The invitation from Professor Ronan McDonald to a symposium in late 2019 on ‘What Is Irish-Australian literature?’, with its implication of dealing with an unknown reality, led me to collect my scattered notes on what previous authors had said it was, or assumed it to be, and to write this essay.1 Before proceeding, two of my presuppositions need to be tabled: firstly, that Irish-Australian literature is here used as a broad term covering writings of varying genres which connect Australia and Ireland through author’s ancestry, subject matter or language; and, second, that in recent decades authors discussing Australian literature often use a framework which neglects Irish-Australian literature as a topic. Popular reference works such as Bennett, Strauss, Wallace-Crabbe; Birns and McNeer; Hergenhan, Bennett et al; Sarwal and Sarwal; Pierce; and Webby have passing mentions of Irish matters but no chapter or article on Irish-Australian literature. The framework in question summarises settler Australian literature to 1945 as Anglo-Celtic and describes it after that date as multicultural.2 As Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall have pointed out, labelling settler Australian literature, or history, as Anglo-Celtic hides the differences between English, Welsh, Scots and Irish, and ignores the struggle which many Irish immigrants and their descendants had against ‘often intense hostility’ in Australia (19, 343–46).
Further lack of attention to Irish-Australian literature can be found in publications of Australian Irish studies. In a widely-used general history, The Irish in Australia, Patrick O’Farrell had a good word for the early Melbourne chronicler Edmund Finn and conceded that Thomas Keneally showed ‘considerable comic skill’ in Three Cheers for the Paraclete, but declared that in all of Irish Australia there was ‘nothing of high literary worth’ and that ‘nostalgic sentimentality was the dominant and most enduring theme in the Irish-Australian literary tradition’ (177–79, 191–96). Nine volumes of Irish-Australian conference proceedings 1980 to 1995 contained less than eight per cent contributions on Irish-Australian literature and the Australasian Journal of Irish Studies (2001– ) has had but a handful of articles on the topic (see Noone, ‘Irish-Australian’ and ’Recent Australian’).
A word about my credentials. Though lacking training in Australian literary studies, I have relevant but idiosyncratic files on the topic, which I have collected during previous work as an historian and editor. Three projects were involved, namely: a) a bibliographic study of Australian Irish Studies, 1980–2007 (‘Irish-Australian’ and ‘Recent Australian’); b) editing Táin, the magazine of the Australian Irish network, 2000–2007; and c) publishing Hidden Ireland in Victoria in 2012.3 The following pages will sample the viewpoints of some Irish-Australian writers who were encountered in those projects.
The authors surveyed include the anthologists Bill Wannan, Vincent Woods and Colleen Burke; then, in chronological order of publication, Bernard O’Dowd, Brian Elliott, Tom Inglis Moore, Gerard Windsor, Vincent Buckley, Frank Molloy, Dymphna Lonergan and Patrick Morgan. These have been chosen because, whereas my work on other important figures is inadequate for publication, my findings on those named might serve as a supplement to Frances Devlin Glass’s wide-ranging survey in this issue. In addition to English-language writers, a number of rarely noticed Irish-language writers are introduced in a separate section; and the Irish-Scots link receives a brief excursus.
To state the obvious, bibliographic work is a prerequisite for the systematic study of Irish-Australian literature. Anne Partlon, in her three hundred-page bibliographical guide to the Irish in Western Australia, re-affirmed the importance of bibliographies as maps of the intellectual landscape, which can highlight ‘topographical features which might repay further exploration’ (5). Older bibliographies by O’Farrell and James Jupp have looked at the Irish in Australia as a whole, without listings of Irish-Australian literature (Jupp 41–49; O’Farrell 328–51).4 In their A New History of the Irish in Australia, Malcolm and Hall provide an up-to-date bibliography without, however, a focus on Irish-Australian literature. The present study, which in no way matches Partlon’s for thoroughness, tables some relevant sources and quotations.
Bill Wannan: Folklore and Ballads
This investigation begins with two compilations of Irish-Australian literature which show, among other things, the importance of the oral tradition. From 1788, and for a century and more, the majority of Irish Australians worked as farm and industrial labourers and as domestic servants. Literary activity for such people was not only the private figure reading alone but also the evening gathering (in Irish, arnéil), where one person read aloud or recited for the benefit of a community (Noone Hidden Ireland, 102, 142). Moreover, for many, ballads and songs were part of their daily lives, as the first book for consideration indicates. In order to draw attention to a number of the anthologised authors who are rarely mentioned these days, and at the risk of testing the patience of some readers, the next few paragraphs will include lists of names.
