Conceptualising Irish-Aboriginal Writing


This article considers some of the reasons why Irish-Australian literature has not been a significant trajectory within Australian literary studies and what it might offer if it were. Since the colonial era, Irish difference has been both recalcitrant and assimilable but, in the wake of Federation in 1901, Australian literature was concerned with the production of a national tradition and Irishness served to differentiate Australianness from Britishness. This article is concerned, then, with retrieving Irish difference. It extends my longstanding interest in Indigenous Australian literatures by analysing the representation of Irish Australians in Indigenous Australian writing, particularly moments of solidarity between the Irish and Indigenous Australians. After looking briefly at representations of colonial relations between the Irish and Aboriginal Australians in Jack Davis’ 1979 play Kullark and Eric Willmot’s historical novel Pemulwuy (1989), this article offers a reading of a minor scene in Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning novel Carpentaria, published in 2006, as a way of exploring such representations in the contemporary era. This article is not trying to generate a new category for the field of Australian literary studies. Rather, it follows a seam within the Australian literary tradition that imagines generative forms of allegiance that may complicate existing conceptions of the Australian literary field.

In late 2019, I was invited to a symposium titled, ‘What is Irish-Australian literature?’, organised by the Australian Centre and Professor Ronan McDonald, the Gerry Higgins Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne and hosted by the Celtic Club of Melbourne. Initially I declined, having never really thought of Irish-Australian literature as a strand within Australian literary studies, in spite of my Irish ancestry; but then I became curious: why had I never considered Irish-Australian literature, given my interests in representations of race and ethnicity, including representations of whiteness, in Australian literary culture? This article charts the direction of these thoughts. It asks why Irish-Australian literature has not been a significant trajectory within Australian literary studies and what it might offer if it were. My interest in Indigenous Australian literatures led me to think about the intersection of Irish and Aboriginal writing in the Australian context. So I offer a reading of a minor scene in Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin-Award-winning novel Carpentaria, published in 2006, as a way of exploring how one might conceive of such a nexus. Having said that, this article is not trying to generate a new category for the field of Australian literary studies. Rather, it is following a seam within the Australian literary tradition to see what emerges.

Although I had never considered Irish-Australian literature, I had long known there was an Irish-Australian community. Indeed, I grew up in it. I had also known there was a substantial and distinguished strand of Irish-Australian history within Australian historical studies, of which Patrick O’Farrell was the most renowned advocate. O’Farrell’s scholarship investigated the challenge of the Irish to the English-led colony, and their distinctive influence on Australian cultural and political life. In fact, my mother, who left school at fourteen to work for her grandfather, a Labor Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in the NSW parliament, first went to University in her forties after having nine children and graduated with honours in history at UNSW in 1992 under the supervision of Professor O’Farrell, for whom she had a deep respect. This made me wonder: would Australian literary studies be different if there had been a literary equivalent of Patrick O’Farrell?1

Such speculations – what might have been – are rarely a fruitful line of inquiry, but the trajectories of literary scholars and the institutional and disciplinary economy in which they are situated do have an impact on the development of scholarly fields. Leigh Dale’s work is instructive here: her cultural history of the emergence of the discipline of English literature in Australia reveals how the academic field had been organised around the careers of Oxbridge-educated men (O’Farrell’s PhD, it may be worth noting, was from the Australian National University). Dale’s work demonstrates the ways in which the promotion of imperial values and British loyalties were central to the foundation of the discipline of literature, and remained in place until the post-war period. Up until this time, most of what we understand to be Australian literary studies was undertaken by devoted and motivated writers and amateur critics outside of the university context.

Nettie Palmer, whose critical study of Australian literature, Modern Australian Literature, was published in 1924, and her husband Vance, were at the forefront of this movement, ‘energetically promoting the idea of a distinctively national Australian literary culture’ (Dixon, 223). The Palmers and later Miles Franklin worked to cultivate an authentic Australian literary tradition, but for much of the twentieth century the cultural nationalists were at loggerheads with the cosmopolitans who looked to Europe for inspiration. Such struggles, outlined in Pascale Casanova’s account of the competitive relations between national literatures in world literary space, leads to a rivalry between ‘“national” writers (who embody a national or popular definition of literature) and “international” writers (who uphold an autonomous conception of literature)’ (108).

For the cultural nationalists, such as Palmer, Federation in 1901 brought with it a specific task: ‘Perhaps the chief possession of Australian writers in the year 1901 was this consciousness of nationhood . . . What [Australia] was to mean . . . lay in the hands of her writers, above all, to discover’ (5). As such, there was little interest in tracing the tensions and divisions within settler Australia in the decades after Federation. Indeed, it may have been the case that Irishness represented a competing, and more successful, form of literary nationalism in the early part of the twentieth century, when the Irish Literary Revival was at its height in Dublin. Furthermore, the overwhelming presence of British publishers for Australian writers seeking publication may have made teasing out the role of Irishness within Australian literary development even more difficult. As Martyn Lyons and John Arnold have suggested in the subtitle to their history of the book in Australia, in the first half of the 20th century, Australia was ‘a national culture in a colonised market’. As Palmer bemoaned:

Alone among the adult and literate nations, we have no serious belief in the importance of giving full expression to our developing mental life. We have a lack of publishing houses, of quarterlies, of reviews . . . We are content to be consumers, returning nothing to the world from which we import so freely . . . What then will temper the world’s verdict on us as a mere desert fed on tinned literature from overseas? Nothing but the habit of publishing books here. (qtd. in Dixon 227)

