The Irish Australian Literature Symposium (22 November 2019)

Reflections by Wendy Dick

Opening the Symposium

Friday 22 November 2019 meant an early start for an eager group who had taken up the open invitation to participate in ‘an historic event, a discussion about possible shapes of a distinctive new field of research’.  Academics and enthusiasts committed to a wide range of Irish studies had come from Melbourne and across Victoria and from interstate to gather at the Celtic Club for the inaugural symposium: What is Irish-Australian Literature?  The hospitality of the Celtic Club was gratefully acknowledged for this event, which was organised by the Australian Centre at The University of Melbourne under the leadership of the Gerry Higgins Chair of Irish Studies, Professor Ronan McDonald.

Ms Helene McNamara, Vice President of the Celtic Club, welcomed all and Professor Ronan McDonald set the context for the day.  He noted that although it was hoped that this event would launch a new and distinctive focus on Irish-Australian literature, the soil for this new field of academic and theoretical inquiry had first been turned months earlier and then prepared for planting in lengthy discussions among like-minded people, keen to apply academic rigour to questions of identity through a close engagement with a broad spectrum of Irish-Australian literature.

The very well-organised program was divided into four lecture-sessions, each with three papers and a panel session.  Refreshment breaks were filled with talk, socialising, establishing useful contacts and sharing of ideas – all contributing well to what we would expect of a lively, Irish-themed conference.

The program for the day – speakers and their papers

The presenters of papers are given here in the order in which they spoke. For biographical notes see:

Session 1:

Frances Devlin-Glass, ‘Defining the Field of Irish-Australian Literature, Challenges and Conundrums

Val Noone, ‘Notes on Previous Opinions

Maggie Nolan, ‘Is Irish-Australian Literature Even a Thing?’

Session 2:

Patrick Buckridge, ‘Writing Irish-Australian Selves’

Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver, ‘Irish Republicanism and the Colonial Bushranger Narrative’

Philip Mead, ‘Irish Antipodes’

Session 3:

Paul Giles, ‘The Secular Paradoxes of Irish-Australian Literature’

Mark Byron, ‘Displaced Homelands: Gerald Murnane’s Fiction’

Julian Croft, ‘Australian-Irish or Irish-Australian? Joseph Furphy’s Arbitration Between Two States

Session 4:

Anne Jamison, ‘ ‘the future destiny of a rising country’: educating the Australian nation through Maria Edgeworth’s fiction for children’

Jimmy Yan, ‘ ‘Ourselves Alone’? Encounters between Melbourne Radical Intellectuals and Irish Literary Revivalism, 1912-1923’

Kevin Molloy, ‘Identifying the Irish-Australian Reading and Writing Community’

Concluding Session:

Roundtable discussion on ‘What is Irish-Australian Literature?’, which confirmed the belief that the field is indeed one worthy of fuller cultivation.  Frances Devlin-Glass’s handout, ‘Possible Shapes’, gives a solid framework for future inquiry and action.


Exploring Themes, Questions and Issues

The central consideration of what constitutes the field of Irish-Australian literature was addressed in the first three papers and then informed the other papers and discussions either directly or implicitly.

Frances Devlin-Glass posed the question of criteria for inclusion in a study of Irish-Australian literature.  She argued that, whether the product was fiction, poetry, comedy, memoir, history or even literary criticism, it should have ‘literary standing’.  She shared, via a handout, the very detailed database that she has already built up of authors across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who were or are Irish or who have self-identified Irish links, including some Indigenous Australian writers.

Val Noone, in his paper and handout on ‘Previous Opinions’, provided extracts and listings from a wide range of antecedents in Irish-Australian literature research and collections.  His sampling covered works from the nineteenth century through to the early twenty-first century and benefited from his own current studies in the Irish language and Australian writing in Irish.

