The Ir­ish are a dif­fer­ent lot

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ger­ard Wind­sor

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

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