In 1965, Bill Wannan’s The Wearing of the Green: The Lore, Literature, Legend and Balladry of the Irish in Australia offered over one hundred extracts, mostly from the nineteenth century, about the Irish in Australia from what he had found to be ‘a vast body of literature and folklore’ (xiv). Some were written by Irish people, others by Australians of Irish descent, others by people of other ethnic backgrounds, and a good percentage were anonymous. Those cited were overwhelmingly men. Describing himself as ‘an Australian with Irish blood (very much diluted)’ (xiv), Wannan had an eye and an ear for laconic humour. He was, indeed, a respected pioneer among a group of folklorists which included Alan Marshall, John Manifold, Frank Hardy, Russel Ward and Patsy Adam-Smith (see Ryan, who edited Australian Folklore).
While Wannan paid tribute to two earlier writers on the Irish in Australia, namely James Hogan and P. S. Cleary, he advocated a more critical approach than either of them. He said that, while Hogan’s 1888 The Irish in Australia unearthed many interesting and little-known facts, the book implied that ‘the Irish almost single handed made Australia what it had become’ (xiii). On the other hand, he found Cleary’s Australia’s Debt to Irish Nation-Builders (1933) ‘a very useful work of reference’, which presented ‘a much more balanced picture’ (xiv). Nonetheless, after several chapters, he noted that Cleary began to read ‘like an honour roll’ (xiv). Wannan’s approach was different because he emphasised what he held to be the sociological characteristic of Irish immigration up to his time, alluded to above, which was that the majority of the Irish who had come to Australia were working men and women, ‘quite ignorant of book learning’ (xv).
In the first section Wannan recorded prose and poetry about those who saw themselves as ‘exiles of Erin’. He evoked memories of the United Irishmen and the 1798 failed republican revolution and introduced other convict stories. He reproduced a long extract from the Jail Journal of John Mitchel, sentenced for treason-felony for his part in the failed 1848 Young Irelander rebellion. Archbishop Ullathorne (Yorkshire-born), James Francis Hogan and William Kelly were among other early voices. Also selected were P. Cunningham, W. H. Leigh, Geoffrey Scott, Francis MacNamara (Frank the Poet), J. Y. Waterworth and Eva Mary Kelly (Eva of The Nation). Wannan explicitly sought to avoid ‘some false aura of an Erin mystique lit by a grey Celtic Twilight’ (xv). Later sections had extracts from public figures such as Arthur Lynch, Peter Lalor, Charles Gavan Duffy, Judge Roger Therry, Banjo Paterson (son of a Scottish immigrant) and E. J. Brady, who had reputations as writers.
Wannan gave the heading ‘Leaders and Pathfinders’ to the passages from George Mackaness, Therry, Lalor, Lynch, Ernest Favenc (an Englishman, on Burke and Wills) and Gavan Duffy (81–138). Wit and tales of local identities came from J. B. Castieau (on the origins of the word ‘larrikin’), John Leonard Forde, Randolph Bedford, James R. Tyrrel, E. H. Collis, Frank Clune, Alan Marshall and Alec H. Chisholm. Stories of criminals (he called the section ‘The Criminous’) came from James Lester Burke, Cleary and Philip A. Jacobs along with one of the longest extracts in the book, namely twenty pages from Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter, which was not then easily available to the public (177–200).
In Part Two of his book, ‘Legend into literature’, Wannan cited Victor Daley on ‘The Glorious Twelfth at Jindabyne’, John O’Brien’s ‘A Little Irish Mother’, and pieces by John Lang, John Arthur Barry, ‘Priam’, Thomas E. Spencer, W. T. Goodge, Barcroft Boake, Henry Lawson, David McKee Wright, Edward S. Sorenson, John Shaw Neilson (of a Scots family), Charles Shaw and Gavin Casey. Part Three consisted of songs and ballads, revisiting the convict and bushranging eras, and retrieving a handful of emigrant ballads with half a dozen sporting songs. Wannan’s anthology has no entry about the Great Irish Famine, and no tales about the Famine orphans transported from Irish workhouses. (Nor does anything about them appear in Banjo Patterson’s Old Bush Songs of 1905.)5
For Wannan, Irish ‘influence has been recorded largely in the field of folklore, in balladry, anecdote and humorous stories’ (xv). He claimed that traditional Irish folk themes such as leprechauns and banshees were much modified or abandoned due to the demands of making a living in strange environments and under the influence of mixing with people of other nationalities. Wannan was far from the condescension shown by O’Farrell to balladeers and songsters. He argued that ‘because the Irish who came to Australia were so articulate, their influence on Australian lore, language and popular humour has been immense’ (xv). This is a plausible suggestion but will need verification.