Miles Franklin took up the cause of cultural nationalism in a series of lectures for the Commonwealth Literary Fund, published posthumously as Laughter Not for a Cage in 1956. Franklin offered an account of Australian literary history defined by cultural nationalism and, like Palmer, she attributes the lack of Australian literature in the early part of the twentieth century to a cosmopolitanism that was contemptuous of a specifically Australian literary culture. ‘The Australian needs to dismiss from consciousness the bugbear of any necessity to be “universal” or to strain after “world standard” with which misguided academics have saddled him’ (qtd. in Dixon 253), an observation that remains resonant. As Dixon observes, these ‘misguided’ critics ‘were taking a professional interest in Australian literature that threatened to replace the authority of the earlier generation of cultural-nationalist intellectuals, who were largely outside the academy’ (253).2

When Australian literary studies emerged in the academy from the 1950s onwards, Irish migrants to Australia had slowed to a trickle, and ongoing debates between cultural nationalists and cosmopolitan universalists largely side-stepped the contribution of the Irish in Australia. Indeed, the Irish were the cosmpolitans, and their national literature had already gained a centrality and recognition that Australian literature at the time could only hope for. This is not to say Irish-inflected Australian literature was not being written, published and read during the colonial period and the twentieth century. It clearly was, as Kevin Molloy shows. Val Noone likewise demonstrates that Irish ballads had a significant influence on the emergence of late-nineteenth century bush ballads.3 Rather, literature about the abuses of the convict system and working-class mateship which emerged in the late-nineteenth century, and which might have been understood as Irish-influenced came, at the time of Federation, to be seen as uniquely Australian, not distinctively Irish Australian. This may reflect working-class solidarities not reducible to nation, religion or ethnicity, but in many cases the Irish element became absorbed and re-branded as Australian in the new century, as Australians sought to distinguish themselves from the British. There were, and continue to be, writers of influence who identify, at least some of the time, as Irish-Australian – Marcus Clarke and Joseph Furphy, but also Christopher Koch, Thomas Keneally and Richard Flanagan.4 These writers, however, are usually classified as quintessentially Australian writers, although no more so than other Australian writers whose families had emigrated from other parts of the British Isles.

By the time literary studies developed an interest in new and diverse forms of migrant writing in the 1980s and 1990s, as a response to both the theory and reality of multiculturalism, and in the wake of a generation of migrations from an ever-widening range of countries, Irishness had been largely subsumed into dominant forms of white Australianness, and the sectarianism that had clouded Australian public culture in the first two thirds of the twentieth century was largely a phenomenon of the past. Since the 1980s, within Australian literary studies, a number of hyphenated strands have emerged: Asian-Australian literature (and the even narrower categories of Chinese-Australian or Vietnamese-Australian literature), Arab-Australian literature, as well as other forms of migrant or ethnic-based Australian literature – Greek and Italian, for instance – even Ukrainian, for a fleeting moment.5 In such formulations, the latter term – Australian – controls and stabilises, the constant for which the first term is the moderating adjective. These hyphens perform a kind of labour in the literary field – they produce new categories, identities and literary forms and infuse them with meaning in a process that is at once institutional, historical and ideological. The hyphen may also signal a potential split in the subjectivity of the writer, indicating that they straddle cultures and literary traditions that are in more or less tension with each other. Having said that, as second and third generation migrants claim such hybrid identities, hyphenated subjectivities can suggest complementarities rather than merely tensions, and can also be understood as a form of tribute to a cultural pluralist nation.

At the same time as migrant writing came to be taken seriously in the literary sphere, often under the mantle of ‘diversity’, which frequently and increasingly included forms of diversity beyond ethnic diversity, Australian literary studies engaged with the emergence of post-colonial literary studies. Indeed, Australian literary scholars were at the forefront of global post-colonial literary theory with the publication of The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, authored by Bill Ashroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, in 1989. In the same year, not coincidentally in the wake of Australia’s bicentennial, John McLaren’s Australian Literature: A Historical Introduction, offered a reading of Australian literary history that placed Aboriginal writing as central to its concerns. Two years later, Bob Hodge and Vijay Mishra’s influential Dark Side of the Dream: Australian Literature and the Postcolonial Mind focused extensively on Indigenous literatures and reframed Australian literature through a postcolonial lens, even as some objected that, for Indigenous Australians, Australia was not yet a post-colony.

In Australia, from the 1980s onwards, the study of migrant writing, and questions of ethnic identity, and the study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander literature, which was frequently understood through the rubric of race, became two distinct trajectories with Australian literary studies. While much valuable scholarship was undertaken in both strands, their paths rarely crossed.6 More recently, settler colonial studies has suggested that colonialism (and thus postcolonialism) is too ‘blunt a tool’ (Edmonds and Carey 2) to deal with the complexities of settler colonies, and the waves of migration that characterise them. As Tony Hughes-d’Aeth has argued, postcolonialism was a framework through which literary scholars could read literature ‘in terms of the structuring dynamics of colonial power’, which allowed ‘Australian writing to be compared with other colonial and postcolonial writing across the world’. Hughes D’Aeth outlines the ways in which ‘the unifying project of postcolonial theory in Australian literary studies was eroded’ and provides a compelling model for thinking about settler texts, including those produced by a range of migrant writers that have arrived in Australia at different points in time. At the same time, interdisciplinary Indigenous studies is also challenging the paradigms of settler colonial studies. Shino Konishi, for example, has questioned the ways scholars view Indigenous lives ‘exclusively through the prism of colonialism’ or their ‘relations to non-Indigenous society’ (411).

