Irishness as a Literary Condition: Australia and its Irish Reading and Writing Community


This paper documents the literary origins of the notion of Irishness; why it mattered, and why it persists as a significant discourse running through Australian writing. Existing from the beginnings of creative output in Australia, the multi-faceted Irish condition is present as a literary trope from the start of white settlement and has never permanently left Australian writing. The reasons for this are many and complex. This paper presents a broad survey of the key texts in this process, examining how the nineteenth-century Irish community with both its ethnic and denominationally diasporic cultural outlook, positioned itself within Australia’s rapidly evolving literary consumer culture, and how the notion of Irishness was creatively sustained into the present century. Conclusions reached suggest that while important social and economic factors constrained the development of a sustained, locally produced Irish-Australian writing, persistent cultural and ethnic conditions fostered its on-going presence and later more overt emergence in the twentieth century as a persistent strain in Australian literary production, one that is likely to remain into the future.

In a review in the New Statesman of the 1959 publication The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, critic Conor Cruise O’Brien attempted to tackle the notion of Irishness. Writing under the pseudonym ‘Donat O’Donnell’, he noted, ‘Irishness is not primarily a question of birth or blood or language; it is the condition of being involved in the Irish situation, and usually of being mauled by it’ (O’Brien 78). O’Brien was attempting to tease out the nuances of Irishness, which, as a literary, social and cultural phenomenon, he considered multivalent and complex. It is a condition with a broad range encompassing ethnicity, cultural conditioning, active remembering, active forgetting, cultural trauma, distant memory, and is often a springboard for something different. However we interpret O’Brien’s statement, or whatever credence or validity we want to give it, or not, it strikes at the core of much that we find in the Irish-Australian situation as it has evolved since the early 1800s. Further, it provides some entry points for thinking about the concept of Irish-Australian literature, or the Irish condition in Australian literature, and how that has found expression, particularly in extended narrative works. These works stretch from a small number of nineteenth-century Irish shipboard diarists on their migrant voyages to Australia, where expression of the Irish condition is explicit (O’Loghlen; Hanna; O’Shea; Anon),1 to the more formed literary works of novelists such as Henry Handel Richardson and her portrait The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, the finely crafted work of Ruth Park’s post- World War II novel, The Harp in the South, with its situating of the Irish-Australian Darcy family in Surry Hills in inner Sydney, and to a number of Irish historical novels, beginning with Thomas Keneally’s 1967 work Bring Larks and Heroes.

This article will document the literary origins of the notion of Irishness; why it mattered, and why it persists as a significant discourse running through Australian writing. In plotting the evolution of a multi-faceted Irish condition, it is evident that the presence of ‘The Irish’ as a literary trope existed from the beginning of white settlement in Australia and never permanently left Australian writing. It was initially sustained in a variety of ways by the Irish reading and writing community in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and was strong enough to manifest itself intergenerationally well into the twentieth century, where it has been revisited and reimagined by a number of Australian writers as an identifiable Irish-Australian literary strain.

Nineteenth-century origins

Patrick O’Farrell early recognised that the Irish in Australia were very poor at documenting their own social, economic and cultural advance, observing that the diverse and scattered nature of primary material on the Irish meant this group was favoured with ‘few major collections of their historical material’ (Irish in Australia 311). It is possible to take this a step further and also note the extensive culling of lay, largely Irish migrant correspondence from most early clerical collections in the country.2 This lack of recordkeeping, a seeming ability to wipe the memory of both cultural background and social and cultural advancement, has deeper implications when examining the role of the Irish imagination in the literature of Australia. Was the excising of the voices of migration and social and cultural advance from Irish-Australian memory a case of active forgetting, a submerging of the common voice of the Irish migrant and their descendants, or simply circumstantial neglect in the process of an ethnic group getting on? As scholars have noted, for a variety of social, cultural and political reasons, archival attrition and omission of memories are an inherent feature of personal, historical and archival discourse, with obvious implications for literary narratives (see Thomas et al.; Carey).

