The Irish are a different lot
Any writer who ventures on to the same terrain as an illustrious predecessor is brave. Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall have done this, and have made their move tactically and tactfully. Patrick O’Farrell’s The Irish in Australia was published in 1986. By 1993 its umpteenth reprint claimed “over 17,000 copies sold”, a remarkable number for a book of scholarly, sectional history published by a small university press.
O’Farrell was an important, if unacknowledged, Australian writer, a superb stylist, nuanced and witty. His 1986 book was magisterial in its scope and its thesis. It argued that the Irish had been the dynamic element in Australian history, the catalyst that ensured we would be the pluralist society we are. His authority is such that the old adage about Plato and philosophy is applicable: all history of Irish Australia is a series of footnotes to O’Farrell.
At first glance, Malcolm and Hall may seem to claim more for their book. As a “new history” is it a replacement for O’Farrell? It isn’t, and the authors all but acknowledge their work is a series of footnotes and minor corrections. O’Farrell is referred to or quoted 20 times, always generously, even reverentially.
The title is misleading because the book is not comprehensive, and it has no need to be. It’s divided into three parts. First, the Irish as a race and their interaction with other minority groups such as indigenous and Chinese Australians; second, the negative stereotypes of the Irish; and, third, Irish-Australians in political life. Clearly there is a lot missing: the working lives of the Irish here, their demographic and geographic positioning, their cultural and literary activities, the place and practice of their religions, as well as numerous events that were important to them ranging from the Castle Hill rebellion of 1804 to the reburial of Michael Dwyer in Waverley in 1898.
Nor is there any attention to the personality and activities of the 25 per cent of non-Catholic Irish. They appear only in opposition to their Catholic compatriots. So “Herbert Brookes whose mother was Ulster born” was instrumental in getting Billy Hughes to ban Sinn Fein, but we learn nothing about Mrs Brookes and her Ulster tribe apart from this implication that she passed on her prejudices to her son.
Yet on its own terms the book is full of interest and new information. It hoovers up the scholarship of the past 30 years (much of it the authors’ own work). This can have it sounding at times like a series of academic papers, com- plete with end summaries, unlike O’Farrell who was working out his thesis through his largely chronological narrative.
On closer inspection, other curious differences emerge. O’Farrell had a positive story: the Irish putting the defining stamp on the Australian ethos. I’m not sure whether Malcolm and Hall are consciously propounding a thesis, but the one that emerges is that the Irish, the Catholic Irish, have always been regarded as an inferior breed. Still are.
In a way that I’m not sure they intended, this is Malcolm and Hall’s most important disagreement with O’Farrell’s essentially triumphalist story. As a logical result, the book comes to be not just a history of the Irish in Australia but a necessary defence of them.
In the second part, we learn lots about the Irish in prison and mental asylums. It has long been accepted, not least by O’Farrell, that they were over-represented. But Malcolm and Hall do a neat job of showing how statistics can be distorted.
In 1881, AM Topp, an editorial writer for Melbourne’s Argus, and a rolled-gold bigot, wrote that the Victorian Year Book 1879-1880 showed clearly that the “Catholic Irish contributed a large proportion of our criminal class … Their tendency to acts of violence being an obvious characteristic of an imperfectly civilized race.” And so on. The trouble was Topp omitted comments by the government statistician, HH Hayter. Arrests of the Irish born were double that of natives of England, Scotland and Wales. But the proportion of those committed for trial was more or less the same. Most Catholic Irish arrests were for public order offences; drunkenness but also “offensive behaviour, abusive language, having no visible means of support, begging, cruelty to animals, illegal gambling — and lunacy”. In 1879, 46 per cent of Catholic arrests were for drunkenness, which may seem to authenticate the stereotype, but 44 per cent of Protestant arrests also were for drunkenness. Hayter, an Englishman, wrote in fact that Irish offences were “not as a whole of so serious a nature as those for which the English were arrested”. The analysis of the Irish in asylums is a treat of logic and statistics. Yes, the Irish were institutionalised at a higher rate. Ireland, even in 1956, had more of its citizens in asylums than any other country. It was notoriously easy to have them committed. Family dispute? Burdensome invalid? You called in the police, who then had the troublesome individuals committed.
Then, the logical step … In 1879, 82 per cent of the Victorian police force was Irish born, and half had served as policemen in Ireland. Malcolm and Hall carefully speculate that there was a practice here that could easily have replicated itself in Australia.
In the asylums, the Irish seemed to have come up against preconceptions in the minds of the non-Irish staff. Well-kept medical notes in Gladesville asylum in NSW suggest the doctors were unfamiliar with the cultural background of their Irish patients. Women who, for example, sang or danced or read prayer books or said the fairies were dropping lice on them were written up as flighty, peculiar, odd, strange.
There is a cri de coeur in this book. The authors vehemently and cogently lament the use of the common category “Anglo-Celtic” to define a single culture and ethnicity. The whole tenor of their argument, as it was of O’Farrell, is that the Irish were a different lot altogether.
That is not their only grievance. Despite the lumping together of Celt and Anglo as one identity, the irony is that the Irish stereotype and joke is only too alive and well. Writers as ideologically respectable as David Hunt and John Birmingham cheerfully lampoon the Irish.
This book’s last sentence is that “a nation of immigrants … cannot afford to take such humour lightly: jokes, and the negative stereotypes they perpetuate, are a serious matter”. passports. holds Australian and Irish
Irish band Ceilidh Rogues celebrate St Patrick’s Day at Moonee Valley