In the last three decades, then, ways of interpreting literary texts and literary subjectivities have proliferated. During this same period of rapid intellectual transformation in Australian literary studies, in which Australian-Indigenous literatures have become increasingly canonical, Irish studies was also undergoing its own debates and challenges as interdisciplinary Irish studies expanded across the globe. Central to these debates was whether and the extent to which postcolonial theory applies to the Irish context.7 More recently, the ‘anomalous condition of Ireland, hovering as it does between colony and coloniser, is widely acknowledged’ (McDonald, 339).

These complex and intertwined histories ensured that when, in the 1980s and into the 1990s, the field of Australian literary studies began attempting the complex and painful task of analysing the legacies of colonialism, there was much talk about Anglo-Celtic Australia. This term, however, was generally used without nuance and its meanings, as Ann McGrath has argued, have not been adequately teased out. It did not usually signal the Celtic as ethnically, culturally and spiritually distinctive in ways that it might have done, and which might have complicated our understanding of the term. Indeed, even the term Celtic covered over significant differences across northern Europe. Anglo-Celtic Australia was generally conceived of as an oppressive monolith – oppressive to both First Nations peoples, and more recent migrants, particularly from non-European backgrounds. In recent times, the more frequent term is ‘white’, notwithstanding the ongoing debates within whiteness studies about the meanings and applicability of the term.

Having said all that, it is important to bear in mind that the development of Australian literary identity was linked to Britain and empire, and therefore inherently hostile to Irishness and its possible Australian manifestations. According to Elizabeth Malcolm, this subsuming of Irishness into a more generalised Australianness was part of a larger strategy that was unique to the Australian context. She argues that the pressure to assimilate was ‘one way of controlling [the Irish]’ whom the British perceived as a ‘potential threat’ to British-dominated interests in Australia (210). ‘To outsiders, it must seem odd that in Australia the Irish are often classed as “British”’, she asserts. ‘After all, Catholic Irish people do not usually consider themselves British and nor do most British people think of the Irish as British either. Australian usage of the category “British” to include the Catholic Irish is unusual, and it has its roots in an insecure colonial mindset’ (201). For Malcolm, ‘Subsuming the Irish into categories like “British” or “Catholic” was part of a process of dis-empowerment that began during the colonial era and, strangely enough, persists even to the present day’ (211). Such perspectives raise the question: were the Irish the victims of colonisation, or its beneficiaries? As O’Farrell put it some time ago: ‘At any time, these were ambivalent, ambiguous people, thinking Irish, talking English; hating the tyranny, serving the tyrant’ (5). Does all this suggest the very troubling place of the Irish in Australian cultural history? Or perhaps the Irish in Australia are just not troubling enough.

To explore these questions, I will draw upon two different but related theoretical frameworks to think through the possibility of something we might call Irish-Australian literature. The first is the emergence of whiteness as a field of scholarly investigation in the 1980s and, specifically, the ground-breaking and controversial book published by Noel Ignatiev in 1987, How the Irish Became White. In this book, about the US context, Ignatiev outlines how the Irish, who had first come to North America as indentured servants and were reviled by the settled populations of English and Dutch Americans, became, by the mid-nineteenth century, accepted as white. This happened just before the Civil War, through support for slavery and their violence against free African Americans. To become white did not mean to be middle class, much less rich, but rather to be accepted as equal citizens and to have access to the same neighbourhoods, schools and jobs as others. ‘To enter the white race’, he argues, ‘was a strategy to secure an advantage in a competitive society’ (3).

While a different history and context, Australian colonial life also provided distinct and significant opportunities for Irish advancement. Assimilation may well have been, as Malcolm has argued, a way of controlling the Irish and neutralising the threat they posed, but it was also a means for social mobility. The new Australian nation passed the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, one of its first pieces of legislation, and the subsequent White Australia Policy was enforced through much of the twentieth century. Jon Stratton has argued that the Irish were recast as white at the end of the nineteenth century to cement a homogenous Australian race in a future white nation. In so doing, the Irish were given imperial status, elevated above non-white others, and those with Irish ancestry became part of mainstream Australian life at the moment it became white. This can be understood as a political alliance at the expense of non-whites. In spite of their improved status, however, ideological contestations over whiteness remained and Australians of Irish heritage continued to experience prejudice and discrimination through much of the twentieth century in which sectarianism remained a significant feature in Australian cultural and political life (see Malcolm and Hall). At the same time, the pull of racism and the benefits of whiteness remained powerful forces for Irish assimilation.

The field of whiteness studies has developed considerably in Australia over the last three decades, as the complexities of whiteness and its racialisation are recognised. David Roediger, who makes it clear that the Irish were by no means considered white in the Antebellum US context (Wages of Whiteness 133), points to the ‘messiness’ of whiteness (Working Towards Whiteness xi) and challenges the duality of black and white that structures the field. Not only does the ongoing racialisation of whiteness need to be understood in relation to gender, class, religion and nationality, as well as ongoing waves of migration, but whiteness studies is also coming to grips with the resurgence of white nationalism and its progenitor, white grievance, both in Australia and elsewhere. The status of those of Irish ancestry in Australia as white, and therefore mainstream, however, is generally not questioned; and the deployment of Ireland in Australian fiction is perceived as what Jennifer Rutherford refers to as the ‘Irish conceit’. For Rutherford, Winton’s use of Ireland in The Riders ‘is central to the attempt made by the novel to reaffirm the legitimacy of white Australian narratives of nation and to revalorise nationalist narcisscism’ (153). In this formulation, attempts to think through the Irish in Australia can only ever be retrograde and serve dubious ends.