Representations of the Irish, and Irishness, exist, as literary historian Elizabeth Webby, Frank Molloy and others have noted, in a considerable number of poems and ballads published in New South Wales between 1803 and 1850 (Webby 3; F. Molloy, ‘Sigh of Thy Harp’ 117). Irishness as a literary condition, a subject to ponder, and ridicule, was present from the very beginning of colonial settlement in Australia and was expressed by a variety of now forgotten scribblers. In many cases, the focus of these works were those who were transported, emancapists, and the group of early Irish settlers, largely poor, but free, though with minimal trade skills, who together constituted nearly one third of the population of New South Wales by the 1830s. As Webby notes, these Irish were fiercely lampooned in the newspaper press of the day, largely for their difference (13–4). It was not until the mid 1840s that this representation of the Irish in literature and the Australian newspaper press generally, began to be actively challenged and critiqued by members of the Irish community. In 1843, newspaper editor Michael D’Arcy, writing in the Sydney Morning Chronicle, reproduced Charles Gavan Duffy’s review of Charles Lever’s Irish novels, with particular reference to the work Charles O’Malley (Morning Chronicle 3). As D’Arcy’s editorial noted:

A most impudent caricature of the ‘Irish’ character having appeared in this colony in the shape of a reprint of Charles O’Malley, we give the following critique of that piece of flippant coxcombry, from the Nation, an able Dublin print. (3)

An unauthorised edition of Charles O’Malley had recently being published by the colonial Church of Ireland’s Irish printer and lithographer, William Kellett Baker, from his Hibernia Press in central Sydney. So successful were Baker’s moderately priced sixpenny paperback instalments that he hoped to reproduce other novels by Lever (‘News and rumors of the day’ 2). Michael D’Arcy’s commentary to the Duffy article was in part a riposte to reviews of the Baker’s reprints and book publication. However, its primary focus was aimed at foregrounding the nature of the current Irish novel as represented by the works of Charles Lever, which had been harshly critiqued by Irish writer William Carleton and others for creating an enduring image of the stage-Irish figure (Tilley 532). In a colonial context, D’Arcy was challenging the uncritical acceptance of this caricatured representation of the Irish, in print, in Australia (Duncan, ‘Literature-Mr Baker’ 3).

D’Arcy’s issue, and that of Duffy, was the portrayal of the Irish in what was then being accepted as Irish literature. These soft-covered Sydney instalments of Charles O’Malley had been favourably reviewed by William Augustine Duncan, a Scottish printer, journalist and public servant, and also the first editor of a Catholic-Irish newspaper in Sydney, the Australasian Chronicle.3 Duncan, a very literate Catholic convert, was not partial to the Irish emancipists in Sydney, nor to the newly arriving poor Irish imbued with Irish politician Daniel O’Connell’s democratic ideals. He more than likely overlooked the caricature in Lever’s publication, which intentionally lampooned the Irish character both at home and abroad, where the two main protagonists in the story actively eat, drink and fight their way through the harrowing years of the Peninsular War. Dissatisfacton with Duncan’s position on Irish affairs by Irish emancapist financial backers of the Australasian Chronicle saw Duncan eventually lose his position with the paper, which was given by the Catholic incumbent Archdeacon of Sydney, John McEncroe, to his Tipperary nephew Michael D’Arcy, who changed its name from the Australasian Chronicle to the Morning Chronicle (Duncan, ‘Autobiography’ 29).

However, what was essentially a clash of personalities was also based upon very different concepts of what the colonial world was and should be and how the Irish should be expressing themselves in that new space – both the colony of New South Wales, and the print medium. Duncan, like D’Arcy, believed determindly in the development of a homogeneous society that Australia afforded, one where new migrants had a voice, and were not locked out of farming by wealthy squatters and landowners (Cochrane 56–9). But, unlike D’Arcy, Duncan was firmly opposed to the Irish expression of ethnic identity, and their militant support for the enfranchised democratic politics of Daniel O’Connell, ideas drawn upon by D’Arcy and so resolutely entrenched in the republican ideals of America where later D’Arcy’s brother made his fortune on the California gold fields.4 That the issue played out in print, in a newspaper literature review, tells us as much about the increasing importance of the press for consolidating the Irish presence in New South Wales as it does about the issue at hand. The New South Wales press of the time carried a number of reviews of Lever’s Irish novel praising its entertainment value and its ability to capture much of the feeling of the Peninsular War, but overlooking the caricature of the Irish, as though such representations were generally acceptable.

It was perhaps too early in the life of the colony, undergoing an economic recession in the early 1840s, to call forth a full literary riposte in the form of its own literary version of the Irish abroad, but this literary feud provides us with an entrée into the mind of the reading and thinking Irish-Australian migrant, and D’Arcy is representative of that class: literate, opinionated and business minded, a bookseller, importer, editor, and newspaper proprietor, most famously of the Sydney Freeman’s Journal, and later his 1847 short lived but entertaining literary Irish newspaper the Weekly Dispatch.

