Irish Australia – Getting More Interesting

Launch of Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall,
A New History of the Irish in Australia, Sydney, New South, 2018.

This is the full text of Val Noone‘s launch speech on 20 November 2018

On your behalf, I pay our respects to the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, especially to their elders past and present. One of several striking characteristics of A New History of the Irish in Australia,is that it investigates the role of the Australian Irish in the dispossession of the Aboriginal people while also pointing to those Australian Irish who defended Aboriginal rights.

Before we go any further, I will read an email I received yesterday from Ambassador Breandán Ó Caollaí:

Go raibh maith agat don scéal seo, is go n-éirí leat agus leis an leabhair gleoite atá tú ag seoladh.

I was travelling to and from Bangkok last week for a regional DFAT meeting with A New History of the Irish in Australia(which Diane gifted me at the Famine seminar) as my reading of choice. It is a magnificent volume and I’ve learnt so much from it already.

In the next fifteen minutes I will introduce you to the contents of the book, and I will conclude with a mention of three comparable works.

About the authors

But first, a few words about the authors and their qualifications. By upbringing Elizabeth is a Sydneysider. When I first met her nearly 20 years ago she was an historian of Ireland with a specialty in temperance and hospitals. Her father, William Johnston, was a northern Protestant who came to Australia in 1925 as a 16 year old from a farm in Fermanagh with his parents and nine siblings; and her mother Josephine was an Australian descended from some southern Catholics including Margaret Cook, a Famine orphan transported from County Offaly in 1849.

Elizabeth studied Chinese history and Anglo-Saxon history before turning to Irish history – mentored by Patrick O’Farrell. She went to Trinity College Dublin, gaining further mentoring from T W Moody. She taught in Norway, Belfast, Dublin and Liverpool before coming to Melbourne University in 2000 as the Gerry Higgins professor of Irish Studies.

A little later I met Dianne who was then a world beater regarding nuns in Medieval Ireland. Dianne was born in Brisbane and thanks her maternal grandmother for her stories about Irish ancestors. Before taking up Medieval Studies Dianne worked as a nurse for 13 years at the Mater Hospital. A scholarship brought her to Melbourne to study Irish religious women; and her post-doctoral work with Lindsay Proudfoot led her to write about the Irish and Scots in colonial Australia. She is currently associate professor at Victoria University.

We are privileged to have Dianne’s mother, Trish Conway, with us today, and also Di’s partner Louise and their children, Rowan and Jack. I would like you to give them a warm welcome.

A three-part guide into new territory

Now to whet your appetite for the book. In A New History of the Irish in Australia,Elizabeth and Dianne will take you by the hand and give you a look at parts of Irish Australia you have not visited before, and they will give you a fresh look at places you thought you knew. They do not claim to cover all the ground. What’s new are the sources and approaches they use, as well as the questions they pose about race, gender, crime, mental health, employment, politics and religion. This is a user-friendly guide into new territory.

Their book is divided into three parts with clear headings: Race, Stereotypes and Politics. In discussing their aims they say, page 19:

For readers today, whether they are Irish Australian or Australians with no Irish ancestry at all, the long journey of the Catholic Irish from unwelcome ’savages’ to respected citizens provides a compelling story and, moreover, one with considerable contemporary relevance. Today Australia is a nation of immigrants – 49 per cent of the population were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas – just as it was during the 19th century. The story of how the Irish overcame often intense hostility to eventually become recognised as Australians holds out many lessons, not only about the past but potentially for the future as well.

If you thought the old folks were exaggerating about anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice in nineteenth- and much of twentieth-century Anglo-Protestant Australia, our authors have put it back on centre stage.


Part One, which is about race, begins by outlining hostile attitudes to the Irish among the English since the beginning of the conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century. They move immediately to a challenging chapter which asks whether Irish settlers in Australia were friend or foe to Indigenous Australians. For instance, they point to the three Irish-born stockmen executed for their part in the Myall Creek massacre of 1838 as well as to the Irish police magistrate who investigated the crime and the attorney-general who was instrumental in prosecuting the men. “Irish people were part of the story of Australian colonisation in all its complexity,” they comment.

From there they move to discuss the Irish and the Chinese in White Australia. They have not found any Irish voices for compassion at Lambing Flat, but they comment thoughtfully on the 1100 marriages of Irish women to Chinese men in New South Wales and Victoria in the years before Federation. While recording anti-racist positions taken by Bernard O’Dowd, Cardinal Moran and William Bede Dalley, they argue that many Irish Australians supported the White Australia Policy.

