Defining the Field of Irish-Australian Literature: Challenges and Conundrums


What constitutes Irish-Australian literature – if such a category exists – is by no means clear. This essay seeks to map the field and identify which Australian writers might be included. It does so while questioning how such a taxonomy could be constructed and how research on this under-explored area might proceed. Not only is the potential field large and amorphous, but it also presents formidable issues of ‘identity politics’. Because such study is performed in an era when identities are understood to be unstable and discontinuous, the article argues for an inclusive approach, noting that what constitutes ‘Irishness’ is internally contested. It asks questions about how émigré writers and their descendants and those who draw on the political and historical matter of Ireland have transformed such legacies. It also considers how those few writers who made the reverse journey engage with Irish literature and culture. The article speculates that such a study may potentially reconfigure understanding of the Australian literary tradition and the process of naturalising ‘the nation’, or at least complicate that narrative.

Coming at a what is arguably a trans- and post-national moment, a study of Irish-Australian literature runs the risk of being misconstrued (as a nationalist manoeuvre, which it is emphatically not), and might be thought of as ill-timed, even quixotic (Jacklin). The collocation Anglo-Celt, problematic for the homogenisation entailed, continues to bedevil such an enterprise. Mapping such a field offers opportunities for identifying and analysing a body of work that has not yet insisted on its difference, significance and substance, or registered its internal political tensions. It gives its analysts the opportunity to acknowledge that Irish-Australian writers have been rendered almost invisible through a combination of choices and assimilationist processes. In foregrounding such a body of work, literary critics may find themselves engaging in reverse decolonising manoeuvres, where, by an historical anomaly, the coloniser becomes, not the British, but a nascent (and ebulliently nationalistic) Australian literary tradition too ready…

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Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Australian identity, Irish people, Literary & cultural exchanges, Miles Franklin, Thea Astley, Joseph Furphy, Peter Carey, John Kinsella, Alexis Wright, Nettie Palmer, Vance Palmer, Indigenous history and culture, Charles Harpur, Christopher Brennan, Catholicism, Christopher Koch, Richard Flanagan, Irish-Australian Literature, Thomas Keneally, Irish-Australian Identity.

Cite as: Devlin-Glass, Frances. ‘Defining the Field of Irish-Australian Literature: Challenges and Conundrums.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.41fe8448ff.