While D’Arcy was a man of considerable literary skill and energy, including playing a major role as a fundraiser, organiser and writer for the Sydney Loyal Repeal Association, his interest in politics, and his constant feuding with both political opponents and members of the Catholic Church, occupied the remaining years of his editorship of the Freeman’s Journal and his book import and retail concern in Sydney. Though successful in many areas of colonial life he failed to provide the necessary literary and cultural leadership to the Irish community of which he was certainly capable. Nevertheless, D’Arcy was part of a coterie that included journalists and talented writers such as Sheridan Moore, Daniel Deniehy, William Bede Dalley, and book importers Michael Timothy Gason, Jeremiah Moore and James Shanley, Roman Catholics, independent Irish settlers, migrants and second-generation Irish in New South Wales and Port Phillip in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s, individuals confident in their identity, political rights, and their abilities, who laid the infrastructure for a growing Irish community of readers.

The development of a reading and writing community

The formative years of the mid-nineteenth century laid the foundations that determined the shape of the Irish literary mind in Australia and its sometimes barely recognisable representations. Context is important as it provides the background through which potential writers began to find their voice, and readers their sense of community. Sources for the study of Irish history and print culture in Australia and New Zealand rely heavily on the newspaper as both archive – a primary resource for an understanding of the individual and collective experiences of the Irish in the Australasian colonies – and literature, the only sustained ‘continuous text’ by the Irish in nineteenth-century Australia and New Zealand; one that provides a unique window on the ethnic Irish and how they imagined themselves in their week-by-week negotiations with the Australasian colonies, their homeland, modernity and the Irish in the wider diaspora.5

The concept of Irish-Australian literature presupposes an identifiable Irish-Australian community of readers, with shared interests and concerns. Such a grouping began to coalesce with the establishment of a local Irish press, one that gave the Irish a public voice in which to consolidate identity and formulate a strategy that would cement their place within Australian society.6 While Patrick O’Farrell was insistent that the Irish experience in Australia was vastly different to that found in North America, it was remarkably similar in terms of selected aspects of print history and print networks, and how they developed throughout the nineteenth century Irish diaspora (Irish in Australia 1). Like those in other places of settlement, the Irish were not shy in establishing a newspaper press, this being a primary initiative for them, as it is for other migrant groups. In Australia, over thirty weekly Irish newspapers and journals were established between 1839 and 1900. And while circulation figures are notoriously difficult to gauge during this period, largely because of commercial and political rivalry, a major newspaper such as the Freeman’s Journal of Sydney claimed to have over 20,000 readers in 1857 (‘Freeman’s Journal’ 1) while the Melbourne Advocate gave its readership figure as 20,000 in 1869 (‘Enlargement and Increased Circulation’ 1).

Together with the developments in the newspaper industry, the evolution of an Irish reading public was also informed by, and closely linked with, international print developments that impinged upon and determined most phases of printing, publishing, book importation and retailing over the period 1840–1914. The printing revolution was perhaps the major empowering development in the nineteenth century, giving large sections of the population a voice for the first time.7 Technical innovation and the commodification of printed products required the existence of sophisticated distribution systems as well as formal and informal networks to ensure the product was both disseminated and accessible. This process contributed substantially to the creation of print networks through which immigrant groups, such as the Irish, maintained their ethnic cohesion at a local, national and international level (Molloy, ‘Religious Texts’ 71–93). The rise of print capitalism and technological developments in the decades following 1850 had a significant impact on newspaper accessibility, book production, and availability of the same texts internationally. While we do not have substantial documented reading experiences for the Irish in Australia, for instance, the ‘recorded engagement with a written or printed text – beyond the mere fact of possession’ (‘What is a reading experience?’), we do have sustained advertising data over decades, documented viability of commercial outlets, and some circulating libraries, church libraries and remainder trade data (K. Molloy, ‘Commodifiction of Texts’ 80–4). Along with information and advertising, the newspaper provided a defined avenue where the Irish could tell their own stories, and in colonial Australia they did this consistently through the re-production of Irish and Irish American serial novels. Further, newspaper advertising made readers aware of the local availability of Irish and Irish-American books from Irish, American and British publishing houses. Not unique to Australia, it was a pattern the Irish replicated in all places of settlement (James 82–86).8 Books continuously imported into Australia between 1850 and 1900 included novels by Irish writers such as John and Michael Banim, William Carleton, Maria Edgeworth, Gerald Griffin, Charles Lever, Samuel Lover, Charles Kickham, and a slew of very popular Irish-American novelists including Mary-Anne Sadlier, John Boyce, David Power Conyingham, Charles Halpine and Christine Faber. Evidence suggests that the Irish established their own print distribution networks because many of these texts were unavailable in Australia through current import and retail channels or through existing circulating libraries or mechanics institutes. This problem was first expressed by Sydney Irish book importer Jeremiah Moore in 1850 when he established a direct import invoicing system with James Duffy booksellers in Dublin (‘Catholic Books, Pictures etc.’ 7). Later evidence suggests mechanics institutes and related libraries carried some standard Irish literary texts, including Samuel Lover, Charles Lever, and the Banim brothers. However, the Ballarat Mechanics Institute, for example, carried only one novel by William Carlton in 1864, in addition to most works by Lover and Lever (Catalogue, Ballaarat 34), and a similar situation held with the Sandhurst Mechanics Institute in 1860 (Rules and Catalogue 7-20); the extensive library of the Wedderburn Miners’ Literary Institute and Free Library of Victoria, in the 1890s, fared only slightly better with texts by Griffin and a good selection by Carleton (Catalogue, Wedderburn 58–67). The situation is perhaps summed up by a comment in the Melbourne Advocate of 1870 regarding the Melbourne Police Library where £1200 had been put aside for book purchase but only £200 spent: ‘Nine tenths’ of the force of two hundred and forty constables ‘are Irish, yet there are not a dozen volumes relating to Ireland’ in this library, ‘and the few that do deal with Irish subjects give offence rather than pleasure’ (‘The Melbourne Police Library’ 9).

