The Detail is Where Angels Lurk

Book Review by Michael McGirr

Patrick Morrisey: Australians of the Great Irish Famine: One Clan’s story, PJM Publications, Sydney, 2021.

ISBN: 987 0 6452046 0 5 pb

RRP: $35

Available from Pjm.publications@gmail.com; website: pjmpublications.com.au; mob. 0427700640

People often say that the devil is in the detail. But when you come across a book such as this, you’re just as likely to discover that the detail is where angels lurk. Australians of the Great Irish Famine is a feast of storytelling and painstaking historical reconstruction. It seems that Patrick Morrisey has been just about everywhere to unearth the tale of his clan, heading back to the time of Cromwell and even further. It is difficult for the reader not to share Morrissey’s passion for this enormous saga. It is full of extraordinary anecdotes and colourful characters. The sense of life’s possibilities is intoxicating. 

At the same time, Morrisey is acutely aware of the many issues presented by the history of any family, not least his own. This is a celebration in the true sense of the word: it is a work of grateful realism rather than conjecture. He sticks to a story he can document: ‘Yet important as these documents are, they don’t provide insights into Irish culture of music, poems and stories that they may have brought with them. This story only relies on what historical records chronicle and personal reflections.’ Morrisey is a craftsman not a fantasist.

            Take one thread in this elaborately woven tale. Morrisey is, like many historians, deeply aware of the impact of the Irish famine in the middle of the nineteenth century and indignant about the way it was caused and the manner in which it was used. It created opportunities for those in power and is a lesson in the manipulation of suffering that has been repeated in many contexts before and after. ‘Rotting food fused with social, economic and political oppression.’ In Three Famines, Tom Keneally finds much in common between famines in Ireland, Bengal and Ethiopia, and others beside.

            Morrisey’s book charts the journey of his forebears from Ireland to colonial Australia, a less common destination for refugees than the United States. Among them were his great, great uncle, William, who arrived on the Rodney in 1854. William tried his hand as a miner around Bendigo before marrying Kate O’Brien at St Francis, Lonsdale Street, in 1868. He got a job as a gatekeeper on a new railway before he was killed by a train he had not seen coming. Kate then took over the job until she too was killed by a train. On both occasions, their son William found the body. This William, orphaned at 15, went to work on the Wonthaggi coalmine. He married Martha but died young of tuberculosis ‘probably a result of coal mining.’  William and Martha’s son, Royce, was killed on the Western Front in 1916. Morrisey pieces these stories together beautifully. In three generations, we see gold, railways, coal and war sewn through the life of ordinary people. Again and again, a lesson is brought home about the dangerous work undertaken by an immigrant community with limited access to the levers of power.

            Morrisey often expresses his thanks to publicly available records that have helped his quest. He sharply observes, however, how much harder it is to recover the stories of women than of men. Indeed, the book concludes on the note that ‘many other women lived long lives and leave no searchable stories.’ As the clan spreads over a wide arc of Australia, he regularly notes the First Nations people whose lands they entered. All of this reveals a broad range of sympathy which draws the reader into a deep appreciation of the complexity of the historian’s task.

            Australians of the Great Irish Famine traces a kind of circle. It is, at core, an engrossing narrative of historical power, told through the lens of the Irish experience. Morrisey returns to Ireland to uncover stories of landlords and their tenants which go back centuries. ‘Cromwell’s campaign of terror, motivated by dreams of conquest and confiscation, is estimated to have resulted in about twenty five percent of Ireland’s people dying from fighting and disease.’ Morrisey’s great great grandfather, John, was born about 1784 and saw social upheaval from the bottom rung. It is no wonder that his family were prepared to try their luck on the other side of the world.

            The final chapter of this book, perhaps the most trenchant, completes the circle. Morrisey’s mother, Patricia, was honoured for her contribution to the Catholic Women’s League and her community work. Countless others contributed to the Catholic Church in different ways. They were involved in the Movement, the Knights of the Southern Cross and the Holy Name Society, rank and file Catholics of great heart. They were not always well served by a clerical culture that put religious authority on a pedestal and revered priests such that they could do no wrong. The story of the cover-up of sexual abuse is shameful. Morrisey sees that it’s not new, ‘the historical context dates back centuries.’ In a story that stretches right across this book, the powerful were blinded by their position: ‘That the church potently used shame and guilt to control the insecure, the dying and the intellectually weak (is) not forgotten.’

            Morrisey has served his far-flung clan with fidelity and panache. He has honoured the memory of many ordinary, lovable, people. He has also served the wider community by bringing to light themes that operate beneath historical events and to which the unaware can be vulnerable. Australians of the Great Irish Famine comes from the heart but challenges our minds.   

Michael McGirr

Michael is the author of Ideas to save Your Life (Text). Since 1990, Michael McGirr has reviewed over 1000 books for The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. Michael has been twice a recipient of a senior fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts. He has been an official guest of the Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra writers’ festivals. He has been chair of judges of the National Biography Award and chair of judges of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and a judge of numerous other literary awards. Michael has been the fiction editor of Meanjin and publisher of Eureka Street.

Patrick Morrisey completed an agricultural degree at Hawkesbury Agricultural College and a PhD in Rural Sociology at Southern Cross University. He’s married with two children and divides his time between conserving an old growth rainforest in the Northern Rivers of NSW and living at Manly by the Sea in Sydney. This is his first book.

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