Burke and Woods: Verse and Song
In 2001, more than three decades after Wannan’s book, Colleen Burke and Vincent Woods published The Turning Wave, the first and, to date, only comprehensive selection of Irish-Australian verse and song. Wannan’s anthology was for them an important point of reference in refuting the widespread dismissal of Irish-Australian poetry as weak and sentimental. They claimed that ‘the range and diversity of voices across 200 years represents a bedrock-influence on Australian poetry and song’ (2). Their ten-page Introduction is scholarly and eloquent. Based on eleven years’ work, Burke and Woods produced an extraordinary book which includes a biographical register, notes and references, but lacks an index.6
Colleen Z. Burke, poet and writer, grew up in Bondi, New South Wales. She has published numerous books ranging from poetry to oral histories and a biography of poet Marie Pitt. In 2016 she released an autobiography entitled The Waves Turn: A Memoir in which she discusses her beliefs, social activism, musicianship and other aspects of her life against the backdrop of an Irish Catholic childhood in Bondi in the years after World War II.
Vincent Woods is an Irish poet and playwright who lived for a short time in Australia. He is a member of Aosdána, a two hundred and fifty-strong association of artists which receives some support from the Arts Council of Ireland. He has published several collections of poems and his plays include A Cry from Heaven, At the Black Pig’s Dyke (which was performed at the Festival of Sydney in 1995), and Song of the Yellow Bittern. Currently he hosts the Arts Show on Irish national radio, RTE.
Burke and Woods’s anthology of some two hundred and fifty poems by Irish-born and Irish-Australian authors was more or less chronological. They gave due recognition to Frank MacNamara and collected half a dozen 1847 Australian poems about the Famine. A section was devoted to the Fenians transported to Western Australia in 1868 aboard the Hougoumont, their shipboard newspaper, The Wild Goose, and their Catalpa escape. Among poems headed ‘Shaping a Nation’, Marie Pitt had a prominent place, and shearers and miners were evoked. Impressive women poets are heard in the twentieth-century sections and some poems in the Irish language are included. They opened with a song from the late John Dengate, which asked: ‘Who gave Australia the tunes to sing, the tunes of songs so grand, / Songs to inspire, full of beauty and fire?’ (12). Dengate, who was otherwise respectful of the songs of Indigenous Australians, was here referring to the songs of settler Australia.
While early Australian oral culture has not been well recorded, it is possible to discern the major influence which Irish ballads in English have had on Australian folk music. ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ and ‘Moreton Bay’ (sung to the Irish melody ‘Youghal Harbour’) are well-known examples, Australian in content, Irish in form. MacNamara’s ballads and the many versions of ‘Bold Jack Donohue’ are among Australia’s earliest extant folk songs. Commenting on songs venerating transported Irish patriots such as John Mitchel and Thomas Meagher, Cliff Hanna remarked that ‘Irish convict songs are refreshingly clear of the self-pitying morality characteristic of the English variety. Like some twentieth-century counterparts the nineteenth-century Irish convicts saw themselves as political prisoners’ (198). For Hanna, the anti-authoritarianism and determination to be free, which are typical of the bushranger ballads, can be seen as a link between the convict period and the later bush song tradition. In Who Wrote the Ballads? John Manifold argued that Irish croppies and Whiteboys are as much a part of the story of Australian music as Cecil Sharp’s and Francis Childs’s ballads.
While Patrick Morgan judged Burke and Woods’s anthology to be the first such compilation and ‘essential reading for anyone interested in Irish Australia’, he found ‘little on assimilation into the wider Australian community, or on Catholicism . . . and nothing on the Ulster Presbyterian tradition . . . and little on ordinary everyday life’. He claimed that some of the poets tended to hope that ‘Australia would be a kind of Ireland down under, a substitute home’ but this was not realised because ‘the differences were too great’ (‘Australia Is not Ireland’ 34). In this category perhaps Morgan had in mind Fionán MacCártha’s ‘Lá in Astraoile/A Day in Australia’. However, most of the poets anthologised conveyed a sense of being anchored in Australia in ways similar to Bernard O’Dowd or Vincent Buckley below.
The cover image of The Turning Wave, an 1813 watercolour by Dublin-born convict T. Richard Browne entitled ‘Black and White Cockatoos’, shows the two birds facing in opposite directions, presumably representing the opposition between Indigenous and settler philosophies. When launching the book, Penelope Buckley, widow of Vincent Buckley and author in 2014 of The Alexiad of Anna Komnene, drew attention to Burke and Woods’s handling of ‘a history of a culture within a culture’. Commenting on the section headed, ‘White man, Have You any Sacred Sites?’, she said that the past rises up ‘as something not yet dealt with’ (30). Burke and Woods, as Buckley added, faced this by including Wiradjuri author and activist Kevin Gilbert as an Irish-Australian poet and by quoting poems showing empathy with Indigenous Australians by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall and Scots-Australian Mary Gilmore.