What is of note is absense from mainstream literary institutes and lending libraries of the most popular Irish-American novels or standard Irish classics such as Kickham’s Knocknagow, or the Homes of Tipperary. Many of the above writers, Carleton, Sadlier, Griffin, Halpine and Conyngham, for example, were big names and sellers in Ireland and amongst the Irish-American community, and their works arrived in Australia with surprising rapidity. A number from the Irish–American writer Mary Anne Sadlier, for example, were on sale in Sydney from the Irish bookseller J. J. Moore in 1854, some just months after being published in Montreal and New York (K Molloy, ‘Irish-American Novel’ 58). In addition, the easy accessibility from the late 1860s of many of these works in serial form, again through new technologies such as the stereo-plate, meant that newspapers could rapidly incorporate serial fiction into their publications. Along with advertising, serial fiction was an economic necessity, becoming a major selling point for Australian newspapers, and as popular in Irish-Australian newspapers as serial fiction was in the general press in Britain and the United States.9

The ready availability of the latest Irish and Irish-American fiction empowered local readers, fostered a necessary Irish-Australian reading community, helped define memories of home and, in the case of Sadlier texts – The Blakes and Flanagans (1855), Bessy Conway (1861), Con O’Regan (1864) – provided examples of how to negotiate new world diaspora spaces. Yet these works were not the most suitable literary models for the development of an Australian-Irish narrative that helped writers either imagine, or capture, the Australian Irish experience.10 The most likely reasons for this relate to stylistic concerns, subject matter, the presentation of content and the evolution of literary tastes. Further, issues related to Federation and new ways of envisioning Australia took precedence amongst colonial writers from the 1880s; and although Australia has multiple examples of nineteenth century travel literature and migrant journals documenting itinerant living in both town and goldfields, literary representations of chain migration and settlement, ethnic and denominational enclaves, ethnic tensions and generational development of migrants groups, are very few in Australian colonial fiction (Dalziell 93–117).

When first and second generation Irish-Australian writers such as Victor Daley, Bernard O’Dowd and Marie Pitt – all contributors to The Bulletin – did attempt to draw upon an Irish-Australian imaginary, the default was the prevailing influence of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century works of the Irish Celtic Twilight. In effect, this group was unable to seriously engage in any extended narratives with the social realities of an Irish-Australian world from which many of them had sprung.11 Despite the push by The Bulletin for an Australian realism, Kiernan notes that romance and realism often coincided with this journal’s writers (44–5).

We have to wait until the 1930s to get some glimpses of the possibilties of this world, and its gritty, retrospective realism with the appearance of the first volumes of Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahony trilogy. It is also possible that individuals such as Daley, Pitt and O’Dowd simply chose not to fully imagine Irish Australia. Other writers attempted to engage in extended Irish-Australian narratives, Marion Miller Knowles, for example, a noted poet and short story writer for the Melbourne Advocate. However, Knowles produced a number of romances more noted for their simplified Catholic parochial content than for the Irish-Australian characters who populate her fiction and that she was endeavouring to describe (Knowles, Meg and Pretty Nan).12

