Irish Republicanism and the Colonial Australian Bushranger Narrative



This article examines a range of colonial Australian Irish bushranger narratives in terms of their investments in revolutionary republicanism, arguing that these become increasingly contested and compromised over time. Beginning with the anonymously published novel Rebel Convicts (1858), it looks at how the fate of transported Irish revolutionaries is imagined in relation to colonial settlement and the convict system. It then turns to Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter (c. 1879), highlighting Kelly’s rhetoric of resistance and mapping his affinities with Irish American republicanism. John Boyle O’Reilly was a Fenian activist, transported to Western Australia in 1867. His novel Moondyne (1878, 1879), rather than unleashing an Irish revolutionary political agenda, is based instead on an English-Catholic bushranger, and its interest in republicanism is in any case displaced from its Australian setting. Ned Kelly’s execution in 1880 gave rise to a new wave of popular narratives, including James Skipp Borlase’s The Iron-Clad Bushranger (1881), which fictionalises Kelly’s career – embroiling him in Irish Fenian plots – and recasts his political affiliations as criminal characteristics. Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms (1882–3) was also published in the wake of the Kelly saga but is notable for its political conservatism, stripping its Irish-Catholic bushrangers of their revolutionary potential to better serve the interests of a powerful pastoral elite. This conservatism is both challenged and magnified in Rosa Praed’s Outlaw and Lawmaker (1893), which celebrates the career of John Boyle O’Reilly while also re-directing his political radicalism into romance. The article concludes that the revolutionary figure of the Irish bushranger is gradually divorced from any radical agency and relegated to a remote chapter of colonial Australia’s history.

In his Preface to The Story of the Australian Bushrangers (1899) – published just two years before Federation – the historian George E Boxall reflected on the impact of bushranging on emergent forms of national identity: ‘Hitherto the histories of Australia have passed very lightly over the bushrangers’, he wrote, ‘but there can be no doubt that they exercised some influence, and not always for evil, for to their influence is due some of the sturdy Republicanism of the modern Australians’ (vi). Boxall also noted the radical backgrounds of many of the earliest transported convicts who ‘took to the bush’ to escape forced labour and become the first bushrangers, emphasising that ‘many of them were political agitators, industrial rioters, and machine-breakers’ (1). Here, penal servitude works to further radicalise figures who are already defined by their revolutionary capacity; but the individual bushranging stories this late colonial book goes on to…

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Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Aboriginal Australians, Bushrangers, Colonial literature & writers, Republicanism, Rosa Praed, Catholicism, Irish-Australian Literature, John Boyle O'Reilly, Ned Kelly.

Cite as: Gelder, Ken and Rachael Weaver. ‘Irish Republicanism and the Colonial Australian Bushranger Narrative.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.0ee11bdff4.