Irish-Australian Literature: Ghosts, Genealogy, Tradition


Opening with Christos Tsiolkas’s critique of multiculturalism, this essay considers the theory and practice of Irish-Australian literature in relation to questions of ethnicity and transnationalism. By comparing Irish-Australian to Irish-American literature and discussing ways in which theology becomes transposed into anthropology, it engages with problems of how to define such hybrid traditions and how they intersect (or conflict) with national narratives within a larger discursive domain. Australian authors such as Gerald Murnane, Thomas Keneally and Rosa Praed are compared to Irish authors based in London such as Oscar Wilde, with the essay arguing that Irish-Australian literature should be understood as an inherently relational rather than identitarian term. It also considers how Irish-Australian literature impacted upon racial politics across a global axis in the nineteenth century through John Boyle O’Reilly’s friendship with Frederick Douglass.

In a 2020 special issue of Griffith Review entitled ‘The European Exchange’, Natasha Cica commented wryly on how the word Eurocentric has now become ‘a label of shame’ in Australia, rather as was the term ‘wog, when I was growing up’ (11). Also contributing to this special issue was the celebrated Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas, who argued against the assumption that ‘history’s ghosts’, those tensions and on occasions outbreaks of violence associated with particular ethnic loyalties, could simply be annealed by a progressive politics of multiculturalism. While acknowledging the destructive power of ‘Europe’s submerged ghosts’, Tsiolkas countered:

I am frightened of the reactionary elements to some of these impulses But I am more terrified of a Manichean idealistic progressive who thinks in black and white, and divides the world into the pure and unclean . . . As a writer in Australia I think the great promise of…

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Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: American (USA) literature & writers, Australian literature - Comparisons with overseas literature, Ethnic groups, Multiculturalism, Rosa Praed, Catholicism, Gerald Murnane, Ghosts of History, Irish-Australian Literature, Thomas Keneally, Frederick Douglass, Oscar Wilde, John Boyle O'Reilly.

Cite as: Giles, Paul. ‘Irish-Australian Literature: Ghosts, Genealogy, Tradition.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.cb1be7642a.