Social realism was not, of course, the only possible mode of Irish-Australian literary expression, but it is one that found most resonance in mid-twentieth century Australia, particularly for its documentary representation. It became a feature of Irish-American writing from the late 1920s, for example, with the influential work of James T Farrell and his William ‘Studs’ Lonigan trilogy, an unflattering portrayal of the Chicago Irish (Casey 652), and found expression with Ruth Park in the 1940s in Australia, with her works also suffused with a stong sense of comedy. It is no coincidence that Park’s work when first published was likened to the work of Farrell (‘Books of the Week’ 8). The advent of social realism, as a literary genre, had created obvious tensions in the broader Irish literary world, with figures such as Canon Patrick Sheehan actively rejecting the notion of literary realism as he came to embrace the renoveau catholique philosophy (O’Brien 55). In rejecting the modernising impact of social realism, Sheehan created a literature that sought to harmonise the natural world with the spiritual, in effect introducing religious principles into the fictional form. This he later infused with elements of Irish cottage nationalism. Sheehan, whose major novels including My New Curate and Luke Delmege were translated into German, French and Italian, had a profound impact on the evolution of the idea of the Catholic novel as a serious literary genre, one later represented in the English-speaking world by writers such as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graeme Greene, and finding some resonance in many of the Catholic, ethical issues found in the works of Australian novelist Morris West. Patrick Sheehan, in addition to having his novels serialised in Irish Catholic newspapers in Australia also had his imitators, with J. J. Kennedy’s Melbourne published 1912 novel Gordon Grandfield a good example.

A further point to consider, in regard to the ready availability of texts, is the state of the Australian book market. From the latter part of the nineteenth – and well into the twentieth – century, this market operated a lucrative import model, acquiring works largely from prominent British publishers. It was a model that differed markedly from that of other new world societies and was so successful that it had a major impact on the development of local publishing (Kirsop, passim; Bode 108–9). It also impacted heavily upon fledgling Australian-Irish publishers. For example, the United States and Canada, a significant Catholic migrant population, and not necessarily a wealthy population, provided a ready market for the Boston-, Montreal-, and New York-based Catholic and Irish publishers such as Patrick Donohoe, D & J Sadlier & Co., and P. J. Kenedy & Sons. These outlets published popular Irish literature at the cheapest possible prices, as well as publishing religious and devotional works, the most prolifically advertised texts in the nineteenth century Irish-Australian press. The situation is different again in the case of Ireland, where major publishers of Irish national and Catholic devotional works, such as James Duffy and M. H. Gill, from the outset engaged with Irish Catholic populations outside of Ireland, and certainly with Australia (Gill, Letterbooks), to sustain their multiple publishing activities. In addition, Irish publishers were actively involved in a reprint trade, and many though not all Irish-American works on sale in Australia were reprints by Irish publishers (Loeber 121).

The economics of international printing and publishing, combined with very efficient distribution systems, determined viability. Australia was not forced to develop an identifiable home-grown Irish literature as such, when the commercial imperative was the easy importation of affordable, commodified, mass-produced texts from Britain, Ireland and North America. Certainly, though, Irish newspaper presses and independent publishers and booksellers did print and publish selected local texts, and on occasion co-published texts. Sydney bookseller Jeremiah Moore, Melbourne printer and publisher James Shanley, W. P. Linehan and later Bernard King are good examples of entrepreneurs who were able to produce local texts of a limited popularity, including Bishop Henry Cleary’s The Orange Order (1898), J. J. Kennedy’s novel Gordon Grandfield (1912) and Charles Gavan Duffy’s Young Ireland, with the Melbourne Advocate and Freeman’s Journal serialising in full, over many months, nearly all of Duffy’s major works.13 Limited small scale publishing of a literary nature was, for many years, confined to newsprint, and was as true for William Duncan of the Australasian Chronicle in the 1840s as it was for the editors and writer of The Bulletin from the 1880s (Duncan, ‘Autobiography’ 32).14 And while opportunities for Irish-Australian writers to get their texts in print, either through the newspaper, the weekly journals or as printed texts, did exist, economic viability, limitations on distribution and the effects of well-developed book import trade would have been determining factors.