The case of Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith offers a more complex portrayal of these questions, particularly in the light of Stan Grant’s recent, poignant commentary on the text. Grant articulates his sense of connection with Jimmy Governor, a fellow Wiradjuri man, upon whose life Keneally based his book. He reminds us that Jimmie Governor’s hero was Ned Kelly and that he fantasised about being a bushranger. But, as Grant well understands, Jimmie Governor would never be remembered in the way that Ned Kelly is, whose ‘Irish Catholic rebelliousness’ is ‘de-fanged, smoothed out until it becomes just a roguish charm’ (5).8 Grant was drawn to the story of Jimmy Governor because he ‘stood in for every one of my ancestors, and he put a face to my own rage’ (6). ‘Jimmy was the bogeyman of my childhood’, Grant writes, ‘the memory of a wound’ (10).

Although Keneally’s Jimmy Blacksmith is stripped of Jimmie Governor’s complexity, and his caricature is ‘a lost opportunity to explore ways that Aboriginal people . . . were pushing against a white world that . . . would not see them as human’ (25), Grant understands Keneally was haunted by Jimmie as he himself had been. Grant writes: ‘I don’t think I’m wrong in seeing black Jimmie as Irish Tom’s mirror image: swap Fenian grievance for Aborginal resentment, the Dreaming for Catholic ritual, and Indigenous sovereignty for Irish republicanism’ (26).9 Grant reflects on the Irish character Toban who is hunting the fugitive Jimmie. For all that he sees himself as the victim of ‘tyrannous British eviction’, he is not able to see the man he is pursuing in the same way. ‘Because in this new land’ Grant writes, ‘Toban is a white man’ (33), and the ‘colony is on the verge of becoming a nation’ (33). In one sense, Keneally’s novel can be read as a meditiation on the benefits for the Irish of becoming white in Australia, and the costs for Indigneous Australians, with whom they are able to both identify and disidentify, to feel for and to supercede.

The second framework I am drawing upon to theorise Irish-Australian literature is Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor literature (a framework, interestingly, that Grant also draws upon), which refers to a form of literary production from within a dominant culture. For Deleuze and Guattari, the minor names the production of a collective enunciation; it calls forth a people-yet-to-come who in some senses are already here, albeit masked by typical representational models, that is, the major. For a minor literature, Deleuze and Guattari insist, everything is political. Minor literatures thus create what they refer to as lines of escape from majoritarian thinking and representation. Majoritarian thinking, in turn, attempts to block those lines of escape. A minor literary machine, then, seeks to break out from the confines of national literatures and prepare the way for revolution. Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a minor literature is quite utopian, but it is also a suggestive tool for theorising an emergent collective, that is already here, and see what such a literary enunciation might offer.

Much of my research has been in the field of Indigenous Australian literatures. In starting to conceptualise what Irish-Aboriginal literature might look like, I came across a term that was new to me: ‘shamrock Aborigines’, the ‘sentimental nickname’ for Aboriginal Australians with Irish descent (see McGrath). McGrath’s is one of the earlier attempts to unpack the complex relationship between the Irish and Aboriginal Australians, both historically and into the present, arguing that the ‘Aboriginal Australian and Irish nexus is starting to reroute the old migration and historical itineraries’ (58). While such a term – ‘shamrock Aborigines’ – generates suspicion for anyone versed in Australian literary studies, with its often rigid distinction between Indigenous and mainstream literatures, this term may offer some interesting possibilities for the field of Australian literary studies.

Patrick O’Farrell was influential in suggesting that the Irish were a different and better kind of coloniser: ‘In contrast to Protestant paternalist or exploitative whites’, he asserts, ‘Irish Catholics treated the Aborigines as human beings, as equals’ (72). There is not a lot of evidence for this universalising claim which seems to be a form of wishful thinking, although it is worth noting that he does not count Irish Catholics as white. While there were moments of collaboration and cooperation, there were just as surely moments where the Irish participated in and benefited from the brutality of the frontier wars, and the subsequent administration of Indigenous peoples. As Malcolm and Hall have concluded, ‘the Irish-Indigenous encounter has been a very varied affair and, given the current lack of adequate research, it is impossible to generalise about it confidently’ (72).

Having said that, Irish Catholics did experience significant prejudice in nineteenth-century Australia, and were likened to Aboriginal people, as primitive, wild, superstitious and savage (see McGrath 61–62). Anne O’Brien reminds us that the Irish were seen as a threat and the authorities ‘feared that [they] would join ranks with the Aborigines and “overtake the colony”’ (156). One might argue, then, that seeking such allegiances in the literary sphere opens up the possibility of recasting colonial relations and challenging imperial hegemony.