Nonetheless, well into the twentieth century prominent figures like Ernest Scott and Baldwin Spencer maintained anti-Irish prejudices and the government seems to have used eugenic policies to cut Irish immigration in the 1920s and 1930s.


The second part of the book is about stereotypes of Irish men and women in the media, cartoons and on stage, especially in the second half of the 1800s. I think you know the pattern: ape-like, violent, drunken, ugly, corrupt, impoverished, or comic and stupid. A strong chapter here discusses the caricatures of Irish domestic servants as inadequate and troublesome Bridgets, or Biddies; and investigates the No Irish Need Apply advertisements.

The chapters on crime and madness in this stereotypes section are packed with original work. They provide clear evidence of negative racial and religious stereotypes among doctors and police. You can read a critical analysis of the medical notes on Winifred Sharkey from Maitland while she was in Gladesville Asylum. You can also read a visiting journalist’s assessment that in the 1870s families were using the Kew Asylum “to rid themselves of troublesome members’. Elizabeth and Di accept that there were high percentages of Irish-born people in lunatic asylums but they also show that earlier writers have skewed the statistics. My impression is that the chapter on madness is the most radical in the book.


The third part of the book is on politics. Elizabeth and Dianne provide concrete evidence of Daniel O’Connell’s influence on colonial politics, and point out the anti-O’Connell views of the Sydney Gazette and Sydney Morning Herald. For me the highlight of this section is the series of potted biographies on half a dozen or so Irish-born and Irish-Australian premiers of the 1800s. They move on to the links between the Catholic Irish and the Australian Labour party; and conclude with a handful of pages on the conscription referenda, the Irish war of independence, the Civil War and the Labor Party split of the 1950s. In this section, as in the earlier ones, they make valuable comparisons between Australia and Ireland, England and the United States, and argue for the unique features of Australia’s Irish.


As E P Thompson urged historians to do, Elizabeth and Dianne have rescued many Irish Australians from the enormous condescension of history. Their Epilogue rejects the label of “Anglo-Celtic” and re-affirms the view that, in the past, Irish Australians have been different from the dominant British Australians. They finish by quoting four high-profile anti-Irish jokes or slurs of recent years and comment: “A nation of immigrants, like Australia was in the 19th  century and is today, cannot afford to take such humour lightly: jokes, and the negative stereotypes they perpetuate, are a serious matter.”

Three comparisons

This book brings to mind three comparisons. The first is in the title which recalls T W Moody’s brainchild, A New History of Ireland.Since that was conceived in the 1960s, and went to nine volumes with last volume published in 2005, the comparison is that Elizabeth and Dianne have worked swiftly to produce a fine one-volume work.

The second comparison is, of course, with Patrick O’Farrell’s 1986 compendium, The Irish in Australia.Elizabeth and Di analyse authors such as Alison Bashford and Stuart Macintyre, Miriam Dixon, Geoffrey Blainey, Ross McKibbin who “have not embraced O’Farrell’s ideas”. Throughout their book, Elizabeth and Dianne dialogue with O’Farrell, disagreeing in places, agreeing in others, but all the while expressing the utmost respect. The authors and the publisher are right that the new work of the intervening 30 years makes this book timely.

Anybody who has been working on family history or an essay and has tried to follow up something in O’Farrell’s book has run into the problem that he provided no footnotes. Well, the New History of the Irish in Australiahas plenty: for 350 pages of text we get 76 pages of footnotes and references.

The third comparison is with the wonderful Not Just Nedexhibition on the Irish in Australia curated by Richard Reid at the National Museum in 2011. I looked up Di’s review of it. She found it “a rich exhibition” with “a celebratory core” which, however, “glossed over many negative experiences of large numbers of the Irish born and those of Irish descent.” In today’s book Di and Elizabeth are, in part, filling in some gaps of the Not Just Nedexhibition.

Let me borrow a line from President Michael D Higgins when he spoke recently at the launch of the Cambridge History of Ireland. Perhaps in the audience here this evening are young scholars who will read this book and then write other books to revise its findings. That, we can say, would be the measure of Elizabeth and Dianne’s success.


New South [the publishers] have produced a handsome volume. In conclusion I heartily recommend this 436-page beautifully presented and well bound book, especially at the amazing price of $35. After you buy one for yourself, you might like to think of who it would make a good Christmas present for. And what a sensation it is that Cork University Press are publishing it in Ireland in February.

My remarks about the authors what the book contains, and the three comparisons add up to one main messages to take from tonight’s enthusiastic gathering, namely: Irish Australia is not going away, it’s just getting more interesting. Congratulations to Elizabeth and Dianne: A New History of the Irish in Australia is a good book. Sin é mo scéal.

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