Thinking about Irish-Australian literature

Most of the imported texts were not highbrow or sophisticated, but were aimed at a general readership. The popular novel, from Charles Dickens to Mary Anne Sadlier, relied initially on the newspaper and journal serial as the source readers would consult for their weekly fiction. Local texts were on occasion produced and published in Australian Irish-Catholic newspapers or on smaller presses. Printer Michael T. Gason’s publishing of the shipboard narrative of an anonymous Irishman’s voyage to Australia, Waifs and Strays of Sealife, was considered a polished publication of some literary merit in Melbourne when it first appeared in 1857 and was favourably reviewed by the Melbourne Age (‘Literature’ 4; K. Molloy, ‘The Waifs’). Editor and writer Richard O’Sullivan’s 1868 story ‘The Smuggler. A Tale of the West of Ireland’ (O’Sullivan 3) was similarly received when he published in the Sydney Freeman’s Journal; however, very few locally produced stories engaged with the matter of Ireland, the Irish community in Australia, or what it was to be Irish in the country. Again, there are some exceptions. For example, Victorian writer William Lambert Kelly mined the political context of Irish separatism in a handwritten literary work set in the Irish Rebellion year of 1798. Although not known to have been published, surviving drafts of Kelly’s novel, ‘Alice Dean, the Cousins: A Tale of the Irish Rebellion, 1798’, written in the 1880s, draw upon themes evident in Irish and Irish-American popular novels such as that found in Mary Anne Sadlier, James Murphy and David Conyngham. Kelly’s only other surviving work, ‘The Adventures of Mr Terry Perry, Gent.’, is set in the Grampians in Victoria. While there was possibly some potential in these surviving drafts, unfortunately nothing further is known of Kelly, his background, or what he hoped to achieve with his writing. But these, like Cornelius Moynihan’s unpublished ‘Eureka’ poem, are literary exceptions (Buckridge, ‘Moynihan’).

With the passing of the first-generation Irish, the reading of Irish narrative literature, particularly in its nineteenth-century form, did not last into the new century as fashions changed, though Irish politics and certainly the Catholic religion remained a major force in the Irish community in Australia. This would have had a cultural impact on potential Irish-Australian writing. Patrick O’Farrell posits the death of the secular-liberal Irish-Australian by the end of the 1870s when a more distinctive Irish-Australian Catholic sub-culture emerged, lasting from the 1880 to the 1930s and beyond, and depicted in its full light by P. J. Hartigan’s Around the Boree Log (O’Farrell, ‘Australia’ 62–5).

The considerable absence of the lived Irish-Australian condition (social realism) in Australian writing, in preference for its historical origins, what Chad Habel describes as the ‘ancestral narratives’, is perhaps then not surprising when the evolving emphasis on a parochial fiction is considered (Habel 47). The surprising exception is Henry Handel Richardson’s mining of her own family experience for the writing of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, published between the years 1917 and 1930. Documenting the evolution of colonial Australia from the goldfields of Ballarat in the 1850s onwards, it is a work very loosely based on the life of her Dublin born Anglo-Irish father. Remarkable in its active remembering of her father as an Anglo-Irish type, the Irish content plays a minor part in the overall structure of the novel. Nevertheless, its attention to detail, down to the correct Irish enunciation of ‘Mahony’ as a three-syllable rather than a two-syllable word, and the constant insertions and comments on Irish accents and social conditions in book one, is a telling and interesting subject for both Richardson and her narrator, evidence of a process of active remembering for a passing generation based on the life of one individual, a somewhat disturbed Anglo-Irish gentleman from Dublin.

While a significant literary work, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony largely eschews involvement or negotiation with an extant Irish community, fraternal society or ethnic politics, something not unusual for this caste who, while relying on what Forth calls ‘cousinage’, or initial patronage, generally integrated seemlessly into the Australian colonial Protestant imperialist culture (Forth 129). One has to wait for the post- World War II years for the Irish, as a community, to become substantive subject matter in a novel of their own.

In the United States it has been noted that the popular ‘Irish novel’ changed quite markedly around the turn of the twentieth century, superseded by the rise of the parochial or ‘Catholic’ novel, and there is certainly evidence for this in Australia (Wilson 35–6), with the Catholic novel being a common theme discussed in Catholic newspapers from the late 1890s up to the 1960s, especially with the publication of Catholic reading lists.15 It was only in later decades, particularly from the 1930s to the 1950s, that the American Irish novel again gained considerable traction which remains to this day (Fanning 292–3). It is noteworthy that between 1943 and 1949 three major Irish ‘diaspora novels’ were published by second and third generation writers, identified as Irish in ways Cruise O’Brien would acknowledge, and who examine closely, in terms of social realism, the workings of their respective Irish communities and the complexities of its networks. New Zealand writer Dan Davin’s Roads from Home (1949), Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) and Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South (1948) together document both urban and small-town experience of Irish communities in Southland, New Zealand, Brooklyn, New York and Surrey Hills, Sydney Australia, in remarkably comparable ways. The emergence of the Irish diaspora novel has varied between Britain, the United States, and Australia and New Zealand. Tony Williams has noted the strong first generation narratives that have emerged in England and a relative scarcity of second and third generation Irish narratives (150); while, in the United States, the Irish-American novel and other narrative forms have been relatively persistent, with the role of Catholicism and the burden of history bearing strongly on the emergence of twentieth century Irish-American writing (Casey and Rhodes 661; Sullivan 2). In Australia it has been different again, with similar themes surfacing in the Australian novel, but more recently refracted through the historical prism of an Irish-Australian experience quite out of step with the foundation tropes of the Australian imperial enterprise.