Maggie Nolan challenged us with the question of whether there was such a ‘thing’ as Irish-Australian literature.  She looked historically at population groups, especially the Irish in Australia, and asked whether they might have been united more by working class solidarity than by ethnic origin.  She pondered what is at stake in using hyphenated categories.  She also weighed up the appropriateness of applying the category ‘whiteness’ when considering the place of the Irish in American and Australian historical and literary discourse.

Bound up with the opening question around the nature of ‘Irish-Australian literature’ was the related concept of ‘identity’ – a personal sense of self, either as an individual or as an identifiable group, and sometimes as identities split between multiple allegiances.  Identity might be self-consciously adopted or applied by ‘the other’.  A compelling challenge of the day was for all those present to grapple with the idea of one’s ‘essential’ nature and that of the groups to which writers emotionally but perhaps unthinkingly, or critically, belong.

The speakers addressed the issue of identity from various perspectives.  Frances Devlin-Glass and others reminded us that the Irish were a founding people in the annals of European settlement of Australia, with a dual sense of themselves – ‘Australian’ in some experiences but ‘Irish’ in other contacts with the land and people around them.  For a settler population, family life became for some a multi-generational force and this was evident in speakers sharing personal stories, such as Philip Mead on his Irish grandmother who taught him to read and write.

Family life was depicted by many of the authors cited as the primary lifelong influence, from which sometimes a protagonist had to make the choice to extricate him or herself.  Patrick Buckridge drew on his extensive work on Irish-Australian autobiographies and memoirs (provided as a chronology in a handout) to remark on Gerard Windsor’s view of his grandparents as they were in his memory, in contrast to limiting stereotypes of the Irish.

Julian Croft, in examining Joseph Furphy’s fiction and his birth into a sectarian Protestant family from Northern Ireland, pointed to two pivotal rewritten chapters of Such is Life (chapters 2 and 5, in which a ‘mixed marriage’ has tragic outcomes), reading them as symbolic of the Australian nation as a whole and its need to root out such old-world divisions.

Family life received considerable attention, both in generous personal sharing by the speakers and the audience, and in the works of literature that were drawn upon.  However, questions of gender discrimination and the roles of women were not a major focus of the day.  This comment is not made as criticism but as an indicator of one direction for future work exploring Irish-Australian literature from the perspective of identity, perhaps drawing on the wider work of Anne Jamison.

For this Symposium, the experiences of childhood as part of family life were addressed by Anne Jamison.  She looked at the education of children in the broad sense of values and ethics as well as in their school studies, pointing to the importance of the Irish National Readers and to stories such as fiction specifically written for children by Maria Edgeworth, and also touching on the work of Hannah Boyd.

In Irish-Australian literature, whether through the voice of the author or in the characters depicted, religion and Catholicity seem to define identity as much as ‘being Irish’ through family and birthplace.  The voices heard at this Symposium, from speakers and from the persona of the literature cited, demonstrated that questions of religion or secularism, theology, and sectarianism arising from Catholic or Protestant or agnostic faith positions, will be central in future studies of Irish-Australian literature.  The beliefs inculcated in childhood might channel the directions of adult life or might be a spur to rebellion.

From his work in Irish-American literature and drawing also on Thomas Keneally and Gerald Murnane, Paul Giles argued that ethnicity and religion are ‘irreducible points of origin’ but that their adoption into the literary domain is problematic.  Ambivalence and certainty are at loggerheads.

Recognising that the origins of written language are found in speech, presenters and listeners inevitably raised the subject of Irish humour.  What is described as Irish humour comes from two different sides.  The Irish might generate the humour themselves in wit, self-mockery, or lightning-fast responses to situations or they might be the recipients, almost victims, of the amused gaze of others.  The brogue, the ‘gift of the gab’, an alleged propensity for ‘blarney’, Irish wit and quick-fire jokes can be observed and enjoyed in characterization and in authorial voice.  Looking at Caddie, Patrick Buckridge observed how the central character’s Irishness, voiced in a lively brogue, is depicted against the harshness of poverty.  The portrait is sympathetic.