Aboriginal or Indigenous writing is a significant strand within Australian literary studies, perhaps even its most significant strand in the contemporary moment, but I would like to suggest that Irish-Aboriginal writing – in which Aboriginal is the controlling term, Irish the modifier – might provide a line of escape from conceptions of Irish-Australianness as just a precursor to a generalised white Australianness that depended on the violent exclusion of Indigenous peoples. It might also complicate essentialised ideas of Indigenous literatures and foreground revolutionary tendencies that held such promise in the early days of the colony. Such a rethinking may also make possible the representation of new kinds of strategic affiliations along all kinds of different lines, that could challenge simplistic understandings of whiteness and white-Indigenous relations in Australia, fracturing the stultifying binary thinking that all too often dominates literary studies. Conceptualising Irish-Aboriginal writing has the potential to decentre the nation at the heart of the Australian literary tradition.

There are a number of Indigenous writers who might be thought of, at least sometimes, as Irish-Aboriginal. While the majority of writers who identify as Indigenous Australians do not usually emphasise their non-Indigenous ancestry, or refer to it as merely European or white, there have been a number of Indigenous writers who claim their Irish ancestry which has the potential to expand narratives of resistance to British imperialism (see McGrath), including Tony Birch, Kevin Gilbert, Herb Wharton, Jennifer Martiniello, Jack and Joe McGinness, as well as Lionel Fogarty who reminded his readers of the importance of solidarity in ‘Come Over Murri’:

I just remember Murris not only you die

. . .

And take whites overseas, they are fighting too, oh, like the

Irish people who want Britain out.

So Murris we have to have feeling, thinking and action for all

low, small native peoples overseas

And then we will get understanding and unity, even

love for one another’s cultures.10

There are also literary texts by Indigenous writers that represent historical Irish-Aboriginal affiliations (see Watts). Jack Davis’s play, Kullark (1979), for example, intersperses the lives of contemporary Noongar people with scenes and documents from crucial periods in Western Australian history. The first of these focuses on Captain James Stirling, the first Lieutenant-Governor of the Swan River Colony (now Western Australia), Irish immigrants Will and Alice O’Flaherty and Yagan, a Noongar warrior. Through language and music, the play sets up a historical sympathy between the Irish immigrants and Yagan, and their interactions are, at least initially, mutually respectful, humanising and genuinely intercultural.

Similarly, Eric Willmot’s historical novel Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior (1987) traces the life of the eponymous historical Bidjigal warrior of the Eora nation. Willmot’s novel includes an Irish character called Sean McDonough who joins Pemulwuy’s band of resistance fighters with an Aboriginal woman, Nargel. McDonough, the narrator tells us, ‘enjoyed his life, adapting to the ways of the Eora’ and Nargel hopes that ‘if [Sean] lives long enough with the Eora he will become black’ (70). McDonough shares with Pemulwuy British tactics, and Irish strategies for countering them, learnt over centuries of resistance.

While the relationship is not without tension, the novel renders several moments of intercultural engagement. For example, when Pemulwuy informs McDonough that his marriage to Nargel has been approved, McDonough says, ‘you know, Pemulwuy, if you weren’t so black, you’d make a good Irishman’. ‘Well Irlandis’, Pemulwuy responds, ‘you must learn something of the Eora way’ (72). Similarly, Sean and Nargel’s home is described as ‘an interesting combination of technology. It combined Irish thatching with the Eora fire technique for flattening the course hard bark of hardwood trees’ (95). McDonough is ultimately killed by the British in battle, and soon after Pemulwuy is captured and killed as well. But Nargel is now pregnant, and her child is named Boolayoo, ‘a constructed word which meant, more or less, belonging to two things’ (152). As Edward Watts has argued, both Kullark and Pemulwuy divide the Irish from the British and ‘suggest the Irish best demonstrate the white potential for non-destructive behaviour through their emphasis on non-human characteristics of spirituality and receptivity’ (33). In these texts, as Watts suggests, ‘Australian history is redefined as a struggle between the static British and the adaptive Aboriginal and Irish, welcoming the Irish to broader post-colonial struggles and de-emphasizing the role of race’ (34).

These texts, and the alliances they explore, however, were published in the late 1970s and 1980s respectively, just as Australian literary studies was beginning to reckon with its colonial past, and open itself up to more diverse forms of writing. Although they reject the concept of the Anglo-Celtic monolith that has dominated the field, it is striking that both are contact stories set during the colonial period, suggesting that any such affiliative potential is now a thing of the past. The Irish, it seems, had left behind this possible anti-imperial affiliation for the benefits and privileges of whiteness.

There is, however, a significant recent example of what a more contemporary Irish-Aboriginal collective enunciation of resistance might look like in Alexis Wright’s epic 2007 Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, Carpentaria. Published in 2006, Carpentaria is now part of the Australian literary canon having been described as ‘the greatest, most inventive and mesmerising Indigenous epic ever produced in Australia’ (Shoemaker 55) and a ‘huge audacious monstrous work of genius’ (Guest). The novel is set in the fictional coastal town of Desperance in the Southern Gulf of Carpentaria in north-western Queensland, which floods regularly from monsoonal rains and tides. It focuses on the members of an extended Aboriginal family and the ways in which they and their community negotiate the wide-reaching effects associated with the establishment of a multinational mine. It is a vast and sprawling narrative inhabited by a huge cast of human characters and non-human agents, including spirits and ancestors, as well as the land, waters and weather of the Gulf Country.