However, while detailed analysis of the emergence of the diaspora novel is beyond the scope of this article, the confident engagement with Irish subject matter, as both remembered and a continued presence in the life of Davin, Smith and Park, signals a major shift in the foregrounding of the Irish in the extended diaspora world. Ruth Park had strong memories of her Irish grandmothers, one born in Ireland, the other Hobart, ‘but also Irish’ (A Fence Around the Cuckoo 43). And while the The Harp in the South tempers its gritty realism with considerable humour, for which it was severely criticised (Genoni 26–31), its portrayal of an Irish-Catholic world marked by working class poverty, an over-consideration of religion, and somewhat limited aspirations, marks an attempt to imaginatively engage with contemporary Australian Irish experience as it was lived in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Importantly, Park drew upon family connections and personal experience, both her own and that of her husband Darcy Nyland, and she used this to good effect (Fishing in the Styx 138–40). It is perhaps this focus on lived and remembered Irish-Australian experiences that marks off novels such as The Harp in the South, and its successor Poor Man’s Orange, as something new in Irish Australia’s imagining of its own experience.

Was it possible to write Australian-Irish literature if you were an Irish-Australian Catholic? Ruth Park, a practicing Catholic at the time of her publishing of The Harp in the South, had certainly distanced herself from the constraints of Catholicism to actively portray the lived experience of the Irish-Catholic community in her Sydney novels. This had not, however, exempted her from clerical censor, for being seen to attack the very heart of what it was to be Australian, Irish, and Catholic (Fishing in the Styx 147–8). Evidence from other writers, Thomas Keneally, for example, suggest no; that such a step was only possible when some of the constricting devotional trappings of the Irish condition, as it had manifested itself in Australia, were left well-and-truly behind (Lever 504–5). Mentored by Catholic novelist Thea Astley, Keneally’s early novels, such as Bring Larks and Heroes, his first work to draw upon historical Irish subject matter, reflect his wrestling with a condition, but a theological condition more Catholic than one dealing with Irish identity. His 1968 declaration of having written his last ‘bog Irish novel’, could just as easily have been restated as his ‘last Catholic novel’, and undoubtedly some critics see him as the person who inserted Australian Irish Catholicism into the Australian national cultural landscape (‘Keneally’s Conscience’ 3; Sharrad 90). This was something that his contemporaries, such as Patrick White, found unforgivable (Pierce, ‘The critics made me’ 102). Keneally, through his troubled and rather forlorn chief protagonist Halloran in Bring Larks and Heroes, examines a world in which the moral and ethical choices made have considerable significance for personal integrity, even if they cannot alter the conditions of one’s immediate world.

Despite ongoing criticism, Keneally continues to engage with Irish historical subject matter, and Catholicism, in ways that, while making his Australian literary contemporaries uneasy, throws the Australian Irish experience and his view of Ireland, as he has imagined it, into relief (Lucchitti 56). It would perhaps be pushing a point to suggest that Keneally is in any way influenced by the idea of the Catholic novel, even though his engagement with Catholic subject matter, certainly on an ethical level, is enquiring and profound, while his knowledge of the Irish condition is both intuitive and well informed. And if his world from which he is viewing the Australian experience is strange to White and other critics, this probably says more about their ease, or unease, with which they culturally postion themselves in Australia, rather than it does of Keneally.

Patrick Buckridge perceptively notes that the post-1960 foregrounding of Irish subject matter has been a nuanced affair, just as likely based on a process of retrieval rather than direct family or shared memories. In this endeavour, Australian-Irish writers have tended to draw upon textual, largely historical, sources, for the writing and shaping of Irish content within current Australian literature (Buckridge, ‘Harp in the South’ 11–2). This has been similarly noted, for different reasons, as an aspect in some contemporary Irish novels, particulary in the use of the ironic and marginal as a spectrum through which ‘key events’ of the historical past are viewed. In explaining this development, Clíona Ó Gallchoir has drawn on the work of Linda Hutcheon, who writes that postmodern fictions ‘suggest that to re-write or re-present the past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological’ (Hutcheon 110). It is an important point, something characteristic of the appearance of the Irish-Australian mentalite in Australian fiction, that the contemporary is always contingent, that there is no complete closure on the Irish-Australian condition, and in Cruise O’Brien’s terms ‘being involved’ (78) is the hallmark of that condition.


