Voices of strangers

Voices of strangers

A Feature by Colin Ryan

Unknown-4The bulk of the Irish who came to Australia from the end of the 18th century until the later decades of the 19th – convicts, labourers, serving girls – spoke Irish as their first language, and sometimes no English at all.

They continued to speak it here, and sometimes (though the evidence is scanty) seem to have passed it on to another generation. They were seen as different: strange in religion, manners and speech, preserving a sense of their own identity while interacting uneasily or amicably with Aborigines, the English, the Scots and the Welsh. And they brought with them something of their own: a literary and oral culture, a dúchas, which most of their descendents would find completely foreign.

It is understandable that ‘celebrations’ of Irish culture in Australia should emphasise material in English. The celebrators have no other language available to them, and it affords them ample material for books, concerts and the inevitable mythologising (the Irish as rebels, as victims, as makers of modern Australia). And behind all this the ancestors lead a secret life, sometimes visible in anecdote, inscription or manuscript.

images-5We know that Irish emigrants – those from Clare, Kerry, Galway and other Irish-speaking areas – would have brought with them a mass of folklore, songs, stories, proverbs and traditional beliefs in their own language. We know this not because collectors in Australia gathered this material (it occurred to no one here to do so) but because of the work of collectors in Ireland itself. An enormous amount of such material is now available online and in printed form, much of it specific to province and parish. If you know where the emigrant was born and when, you can infer a great deal about their cultural baggage.

Anecdotal and other evidence does survive in Australia of that Gaelic world – the story of a newborn child laid ceremonially in a furrow, of a phantom funeral glimpsed in an Australian forest, accounts of informal and convivial gatherings of Irish speakers in town and city, the survival of a handful of manuscripts in Irish. Literacy in English was more common than literacy in Irish, but ongoing research has revealed a surprising number of epitaphs and inscriptions in Irish in Australian cemeteries. The dead find ways to speak.

It would be too much to expect, perhaps, that many historians with an interest in Irish-Australian history would exert themselves to learn the language. A few have done so and have not regretted it: Irish opens the door to an extraordinary world. The doyen of the historians of Irish Australia, Patrick O’Farrell, attributed a great deal of the Irish difference to a ‘Gaelic’ cast of mind, though he thought (at least when The Irish in Australia was first published) that the language itself would have been discarded on arrival. We know now that the opposite was true, though linguistic assimilation was ultimately unavoidable.

The popular reliance on an English-based interpretation of the Irish Australian experience will no doubt continue. It seems (or can be made to seem) authentic, and summons easy emotion. Few think that there might be more to the story, and to learn a language takes time and effort.


There have been books like The Turning Wave (edited by Colleen Burke and Vincent Wood) and Bill Wannan’s Folklore of the Irish in Australia, works which cast a fascinating light on the Irish influence on Australian culture. The former includes poems in Irish by three writers who spent time in Australia (Fionán MacCártha, Eilín Ní Bheaglaoich and Louis de Paor). Nor should one forget the work of Dymphna Lonergan in Sounds Irish, in which she investigates the traces left by the Irish language on Australian English.

But something else is needed if the earliest cultural stratum is to be uncovered, a book which brings to light what has long been lost – the songs, the stories, the poems, the proverbs of that Irish-speaking world, with extracts from the manuscripts which the Irish brought here. The epitaphs, fragments of correspondence. A bilingual edition directed at the general reader.

This book may never be written. The need for it will remain: a record of the voices of strangers.

Colin is a regular contributor to Tinteán and issues his own Irish language online newsletter An Lúibín. Mura mian leat An Lúibín a fháil, cuir teachtaireacht dá réir chun rianach@optusnet.com.au