Alexis Wright is a Waanyi woman from far North Queensland and a long-time activist and educator in northern Australia. In 2007, in a moving essay, ‘On Writing Carpentaria’, Wright explores at length the motivations and challenges of writing such a novel, and what she hoped to achieve. She traces numerous influences, both personal and literary, including Edouard Glissant, the French Caribbean writer, James Baldwin, Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Irish writers are also prominent, in particular Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel prize winner, and Wright refers specifically to being inspired by Heaney’s idea of the ‘Spirit Level’, which manifests in the novel’s striving for an equilibrium between past and present, the spiritual and political, the human and the non-human, the real and the imagined. Wright also elaborates on the complex ways in which time operates in the novel and particularly its opposition between different domains of time, writing that a ‘similar concept is identified by Brian Friel, one of the literary founders of Field Day in Ireland along with Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane’ (83). In this way, Wright positions herself in the radical political intellectual tradition within Irish literary studies that mobilises Irish writing to challenge myths and stereotypes, interpreting it within a colonial frame (see McDonald).

In this essay, Wright meditates on the importance of story-telling across generations, and writes that she has ‘often thought about how the spirits of other countries have followed their people to Australia and how these spirits might be reconciled with ancestral spirits that belong here’ (92). Wright recalls stories of her ancestors that have been handed down to her, both her Indigenous ancestors and Chinese stories from her grandmother, but she also ponders the influence of her Irish ancestry: ‘if I look at Michael Dames’ Mythic Ireland, I wonder what I might have learnt from my father’s family had I known them, and what of them I inherited’ (92). For Wright, mythical Ireland ‘gave precedence to the poetic truth of spiritual beliefs rather than historical truth’, because, quoting Dames, ‘the benefits of poetry can be more widely distributed in time and space’ (83). Wright’s mobilisation of Ireland here offers a serious challenge to Rutherford’s dismissal of the deployment of Ireland as merely a ‘conceit’, even if it subscribes, quite openly, to other forms of mythologisation.

In the light of this, what are we to make of the Irish priest in Carpentaria who features in a pivotal scene early in the narrative? The revolutionary hero, Will Phantom, is on his way back to Desperance, his home town, but he has been waylaid. He is trying to evade capture by representatives of a mining project he has been actively sabotaging. The mining company have used the dead body of his father’s best friend, Elias – the mysterious amnesiac white man who emerged from the sea – to lure him into a trap. Will is hiding in the bush and the wet season is imminent. The plains below him are about to be flooded, and time is running out. If he does not escape soon, he will be trapped. Will spots in the distance a car coming towards him. It is Father Danny, a travelling Irish priest, and Will plans to hail him down. The narrator signals the meanings Will makes of Father Danny’s arrival at that time:

As he watched the car, shimmering through the sacredness of the flowing water snake, gathering storm clouds, the divine nature of red earth, what came was a holy car from the pale blue yonder, as though sent from heaven to commence the journey of taking Elias home. Will thought how fate, although bewildering, was the nexus to hope. (184)

Just as Will is about to leave his hiding place, a mining company helicopter lands in front of the priest’s car, blocking the road. The pilot demands to know where he is headed. Father Danny ‘hardly moved an inch as he poked his head out of the car window, while in the true tenor’s voice of the Irish dales, and possessing an air of authority that did not go amiss when amplifying the voice he was renowned for boasting about, he announced cheerfully over the blasting Tabernacle choir, “The Lord’s destination is Desperance, my good man”’ (186).

Father Danny’s tenor voice, and the choral music from his car, are not out of place in this landscape, unlike so many representations of white or settler figures in Indigenous literature. On the contrary, the ‘blasting music . . . continues to flow beautifully into the static of the surrounding saltbush, conveying the aura of the religiously spiritual in all worlds’ (186). Father Danny, his ‘religious spirituality’, and his place in the narrative is co-opted into a larger world view, in which he seems to belong. This is not so for the thoroughly materialist mining company employees who are attempting to prevent him from going further: ‘the men interrupt him, first with apologies for being unbelievers with any – all religions in fact. They still insist he go with them, because he cannot go forward or back – The road’s blocked’ (186). Will watches on amused. Locals tended not to pick fights with the priest: ‘They knew the kind of Irishman he was’ (188).

The reader learns that Father Danny is on his way to visit Norm Phantom, Will’s father, from whom Will is estranged. The narrator moves into a diegetic mode, quickly sketching Father Danny’s back story. Father Danny, the reader is told, had been ‘bred on brine fish, and the sea winds, and a good fight on the Irish docks’. Before being called by God, he had been a champion boxer, and had taught Will, his brothers, and many of the young men of Desperance, how to fight. Father Danny, it seems, had ‘found the place of his calling’ in the Gulf of Carpentaria some years earlier after a long search:

He travelled for six hundred days through numerous lands, soils and weather, impatiently asking the Lord if this or that was it, until he found the place of his calling. So it was, the late sunlight shining on the wide tussock salt pans in the bush diocese of the Gulf of Carpentaria was for the Irish pilgrim. If you watched Father Danny over thirty-odd years of teaching Christianity through the art of boxing, song and abuse, you saw for yourself that holy sacrifice could be given and received with joy, through the many good fighting Catholics Father Danny had created in the makeshift boxing rings from lines drawn on the beaches of the Gulf, through salt down in the salt claypans, or on the red soil with the spinifex shovelled away. (189)

Returning to the present, it is clear Father Danny refuses to be waylaid and a fight ensues. He is, after all, a man on a mission, and fighting is, for him, a spiritual practice. The mining representatives ‘tried wrestling with the pugilistic priest, now red-faced with anger, who had by God’s will, so he announced, been given permission to fight like an ordinary man’ (188):

‘You got no right to park that piece of rubbish in the middle of the road like that,’ the Irish voice, a far cry from its salicaceous lands, rose up the sides of the rocky hills coated in yellow blossoming spinifex in a clear booming tone, while down below, Father Danny was continuing to stir the morning heat with a folksy barrage of wharfside pub abuse imported from the Motherland’s sagas of wars and rebellion, now applied to a lead ore mine in the modern day – like they think they own the place! (187).

