The Irish in Australian Fiction

A Feature by  Dymphna Lonergan.

Irish characters are not new in Australian writing, especially those set in colonial times when around a quarter of convicts were Irish. They can provide comic relief, local colour, or a contrast. What is interesting, though, is how today’s Australian writer uses language in exploiting the potential in an Irish character.

Published within a few years of each other, the Australian novels To Name Those Lost (Rohan Wilson 2014), The Shepherd’s Hut (Tim Winton 2018) and Shepherd (Catherine Jinks 2019) are all themed around the quest or journey involving a young male and those he meets along the way. All three have an Irish character who plays a pivotal role in the story. To Name Those Lost is somewhat different in that the story is about a father journeying to find his son and the Irish character is less a helper in this than a hindrance and plays a larger role in the storyline. The Shepherd’s Hut and Shepherd have Irish characters who grow to providing more than local colour and a distraction for the protagonist. They serve in saving the young protagonist and lose their own lives as a result.

Despite the similarity in their titles, The Shepherd’s Hut and Shepherd are set hundreds of years apart. Shepherd is set in the nineteenth century at the height of the convict system. Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut is a contemporary setting while To Name Those Lost is set in 1874. The teenage characters are typically named for a journey or quest story: William, Jack (Jaxie) and Tom. Their Irish characters are, by contrast, the exotically named Fitheal Flynn, Phelim Cavanagh (Rowdy), and Fintan MacGillis, two convicts and an ostracised priest. The young and plainly named characters are in contrast with the older, more experienced, and potentially dangerous characters they meet along the way.

In English or Australian literature authorial devices for introducing Irish characters can involve the use of a recognisably Irish first name such as Brigid or Paddy, or a common Irish surname such as Casey or Murphy, or a name beginning with O, such as O’Hara.  The first names of the three Irish characters in these novels are not commonly used Irish names in Ireland or in literature that depicts Irish characters. Of interest too is the use of three first names that are similar in all starting with an ‘f’ sound. The name Phelim is an anglicized spelling of Feidhlim and one that conveys the pronunciation. There appears to be a need to avoid the potential comedy in using more common Irish names but also perhaps an awareness by today’s authors of the more unusual Irish names. All three characters have recognisable Irish surnames, however: Flynn, Cavanagh, MacGiillis. The combination of an unusual Irish first name with a standard surname establishes these characters as being more than stock characters.

The Irish character in Australian literature is often introduced by a piece of dialogue that confirms the character’s origins. The dialogue may involve a light or heavy use of Irish English dialectal elements.  The choice often depends on whether the character is a major or minor one, the social class the character belongs to, his or her education, and the character’s temperament. Again, the introduction of these Irish characters in To Name Those Lost, The Shepherd’s Hut, and Shepherd deviates somewhat from tradition.

Rohan Wilson introduces Fitheal Flynn in To Name Those Lost, not by name at first, but by origin: ‘That Dublin jackeen’ (p. 29) and ‘the Irish’ (p. 30). We don’t learn his surname until page 69 and his distinctive Irish language first name, Fitheal, (pronounced fee-hill) until page 188. Another deviation from tradition in To Name Those Lost is the use of untranslated Irish language phrases instead of Irish English elements.To Name Those Lost

An Irish character may be identified in dialogue through excessive use of religious sayings or exclamations; the use of the gerund plus ‘after’ to signify an action recently completed e.g., I’m after finishing my dinner for ‘I have just finished my dinner’; the foregrounding of words for emphasis e.g., Is it tired you are?; the continuous present tense ‘do be’ or ‘does be’; Irish language words (usually anglicized in writing) and direct translations from the Irish language. Fitheal Flynn tells a rude baker to ‘Póg mo thóin’ on being greeted with a comment on ‘An Irish clown show’ (p. 74). It’s not clear whether the shopkeeper understands the Irish language saying as ‘kiss my arse’ but the author in providing an untranslated Irish sentence is telling us that this Irish character is no comic. Flynn uses the Irish English expletive ‘Jaysus’, the continuous present tense ‘Don’t be talking to anyone now’ (p. 75), and the directly translated endearment ‘pulse of my heart’ (p. 130). It is in the account of Fitheal Flynn’s childhood late in the novel that we see his Irish language upbringing. Again Wilson chooses not to translate ‘go bhfuil sé in a leanbh’ (p. 188) but the meaning (he is just a child) is clear in the sentence. Wilson’s conscious highlighting of the Irish language by displaying it correctly spelt, including the fada ‘lengthener’ over some vowels shows that this writer has expert knowledge of a rare item and so increases his value in the Australian market. It also demonstrates proper recognition of the Irish language as a relevant and functioning language and so increases the Australian writer’s chance of increasing a possible Irish market for his work.

36742671.jpgTim Winton introduces his Irish character in The Shepherd’s Hut through that Irish-Australian song ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. Jaxie Clackton’s fears when hiding from the hut keeper are somewhat alleviated on hearing him sing a song Jaxie had learned from his Nan and Mum. Fintan MacGillis speaks mostly standard English. His Irishness is not revealed until he says his name. His old-fashioned formality and bearing even prompt Jaxie to introduce himself as ‘Jackson’. Fintan MacGillis turns out to be a priest who has been cast out into the bush in mysterious circumstances. Irish English elements in his dialect include ‘your man’: ‘Have you read your man Dostoievski’ (p. 139); ‘…I’m after getting some chops on…’(p. 145); ‘…a quare pair of goms…’(p. 149); and  ‘…is it you hard of hearing now?’ (p. 23). The Shepherd’s Hut has a late twentieth century setting (the priest talks about Christy Ring an Irish hurler, popular in the middle of the century).

ShepherdCatherine Jinks’s Shepherd is set in 1840. Young Tom Clay fears for the return of Carver, a convict assigned to work at the shepherd’s hut but who has gone rogue. The Irish character Tom meets on his journey is Phelim Cavanagh, another convict, who goes by the nickname ‘Rowdy’. The reader meets him first through Tom’s recognition of his ‘thick Irish accent’. Irishisms used by Rowdy include ‘I’m thinkin’, ‘Jaysus’, and ‘mother o’ God’. Although Tom finds Phelim’s garrulous talk irritating, in his greatest time of need he appreciates the words that ‘…flow out, soft and tuneful like as song’. (p. 118). Rowdy sacrifices his life for Tom in riding ahead of him as a distraction to Carver. In a similar way, Winton’s Fintan MacGillis’s torture at the end of The Shepherd’s Hut buys time for Jaxie.

Untranslated Irish sentences, unusual Irish first names, and a priest with an unsavoury past are some differences in how these modern authors depict their Irish characters; however, the characters overall are still standard representations of the Irish in Australian writing, as different to mainstream characters and potentially comic, menacing, or pitiful. Their speech patterns more than their actions will define their personalities and the roles they play in the stories. Arguably as long as it is necessary to depict them as Irish through their speech patterns, their roles are limited to minor ones. Unless they are Ned Kelly.

Dymphna Lonergan is a research fellow at Flinders University and an editor of Tinteán