Of the early twentieth-century writers, Bernard O’Dowd (1866–1953), born in Beaufort, Victoria, is outstanding for his knowledge of Irish history and mythology, often transmitted in dense sentences and mystical poems. A chiding 1907 letter from Nettie Higgins (later Palmer) that he was not being Irish enough occasioned an apologia from O’Dowd for his Irish-Australian literary work (283–86; see also Morgan, ‘Bernard O’Dowd’). He began by saying that he grew up learning seventeenth-century Irish patriotic poems by heart and regretting that he did not know the Irish language well enough to write in it. He wove Celtic mythical figures into a fantasy about his Australian birthplace. Since this passage is, as far as I can tell, unique in the history of Australia literature, a lengthy quotation and a short commentary is warranted:
I fancy I have sat many an hour, beneath a mullock-heap among the ‘yam-holes’ near the present site of the Eureka Stockade monument at Ballarat, with him and Lord Edward and Cú Chulainn and King Arthur and Connor of the Hundred battles and Niall of the Nine Hostages – to say nothing of Aoife and sad Deirdre and Niamh and Queen Maeve, and the Dun Bull itself – listening to St Brendan arguing with Manannan McLir on the details of the Voyage to Hy-Brasil, or to St Patrick admonishing Pelagius for prematurely anticipating the Rev Campbell on the doctrine of the Fall, or watching Columbkille hastily shovelling dirt into the face of his resurrecting brother monk at Iona to prevent him completing his revolutionary message from the other world that ‘hell is not such a bad place after all’ – while all the time poor Tristan was telegraphing down the ages to Wagner the wonder and the tragic sweetness of his love for Iseult, and three black swans flew by towards Lake Burrumbeet to bide the time of the loosening to human form again of the enchanted Children of Lir, and the Son of Tuirrean blew his defiant horn on the forbidding and forbidden Black Hill, and Amergin drafted Arbitration Acts and framed No-Rent plans of campaign in consultation with the shades of the Eureka rioters, and Finn hunted the giant kangaroo through the spectral gums toward Buninyong (284–85).
Not many Australians today, or then, could comprehend or match O’Dowd’s repertoire of Gaelic fables and stories as displayed in these demanding lines.
In his reverie, O’Dowd affirmed that ‘there are two “I”s’, and he put his Australian ‘I’ first (285). To re-iterate some of his points: he linked Eureka, the site of the attack on miners (led by Laois-born Peter Lalor) by British forces in December 1854, with a chain of figures from the past – a republican rebel of 1798, Lord Edward Fitzgerald; the legendary Celtic leader of Britain, King Arthur; two mythical Irish warriors, Cú Chulainn of Ulster and Conn of Connacht; as well the semi-historical ancestor of all the O’Neills, Niall of the Nine Hostages. O’Dowd also linked the children of Lir – Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn (a different Conn from the warrior of Connacht) – to Lake Burrumbeet, west of Ballarat. And he connected Amergin, the mythical father of Irish poetry, to trade union politics. (O’Dowd also gave the name Amergin to his second child.) The Son of Tuirrean is a puzzle – the tales speak of three; and Black Hill is a well-known lookout spot in Ballarat’s northeast. Hy-Brasil was a legendary island of great beauty and happiness to the west of Ireland, the Dunn Bull was at the centre of the epic Táin Bo Cuailgne tale.
O’Dowd’s well-known long poem, ‘The Bush’, was exceptional in the early years of Federation for its condemnation of colonial violence against Aboriginal people (193). Invoking one of the fiercest biblical comparisons available, O’Dowd compared the settlers’ dispossession of Indigenous Australians to Ahab and his wife Jezebel’s dispossession of the farmer Naboth by judicial murder on trumped-up charges. In 1 Kings 21 God’s servant Elijah condemned and cursed Ahab and Jezebel: ‘In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood’. Jezebel met a disastrous end but since Ahab repented of his sin the divine punishment of a disastrous end was visited upon his son instead. O’Dowd’s poem also spoke of poisoned rations and ‘the wraiths unseen of roadside crimes unnamed’ (193).
Critics have claimed that O’Dowd co-opted Aboriginal worldviews into a European one. Frank Bongiorno’s study pointed out ambivalent aspects of O’Dowd’s views but affirmed the nuances of his learning and his rejection of racial superiority. O’Dowd, an opponent of the White Australia Policy, introduced the name Alcheringa, meaning the Dreamtime, into English-language Australian literature. His house at Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, was named ‘Alcheringa’, an acknowledgement on O’Dowd’s part of whose land he lived on. O’Dowd’s voice is relevant today as a growing number of writers seek to take account of the millennia of human habitation on this land. For instance, Malcolm and Hall look at Irish-Australia with a heightened sense of Indigenous history and the mixed role of Irish immigrants in colonisation and dispossession (48–72).