In many ways, the character of Father Danny perpetuates pre-existing stereotypes of Irishness (the fighting priest is a trope with a history, particularly in the US context, see Schmude) and the representation is not without ambivalence, although one might say the same thing of most of Wright’s characters. While the portrayal is largely sympathetic, almost endearing, it is possible to detect irony in this section as well. After all, who is Father Danny, when he is far cry from his own ‘salicaceous lands’ to condemn others for thinking they own the place? Nevertheless, it’s hard not to cheer him on when the mine men slash his tyres and flee, leaving the car on its rims, and the priest laughing rubbing ‘his hands with the pleasantness of having just completed mass, although the words he uttered through a mouthful of dirt were Irish jewels best left lying on the little known roads of the outback’ (190). After the helicopter departs, Will emerges from the bush with Elias’s corpse and joins Father Danny, helping him to repair his tyres as water closes in on the plains. Father Danny says to him: ‘Perhaps . . . it’s going to take the combined force of you and me, camaraderie, my friend, an esprit de corps between two men, to get us through. What do you think, Master Will Phantom? You reckon we can trust in God to get you home? Will chose silence’ (192).

On the journey back to Desperance, Will remains mostly silent; he ‘never spoke much to the priest anyway, never saw eye to eye with his religion’ (191). The priest fills the silence with a diatribe about the mine. ‘This used to be a safe place before you lot started arguing and mucking around with that bloody mine’ (191), he claims. ‘It’s gone too far this time Will, too far, this mine, using technology to control people. Very unwise. They cannot crush people just because they have the power to crush the landscape to smithereens’ (193). While the narrator seems to endorse much of the priest’s views, Will is not receptive: ‘Let the holy man talk his legs off. The land was full of spirits which might help the heavenly power of the Irish to tilt flat land and push the Valiant home’ (192). Father Danny drops Will off with Elias’ corpse at the edge of the town of Desperance, and the character does not re-appear in the novel. Of this scene, the narrator concludes that: ‘So many good words were wasted that day as Will Phantom stared past kunbulki [flat country] and into the past itself’ (193).

The role of religion is not straightforward here – for while there is an esprit de corps in this instance, there is a sense in which these are rival spiritual systems. After all, from Will’s perspective, ‘the priest was on his way to visit Norm, to compete with all of his godliness to win the Old Man’s devotion against the zealot Mozzie Fishman and his devotees’ (184). Will had been part of Mozzie Fishman’s convoy, ‘holy pilgrims of the Aboriginal world’ (119), and Fishman was, as Ashcroft, Devlin-Glass and McCredden point out, ‘implacably opposed to Christianity’ (237). For Fishman, ‘Biblical stories lived in someone else’s desert’ (142), and ‘he believed Christian beliefs had indoctrinated Aboriginal communities like grog and it was true to say it was even the cause of grog’ (142).

Carpentaria does not then reproduce the more seamless allegiances between the Irish and Indigenous Australians that Davis and Wilmott represented in Kullark and Pemulwuy respectively, but the assistance the Irish priest offers in this scene can be read as part of this longer tradition. Like the Indigenous warriors of those earlier texts, Will also bears the ‘ancestral, hard-faced warrior demons’ on his back (203). The Irish priest is, in his own small way, supporting the Indigenous warrior character who shares the strength and capacity of the Eora and Noongar warriors of the earlier texts. There is also a spiritual solidarity in this scene as these two transcendental traditions sit side by side across the flood plains, a corpse in the back seat. While the novel is framed by Indigenous cosmology, which permeates the narrative, it makes space for this scene of solidarity – this nexus of hope – while simultaneously reminding us where the real danger to Country lies.

This is a minor scene in an epic and sprawling novel, and I do not want to overstate its significance. Nor am I asserting that Wright’s magisterial Carpentaria is an Irish-Aboriginal novel. This is, however, an interesting scene, and it warrants attention. In some ways, the novel subscribes to and reinscribes existing stereotypes of the Irish – the pugilistic priest with the gift of the gab – and in so doing the representation suggests a slippage between religion and ethnicity, but the portrayal is both affectionate and effective. The language of this scene, moreover, is suggestive, from the ‘nexus of hope’ that signals the priest’s arrival, to the ‘camaraderie’ and ‘esprits de corps’ that both the priest and the narrative invoke. This camaraderie cuts across identities and histories, just as the roads cut across the landscape, seeking instead allegiances grounded in respect for Country as more than just a resource to be exploited for profit. One might well read this short scene as a plea for a rebellious spiritual and otherworldly solidarity in the face of the ravages of settler colonial capitalism and its materialist obsessions, as exemplified by the mine.

