest’ or ‘Ireland versus Ireland’: that is the Catholic Irish versus the Protestant British or versus the Protestant Irish. Either way, sectarianism was portrayed as essentially an Irish phenomenon. The chapter on religion was entitled ‘Sunshine and Moonshine’, for, after treating the hoped-for ‘sunshine’ of religion, Blainey moved on to the ‘moonshine’ of alcohol. Here too the Irish figured prominently, for he noted that the ‘Irish and the Catholics tended to be strong drinkers’. As well as fostering sectarianism and alcoholism in Australia, the other main achievement of the Irish, according to Blainey, was to introduce what he called ‘negative nationalism’. This ‘noisy’ creed was brought ‘ready-made’ to Australia by the Irish, its chief characteristic being a bitter ‘dislike of England’. Blainey contrasted this with ‘positive nationalism’, which was ‘home-grown’ and expressed a healthy love for Australia.

Yet, given Blainey’s apparent opinion that the Irish contributed nothing worthwhile to Australian life, it seems rather odd that the front cover of the paperback new edition of his book featured an iconic painting of the Irish-Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, by the Irish-Australian artist, Sidney Nolan.

Hunt, Girt (2013) & True Girt (2016)

Very recently, another writer has taken up O’Farrell’s notion of the Irish as the ‘fun factor’ in Australian history. Unfortunately, though, this writer has not treated them in the ‘best sense’ of fun that O’Farrell aspired to; quite the contrary, he has re-cycled a plethora of anti-Irish jokes. In 2013 and 2016, David Hunt published two volumes of what he called ‘The Unauthorised History of Australia’: the first volume entitled Girt and the second True Girt. These were intended as comic works; and they have certainly proved successful, attracting favourable reviews, being nominated for prizes and selling well.

Unlike many other writers on Australian history, Hunt cited O’Farrell’s 1986 book in the acknowledgement sections of both his volumes. In volume one, he thanked O’Farrell for enabling him ‘to make more Irish jokes than I ever thought possible’, while, in volume two, he described O’Farrell’s book as ‘the gift that keeps on giving’. Although recognising in his acknowledgements that ‘Australia has a racist past by any standard’, Hunt seemed totally oblivious to the fact that his demeaning jokes directed against the Irish might be considered by many people to be ‘racist’.

Some examples of Hunt’s humour need to be cited here in order to illustrate the deeply anti-Irish nature of his work. In the index of volume two, for instance, under the heading ‘Irish’, there were entries such as the following: ‘criminals’; ‘love of good drink’; ‘love of good fight’; ‘love of pikes’; ‘love of potatoes’; ‘poverty’; ‘rebellion’; ‘sectarianism’; and ‘stupidity’. Elsewhere in volume two, readers were informed that: ‘Irish squatters were as rare as Irish Mensa members’. The 4,100 teenage girls sent from Irish workhouses to Australia during the Famine were, according to Hunt, ‘short, ugly and mostly Catholic’, and ‘many…forged successful careers in the exciting prostitution and vagrancy industries’. Due to this ‘Orphangate’ scandal, as he called it, few were able to find respectable husbands, so they were reduced to marrying Chinese gold prospectors. In volume one, in a section entitled ‘Fookin Eejits’, Hunt decided that English jokes about the ‘Irish peasantry being a bit dim’ were well founded, because Catholic priests had been banned from educating the ‘little tykes’ and ‘malnutrition resulted in high levels of mental retardation’. In another section entitled ‘Paddymonium’, Hunt agreed that the fears held by English settlers in Australia about Irish violence were justified, because: ‘The Irish were into violence in a big way, and the more sectarian the better’.

Nearly all the classic anti-Irish stereotypes and jokes that had circulated in past centuries were resurrected and rehearsed in these two volumes: the Irish were innately stupid, violent, drunken, ugly, corrupt, impoverished and sectarian. Even more disturbing perhaps was the fact that Hunt seemed to believe that ridiculing the Catholic Irish was just harmless fun and that O’Farrell might actually have approved of having his work linked with such crude bigotry.

Conclusion

Given that so much of mainstream Australian history continues to ignore the Irish or even, on occasion, to disparage them, my colleague Dr Dianne Hall and I decided some time ago that a new general history o f the Irish in Australia was overdue. We do not intend our book as primarily a critique of O’Farrell’s work. We think he was right to highlight the importance of the Irish as a distinctive and influential ethnic group in colonial Australia, even if we do not always agree with his sweeping assertions about their role in the creation of a national character. A great deal more research has been published since his book first appeared in the mid 1980s, and we are drawing upon such work, plus upon much new research of our own conducted over the last five or six years. New approaches to history and new methodologies have also emerged, which we will be employing as well. But, in addition to offering an original look at the Irish in Australia for those interested in Irish-Australian history, we would very much like to have an impact on the writing of mainstream Australian history and its treatment of the Irish, which we consider to be seriously deficient at present. Whether that is possible, though, only time will tell.

Elizabeth Malcolm is Professor Emerita, University of Melbourne. She is working with Dianne Hall on a new history of Irish Australia.

2 thoughts on “After O’Farrell: Writing a New History of the Irish in Australia

  1. An interesting review of the way sundry historians have assessed the influence of the Irish in Australian history. One can look forward to the work now being undertaken by Professor Malcolm and Dr. Hall specifically on the role of women in that story. Many thanks to Tintean for its current excellent issue. Peter Kiernan.
    .

  2. It is interesting to see how Irish, and Australians born of Irish, are dealt with in Colonial papers early on e.g. V.D.L. / Tas vs. Victorian.
    VDL much more ‘respectful,’ Numbers?
    Then there are the papers run by Irish Immigrants and Irish-Australians: e.g. Ballarat Times Joseph Henry Dunne and Robert Walsh; Dunn said to have been a secretary to O’Connell in Ireland; John Gregory Edwards, Tas born, ran paper in Tassie then owner-operator of the Bendigo Independant.
    As best I have observed the “Capital” class regarded the word “English” to be what “British” really was. e.g. Stanley Bruce’s father rallying the employers says ‘we are all Englishmen’; History is called “English History” etc.
    Then there is how the TV have portrayed the subject………………

    Look forward to the book.

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