Elliott and Inglis Moore: Irish Names among the Poets
In 1941–1942, at the height of the war with Japan, Brian Elliott and Tom Inglis Moore, Australian-born literary scholars, wrote about the high proportion of Irish Australians among the country’s poets. Elliott began: ‘Nobody who has even a moderate acquaintance with Australian poetry can fail to be struck with the very high proportion of Irish names in the list of poets’ (61). He claimed that the ballad tradition was much influenced by the Irish immigrants, yet the ballads ‘are purely Australian in subject matter for the most part’ (62). Distinguishing poems of ‘the Blarney Irish’ (full of flattering sentiment) from those of ‘the Twilight’ (drawing on Celtic mythology) , and noting mixtures of both, Elliott wrote nuanced analyses of Daley, O’Dowd, Cleary, David McKee Wright and Roderic Quinn; and added comparisons with Mary Gilmore, Hugh McCrae, Shaw Neilson and Christopher Brennan.
The following year, Tom Inglis Moore discussed the Irish factor in Australian literature and, linking it to the Scottish, argued that ‘the defects of the dominant Anglo-Saxon strain have been redeemed by the Celts and the Gaels’ (Six Australian Poets 24). He nominated six major Australian poets – Hugh McCrae, Shaw Neilson, O’Dowd, William Baylebridge, Brennan and R. D. Fitzgerald – and listed McCrae and Shaw Neilson as of Scottish descent with O’Dowd, Brennan and Fitzgerald of Irish descent. Returning to the topic in later life, Moore proposed a strong stance indeed:
The more important minority influence was exerted by the Irish because of their numbers . . . They brought Irish words into the language and a dash of the Irish imagination, wit, humour, and colour into the literature. They gave the prevailing realism touches of romantic feeling, especially in poetry . . . Take away the Celtic, most of Irish and Scottish names, and there would be little left of Australian literature (Social Patterns 50, 51, 53).
Characteristics of Irish influence listed by Moore were familiar ones: a contribution to radicalism and social protest, plus anti-British feeling as a stimulus to Australian nationalism. On the latter point he noted that fledgling Australian patriots, William Wentworth, Charles Harpur and Kendall, were all of Irish descent, and claimed that Joseph Furphy’s Irish background underpinned his democratic stance and his ‘Aut Australia, aut nihil’ (Social Patterns 52).
The timing of the pieces by Elliott and Moore is intriguing. In 1941–1942, at the height of the fears of a Japanese invasion, many Irish Australians whose families had resisted conscription for World War I supported John Curtin in the Pacific War (although not all agreed with him on conscription for outside Australia). Thus, an emphasis among certain scholars on the Irish influence in Australian literature coincided with firmer support for the Australian state from the bulk of Irish Australians.
Windsor: Threadbare and Sentimental
In 1983, Gerard Windsor studied another group of Irish-Australian poets from a similar era to that reviewed by Elliott and Inglis Moore. He focused on seven writers: Maurice O’Reilly, W. J. Lockington, Bernard McElhill, Daley (‘the most competent of those I discuss’) (200), David McKee Wright, Thomas E. Spencer and Patrick Hartigan (‘John O’Brien’). Windsor concluded that ‘the Australian larder for a concoction of “Irish” literature was quite threadbare. It was decidedly sentimental and pious old Kathleen [Ní Houlihan] that Australia tried to deal with’ (209). (Kathleen was a mythical poor old woman representing Ireland awaiting national liberation.)
Windsor, and O’Farrell as quoted earlier, drew attention to sentimental and pious features of certain Irish-Australian writing but they exaggerated their claims. The evidence available in Burke and Woods, and also in Wannan, shows that a good number of Irish-Australian writers have had a healthy interest in learning about and analysing the past, warts and all, from which their ancestors came, and its relevance to the present and future.
Buckley's Imagined Home
Discussing the framework for his poetry and prose in 1979–1980, when arguments about multiculturalism were common, Vincent Buckley made the well-known assertion that Ireland was his imagination’s home. He combined family history with remarks on the poetry and identities of Furphy, Roger McDonald, Douglas Stewart, R. D. Fitzgerald and Brennan. Among Buckley’s other points, then and later, two deserve mention here. First, he lamented the difficulties of forging Australian adaptations of Irish traditions and spoke of those difficulties as universal among Irish Australians. Writing about why his father never spoke about his refusal to fight in World War I, Buckley wrote:
The desire both to assimilate and not to assimilate had led to a situation where Irish ‘Celts’ here were not given their inheritance, had it withheld from them. The nature of Gaelic society and literature, the history of Irish revolutionary movements, the corpus of Irish legend and myth: these were not part of the Irish-Australian consciousness. Nor were Castle Hill, Eureka, and the Catalpa rescue . . . My father, and people like him, would have been more integrated as Australians if they had been more informed of the nature of their Irishness. (‘Identity: Invention or Discovery’ 9)
Buckley returned to these thoughts in the opening chapter of his 1983 autobiographical Cutting Green Hay (3–30). He spoke for an unknown percentage of his cohort of Irish Australians but erred in generalising his own family experience. In a paper to the 2002 Brisbane conference on Irish-Australian culture I had quoted Buckley on his father’s ignorance about Castle Hill, Eureka and so on. In question time, historian Sister Rosa MacGinley hastened to differentiate her Queensland Irish Catholic upbringing from that of Buckley, stating firmly that her parents taught the children well about such matters and that their home was full of relevant books of Irish history. If Buckley’s family were ambiguous about assimilation, MacGinley’s were not. To state the obvious, Irish-Australian ways and access to literature varied with context.