From the opposite position, the construction of the Irish in nineteenth-century Colonial Australia as stereotypes, objects of exaggerated humour as characters from their spoken language, their dress and customs is a subject expanded upon by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall in their New History of the Irish in Australia (2018).

The emerging themes that came into focus in this symposium as mentioned so far have related to the Irish-born emigrants to the Australian Colonies and then their immediate families who identified and to this day identify or are identified (labelled) as Irish-Australians.  The papers presented and the discussions that enriched the day suggested three further themes of literary significance: the heritage of literary forms and practices; the relevance and meaning of location; and the political concerns of rebellion and revolution.

Heritage, and Literary Heritage

A dedicated study of Irish-Australian literature might take account of the antecedents found in the heritage of literary practices from the homeland.  To what extent did settlers bring with them the folk songs and poetry, Celtic myths and legends and mytho-history of their past centuries, and most importantly, and more proximately in time, the nation-building work of the Young Irelanders and of the Irish Literary Renaissance, in Ireland?  Kevin Molloy’s paper reminded us that the Irish immigrants were a reasonably literate population and that an Irish Australian readership was identifiable from across the 1850s into the twentieth century.  Booksellers, circulating libraries, newspaper editors and in particular the Advocate all contributed.


Another theme that recurs in Irish-Australian literature was the focus of several papers, namely the sense of location, particularly the concept of ‘home’.  Narratives of departure and return evoked ideas of place, and especially ‘home’, in an actual physical sense and perhaps more powerfully in the imagination.  Patrick Buckridge delved into the psychology of the Odyssean journey.  Philip Mead showed how Tasmania was classed as the last human outpost – the ultimate antipodes for Irish settlers.

The grasslands of Gerald Murnane’s fiction contain, for Mark Byron and conveyed to his Symposium listeners, aspects of memory, latent desire and mystery.  I, for one, will henceforth view expanses of grassland with greater sensitivity and richer reflection.

Rebellion and Revolution

The theme on which I conclude this brief reflection on some questions and issues raised by the Symposium is an idea, almost an archetype, in Irish history and Irish literature and that is ‘rebellion’.    For a subject people as a nation for centuries and as convicts in many individual cases of Colonial Irish ‘immigrants’, the spirit of rebellion seems never to have been far below the surface of much Irish-Australian literature.  Jimmy Yan’s work is currently looking at modern socialist aspects of this.  Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver explored the Colonial bushranger narrative, weighing up whether this phenomenon in the Australian Colonial story arose from republicanism or aspiration.  Their sampling considered Ned Kelly, of course, but also pointed to a different factually-based story, that of John Boyle O’Reilly and Moondyne.

Winding up the Day and Contemplating a Way Forward

From this thought-provoking Symposium several themes and questions have emerged, sufficient in number and complexity to encourage the establishment of an ongoing seminar of inquiry that could meet online or in person throughout the year.  The twelve speakers and the fully-engaged audience at this inaugural gathering revealed that the academic field of Irish-Australian literary studies has a bedrock on which to build.

There is a substantial body of nineteenth-century literature and (as Val Noone has identified) a small number of anthologies and twentieth-century reviews and scholarly works that have addressed the broad topic of Irish-Australian literature.  As suggested earlier in this article, closer attention to the experience and voices of women and to the place of Celtic myth and culture in settler memory and self-expression might well be avenues for further research into Colonial Irish settler literature.

It is to be hoped that the Irish-Australian Literature Symposium of 22 November 2019 will be remembered in years to come as the event that marked the formal initiation (in the words of the invitation) of ‘a distinctive new field of research’.

Dr Wendy Dick

Wendy Dick is an Honorary Associate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at The University of Melbourne.  She has had an extensive career in education – in teaching, administration and educational research. Her PhD (University of Melbourne 2012) on an early twentieth-century political and social activist, Ellen Mulcahy (born Cork, Ireland, in 1859 and died in Melbourne 1920), drew on Mulcahy’s frequent press articles. Wendy may be contacted at