Wright has said of Carpentaria that it ‘would not fit into an English and therefore Australian tradition of creating boundaries and fences which encode the development of thinking in this country, and which follows through to the containment of thought and idea in the novel’ (81). Wright seems to be suggesting here that the Australian literary tradition is overwhelmingly English and that her novel is part of a new formation that is not contained by ideas of what an Australian or even an Indigenous novel should be. It sidesteps the dichotomy between the cultural nationalists and the cosmopolitans that fuelled literary debate throughout the twentieth century by being neither and both and, in its range of influences and concerns, does not allow itself to be pigeon-holed into a narrow conception of Indigenous literature either. In many ways, it is a deeply regional novel that examines the complex and ever-evolving intersections between the lives and cosmologies of First Nations peoples, transnational flows and forces, and various waves of migrants on a specific piece of Country under siege.

Carpentaria is a novel that, on one possible reading, is all about modes of resisting containment and boundary-setting that, in Wright’s view, have dominated literary development in Australia. In this sense, the novel, and Wright’s commentary on it, offers a challenge to Australian literary studies, and its frequently siloed trajectories. So too with this small scene: with its reference to a blockage that needs to be overcome, an escape that needs to be made, this scene has resonances with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a minor literature, narrating as it does a literal line of escape, where Irishness is not co-opted into mainstream and secular white dominance but forms at this crucial junction with Aboriginality a ‘nexus of hope’, a momentary spiritual and imaginative connection that calls forth a new kind of community. This is not to propose a new, separate and hyphenated identity category, which would create its own boundaries and fences, and then stipulate who is in and who is out. Rather, it is to argue that exploring an Irish seam in Australian Indigenous literatures may help us to reimagine the possibilities for solidarity, resistance and liberation.


I would like to thank Ronan McDonald, two anonymous reviewers, and my research group in the National School of Arts at ACU, Melissa Bellanta, Nick Carter, Ben Mountford, Michael Thompson and Ellen Warne, for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article.


  1. There are Australian literary scholars who have devoted much of their energy to Irish Australia, although frequently in the interdisciplinary context of Irish studies. Consequent publications often comprise edited collections that emerge out of Irish studies conferences. See Kiernan and Bull, et al. I think it is fair to say though that Australian literary studies has not had an equivalent to Patrick O’Farrell.

  2. Having said that, as Ronan McDonald argues in this issue, one of these Oxbridge-trained critics, Vincent Buckley, was very interested in understanding the ‘stakes of Irishness’ in Australian literary and cultural life.

  3. See Noone and Molloy in this issue. Molloy traces the emergence of a small Irish community of readers in the mid-nineteenth century and some of the factors that mitigated against it continuing into the twentieth century.

  4. It is probably the case that Keneally is the most Irish-identified of these writers, and Stan Grant's commentary on his novel, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, is worth reading.

  5. This is probably unfair. Sonia Mycak’s work, in particular, has examined Ukrainian writing in Australia in depth, but much of this has, unfortunately, been in the shadow of the infamous Demidenko affair. See the special issue on Australian literary hoaxes in Australian Literary Studies in 2004.

  6. So, for example, in large edited reference and works and collections, such as The Cambridge History or Australian Literature or The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, both published early in the twenty-first century, Indigenous writing are separate from those sections that deal with migrant or ethnic writing, which are, in turn, frequently aligned to ‘diversity’, which includes writers and writing that deals with questions of gender and sexuality, among other kinds of diversity. More recent ‘companions’, including The Routledge Companion to Australian Literature reproduce this dichotomy. This is not to criticise Australian literary studies; rather I am seeking to historicise the present moment in the hope of opening up new ways of thinking about the field.

  7. See Ronan McDonald (2020) for a fascinating discussion of these debates between the revisionists and the nationalist postcolonialists within interdisciplinary Irish studies.

  8. Gelder and Weaver in this issue elaborate upon this process of ‘de-fanging’, concluding in their analysis that, over time, ‘the revolutionary figure of the Irish bushranger is gradually divorced from any radical agency’.

  9. John Frow’s early critique of Keneally’s novel, ‘The Chant of Thomas Keneally’ made a similar point, arguing that the novel sets up ‘a provisional equation’ between the Irish in Australia and Indigenous Australians as minority cultures: ‘Keneally's complex identification both with the rebellion of the blacks and with the culture which oppresses them is partly, and wryly, expressed through the rhetoric of the Irishman Toban who likens the Australians to the Boers, and for whom “there wouldn't be any Australia if it wasn't for the downtrod of Britain's filthy cities and the victims of tyrannous British eviction” (p. 108)’ (297).

  10. Ali Alizadeh offers a thoughtful and provocative reading of Fogarty’s poem ‘Biral, Biral’ in ‘Naming the Voids of Multiculturalism’, published in 2013. Alizadeh argues that this poem rejects notions of fixed cultural identity, forging instead a radical policitised subjectivity in the vein of other radical multicultural poets. It is interesting, in the context, that he repeatedly refers to ‘Anglo-Celtic’ Australia as hegemonic. See also Dashiell Moore’s evocative reading of inter-Indigenous encounters that considers Fogarty’s focus on the Pacific and also Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poem, ‘At Knowth’, a meditation on ‘intersecting flows of Aboriginal and Gaelic diaspora’ (11).

Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Aboriginal Australians, Ethnic groups, Literary & intellectual movements, Migrant literature & writers, Whiteness, Alexis Wright, Irish-Australian Literature, Patrick O'Farrell.

Cite as: Nolan, Maggie. ‘Conceptualising Irish-Aboriginal Writing.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.776fd12cac.