Second, Buckley stressed the effect of visits to Ireland. He said: ‘I experience Ireland as a source-country in a way in which I experience no other place’ (‘Imagination’s Home’ 24). This was contrary to a long trend among Australian writers of heading to London or perhaps New York for inspiration and advancement. Indeed, as a postgraduate, Buckley went to Cambridge but from there started visiting Ireland. Living in Ireland in 1981 when the government of Margaret Thatcher allowed ten republican prisoners to die on hunger strike had a marked effect, embodied in his poem ‘Hunger Striker’. In his 1985 Memory Ireland, which was a critique of contemporary Ireland, he described himself as ‘a loving outsider’ of predominantly Irish ancestry who visits but will always go back to Australia (vii).7 Having said that, Buckley’s professional life was built around a fellowship at the University of Melbourne in creative writing and Australian literature. Indeed, he was a pioneer in university studies of Australian literature.
Molloy, Lonergan, Morgan et al.
This section offers brief notes on selected recent works. For a couple of decades at the turn of this century, Frank Molloy of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, was one of the most consistent researchers of Irish-Australian literature. He wrote scholarly articles on topics such as Irish consciousness in selected Australian novels, Irish-Australian women in Australian novels, and the Celtic Twilight in Australia. His monograph about Victor Daley remains a key work on a once very popular poet. He reviewed for the Melbourne-based magazine Táin and other magazines: his oeuvre deserves detailed attention on another occasion.
Over a similar time-span, Dymphna Lonergan of Adelaide published work on the Irish language in Australia, showing that the Irish migrants were not as quick to abandon the language as O’Farrell had suggested, and that the minority language influenced the Australian English of Ralph Boldrewood, Henry Lawson, Ned Kelly and others.
Patrick Morgan, a specialist in the literature of Gippsland, has published regularly on a wide range of Irish-Australian writing. His book, Melbourne Before Mannix, is a study of the literary group around the journal Austral Light (1892–1920), most of whom were Irish-Australian Catholics. He has written also about John Moriarty, Marion Miller Knowles, Edwin Brady, O’Dowd and a group of Irish-Australian Protestant writers such as Rolf Boldrewood, Joseph Furphy, Handel Richardson, Norman Lindsay, Mary Grant Bruce, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Vance Palmer and Martin Boyd.
Magazines and newspapers, in particular Táin, Tinteán and Irish Echo, contain contemporary works of Irish-Australian literature and reviews (Index to Táin).8 In the latter two, Frank O’Shea has regularly reviewed many volumes of Irish-Australian writing. Since 1993, the Australian Irish Heritage Association in Perth, established by Joe O’Sullivan, has produced a magazine called The Journal, which offers two annual writers’ prizes for creative works.
In the spring of 2002, I was fortunate to take part in a weekend conference at Tara House in Brisbane on ‘Irish Ways, Queensland Days’. The writers discussed included Cornelius Moynihan, Eva O’Doherty, Alice Guerin Crist, Thea Astley and Rosa Praed. This conference and one a decade before suggest that southern Queensland has a distinctive Irish-Australian literature.
Writing in Irish from Australia
An article by Greg Byrnes in Biblionews twenty-five years ago and an unpublished 2018 paper by myself and Colin Ryan have tabulated aspects of the use of the Irish language in Irish-Australian writing. In general, few of some three hundred thousand Irish immigrants who came following the Great Famine in Ireland and the gold rushes in Australia were literate in Irish and, thus, up to about Federation, Irish immigrants lacked the skills and resources to publish in Irish.
The earliest known Australian book containing the Irish language was a dictionary compiled by Thaddeaus Connellan jointly published in Ireland and Australia in 1863. The first known instance of print journalism in Irish in Australia seems to have been ‘Gaelic Column’ in the Melbourne Advocate, started by Nicholas O’Donnell in 1901. An Claidheamh Soluis (1899–1916), the journal of Gaelic League in Dublin, and its successor journals, contained articles about and letters from Australia. From 1921, the Sydney branch of the Gaelic League published a bi-lingual magazine entitled The Gael–An Dord Féinne, until 1931.
Several works in Irish about Australia have been published in Ireland. In 1907, Michael Timoney, sometime gold-miner in Queensland, and a folklore collector, published in Dublin a short story about Queensland. In 1953, An Gúm in Dublin published posthumously a book of poems by Fionán MacCártha of Dalby, Queensland (see also Byrnes and Carty). The only Australian novel translated into Irish was Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms, translated by a leading Irish writer Domhnall Ó Grianna. Ironically, Boldrewood went to a deal of trouble to portray himself as an English gentleman and hide his Irish origins (Boldrewood; see also Breslan). More recent publications by authors in Ireland have included a 1988 bicentenary tribute, a short biography of Daisy Bates (Margaret Dwyer) and a journalist’s account of visiting Eureka and the Victorian goldfields (De Paor, Monkhouse and Arrigan, De Barra). In the past couple of decades An Linn Bhuí, which is a magazine of the Waterford Gaeltacht, has been exceptional among Irish-language print magazines in Ireland for the number of articles by Australian authors, including Greg Byrnes, Father Michael O’Sullivan and Christopher Mooney, as well as by former Irish ambassador to Australia, Máirtín Ó Fainín.
During the nine years from 1987 when he lived in Melbourne with his wife and family, Cork-born poet Louis de Paor published three bi-lingual books. In 2009, the founding president of the Irish Language Association of Australia, Múiris Ó Scanláin (Mossie Scanlon), made history by publishing the first autobiography in Irish of a resident of Victoria. The impressive journalistic output by Dáithí Ó Colchúin (1946–2007) of Sydney, and Bearnaí Ó Doibhlin (1944–2018) of Canberra, for the now defunct Donegal-based electronic newsletter, Beo, amounted to a large body of written Irish from and about Australia.9 Since 2007 the Melbourne-based Irish Language Association of Australia, Cumann Gaeilge na hAstráile, has published a quarterly newsletter entitled An Fhuinneog (The Window).10 However, Australian-born and Melbourne-based Colin Ryan has published the largest output in Irish of any Australian: articles and poems in Australia, Ireland and USA; a fortnightly electronic newsletter, An Lúibín, for the past seven years; a book of poems; and two books of short stories.11
Tom Inglis Moore’s linking above of Irish and Scots influences in Australian literature under the category ‘Celtic’ opened up an important topic, too big to tackle thoroughly here, but a few lines are in order. Drawing on Russel Ward’s findings, Wannan had argued that ‘there is certainly a much more clearly defined and widespread Irish-Australian folklore than a Scottish-Australian one’ (xvi). Since many Scots quickly became rich, he reasoned, they had little influence on the songs of Australian working people.
However, as Scottish-Australian writers such as Mary Gilmore and Les Murray have said, a certain common literary and historical heritage links Irish and Scots.12 By way of an example, let us consider for a moment John Shaw Neilson who grew up in the Wimmera, western Victoria, among people who spoke Scots Gaelic. Wannan brought Neilson into his anthology of the literature of the Irish in Australia (and, as mentioned, he included Banjo Paterson also of Scottish ancestry). When Neilson died in 1942, George O’Neill, an Irish-born Jesuit lecturer at Corpus Christi College, Werribee, wrote that ‘the poet has a gradh [love] for Ireland that is unmistakable’ (516). A. R. Chisholm argued that, for Neilson, being was more fundamental than doing; individual deaths were seen as part of a cycle; singing and making music (especially fiddle music) were highly prized; plants and the landscape were spoken of as if they were alive. For Chisholm, it was ‘the Celt in Neilson’ which promoted sympathy with the environment in the face of widespread soil degradation and destruction of forests (‘A Study of John Shaw Neilson’ 1–61; Noone, Hidden Ireland 70–71). While such stereotyping of the Celts is rejected by many scholars, Neilson’s attitudes can be traced in the songs, stories and poems of Gaelic culture. Moreover, Scots Gaelic and Irish culture are historically linked through their common linguistic origin in Old Irish. This short note establishes, at least, that the Irish-Scots link is worthy of consideration in any extended discussion of Irish-Australian literature.
Summary, and a Paradox
This survey of two anthologies and selected authors has indicated the extent of Irish-Australian literature in the broad sense and has sampled opinions to be found within its nooks and crannies. The importance of ballads and songs to earlier generations has been pointed out, and some Australian literature in the Irish language has been tabled.
An important paradox emerges. Many Irish-Australian writers have recorded a widespread sense that Irish immigrants faced anti-Irish prejudice since the First Fleet. However, at the same time, Wannan, Elliott, Inglis Moore and others have claimed that Irish Australians had a noticeable influence on Australian literary culture. Indeed, when launching Burke and Woods’s book, Penelope Buckley concluded that, despite her partly English background, ‘being Australian is to be partly Irish by cultural inheritance’ (32).
Allowing that human history in Australia is sixty thousand or more years old, and allowing that in the past few decades the settler society has become more multicultural, to what extent are the Australian characteristics of settler society’s literature indeed Irish-Australian characteristics? To many twenty-first-century readers, Irish-Australian literature, taken in the broad sense, may seem to be invisible in settler Australian literature precisely because much of settler Australian literature is Irish-influenced.
I wish to thank Greg Byrnes, Mary Doyle, Dianne Hall, Rob Lindsey, Elizabeth Malcolm, Ronan McDonald, Kevin Molloy, Maggie Nolan, Terry O’Neill, Colin Ryan and two anonymous referees for their constructive comments on drafts of this essay or for assistance with sections.↩
For instance, Wenche Ommundsen frames ‘Multicultural Writing in Australia’ as a contest with ‘the Anglo-Celtic mainstream’, and did not discuss Irish-Australian literature (73); Amit and Reema Sarwal have sections on Chinese, Jewish, Hungarian, Slovene and Vietnamese writing in Australia, but not Irish.↩
45 issues of Táin were published 2000–2007, complete holdings are in State Library of Victoria and National Library of Australia.↩
As at 17 July 2021, searching ‘Irish influence’ as a keyword in the AustLit database brings 169 references and searching ‘Irish language’ brings 473 references.↩
A bibliography on this issue is included in Noone and Malcolm, pp. 139–68.↩
Turning Wave authors in order of appearance: John Dengate, Frank MacNamara (Frank the Poet), John McGarvie (‘M’), Anon, Charles Harpur, B. R., ‘An Irishman’, J. M., G. F. K., Eva O’Doherty, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, John Boyle O’Reilly, Edward Kelly (Laoi), John Flood (Binn Eider), Denis Cashman, A. Stanhope Gore, E. H. M., Eliza Hamilton Dunlop, James R. McLaughlin, T. A. M., John McGuire, Ned Kelly, Charles Harpur, Mary Fortune, Victor Daley, W. Kidston, Marie Pitt, E. J. Brady, Roland Robinson, Christopher Brennan, Marion Miller Knowles, John P. O’Donnell, Rod Moran, Aileen Palmer, Zora Cross, Nettie Palmer, Mary Fullerton, Marie Pitt, Barcroft Boake, Colin Bingham, John Millett, Denis Kevans, Alan Jefferies, Kevin Gilbert, Mary Fullerton (‘E’), Minnie Filson (Rickety Kate), Roderic Quinn, Marie Louise Mack, Bernard O’Dowd, Ann Glenny Wilson, Mary Finnin, Vincent Buckley, Katherine Gallagher, Tracy Ryan, John Kinsella, Diane Fahey, Philomena van Rijswijk, James McAuley, Tony Scanlon, Colleen Z. Burke, Henry Kendall, Séamus Duffy, Kevin Gilbert, John Muk Muk Burke, Ted Egan, Jennifer Martiniello, Louis de Paor, Tony Scanlon, Mary Gilmore, J. Laurence Rentoul, John Manifold, Helen Palmer, Andy Irvine, Frank McMahon, Martha Simpson, Henry Lawson, Robert D. Fitzgerald, Fionán MacCártha, Michael Sharkey, Max Dunn, Philip Hodgins, Alan Alexander, Robert Campbell, Aileen Kelly, Lizz Murphy, Robyn Rowland, Bronwyn Rodden, Lucy Dougan, M. Cronin, Eilín Ní Bheaglaoich, Peter Skrzynecki, Frank McMahon.↩
The hunger-strikers, and especially Bobby Sands, are central to Memory Ireland, 117–81.↩
Tinteán (2007– ) is also Melbourne-based, and is now online, see https://tintean.org.au;. Irish Echo (1988– ) is a Sydney-based newspaper which now has a digital edition, see https://www.irishecho.com.au.↩
Published from 2001 to 2014, Beo is archived at http://beo.ie.↩
An Fhuinneog is a print newsletter with electronic copies available at https://gaeilge.org.au/en/.↩
Subscription to An Lúibín is free and can be requested by emailing Colin Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.↩
See [Noone], ‘Gilmore to Haunt Australian Celts?’, Táin, no. 37, p. 20, quoting a letter from Mary Gilmore to Ruth Park in Park’s Fishing in the Styx. Les Murray, ‘Poetry Reading’, Second Celtic Studies Conference, University of Sydney, 4–8 December 1995, personal recollection.↩