This article has outlined some of the immediate context to an examination of Irish-Australian literature and its development in Australia. It is apparent that, from the mid 1840s, literary representations of the Irish were openly challenged as the Irish community began to take control of the literary representations of their ethnic group. From the early 1850s there appeared to be a small but reasonably literate and cohesive Irish community of readers that had developed in New South Wales, and later Victoria, and that was catered to by an increasingly complex trading network that was able to source current Irish ‘national’ literature, as it was produced in Ireland and Britain, and increasingly in America.

In determining what the Irish-Australian reading experience may have been, the role of the bookseller, the newspaper editor, advertising and associated information in the Irish-colonial newspaper takes a prominent place. Evidence suggests that the Irish colonial reader sought out Irish reading material amongst a range of other reading materials that were available to the reading public in the colonies. As such, this was a very self-conscious choice, a mark of Irish-colonial reader preference, independence and identity. That only in a small number of cases did this self-conscious choice manifest in the production of an Irish-Australian literature is more than likely the result of a number of factors, including scarcity of creative individuals, lack of a cohesive cultural coterie, the absence of secular cultural leadership above and beyond clerical direction, and the social and cultural space to allow for the development of local Irish literature. A very successful Irish-Catholic newspaper industry, plus well-established Irish booksellers in New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand, is testimony to the entrepreneurial skill and business acumen of those that participated in this enterprise, but it was not enough to move to the next level of production of a local extended narrative literature for an Australian market, despite the appearance of a number of promising writers, particularly in the field of poetry and short stories.

The Irish market for reading matter in Australia was a niche market, but a profitable one, and one that grew over the nineteenth century as Irish immigration grew. Its collapse in the early decades of the twentieth century was due to intergenerational change, market trends and reader preferences. The Irish condition in Australian literature, and other forms of textual and visual production, continued in some minor form until the post-World War II period (Molloy, ‘Tradition, Memory’ 47–8) , occasionally, as in the case of Ruth Park, resulting in the production of significant and complex subject matter. However, Australia did not see any literary engagement with the vibrant post-war Irish culture in that country, as happened in post-war Britain (Wills 2015), or in America with Irish-American writers such Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy (1998), for example. More than likely, as critic Peter Pierce has noted, Irish heritage is seen as ‘merely part of a complex national fabric’, that only occasionally exercises Australian writers (Pierce, ‘Making of Thomas Keneally’ 46). However we view it, Australian-Irish writers have continued to engage with the matter of Ireland incidentally, intermittently and on occasion intentionally. Sometimes engaging directly with Irish experience in Australia, as with E. M. Reapy’s post Celtic Tiger migrant generation in Red Dirt, or eschewing the realities of the contemporary Irish-Australia, and, as Habel has noted, focusing more on its historical colonial past in an act of retrieval and re-examination. The reasons for this are many and complex, including: the changing political landscape in Ireland and its international foregrounding in the media from the 1960s to the present day; a more nuanced approach to the discussion and imaginative literary representations of ethnicity in a multi-ethnic Australia; a necessary Irish-Australian untangling of imperialist and colonial narratives of ethnic exclusion or domination; and, the dismantling of those imperial spaces of the mind (Proudfoot and Hall 238–9).


  1. Shipboard diaries by Irish migrants, both cabin and steerage passengers, include those by [Sir] Bryan O’Loghlen (1862); [MLA] Patrick Hanna (1853); M. P. O’Shea (1857), a labourer; and the Irish narrative published by Melbourne Tipperary bookseller Michael Gason as Waifs and Strays of Sealife and Adventure Picked up on a Voyage from Liverpool to Melbourne, Melbourne: Michael T. Gason, 1857, an anonymous cabin passenger migrating to Australia. See, State Library Victoria Manuscripts and History of the Book Collections, MS 16021, MS 15928, Rare LTP; and Museums Victoria, HT 15834.

  2. For example, the holdings of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission and the Sydney Archdiocesan Archives, where in general only correspondence between clergy has been retained.

  3. For details on Duncan see Paul Chandler, ‘Catholics and Politics in New South Wales in the 1840s, with special reference to the Land Controversy of 1855’, Macquarie University, unpublished BA (Hons) thesis, 1980, pp. 1–55. Chandler’s paper documents the importance of D’Arcy and Duncan in the evolving political world of New South Wales politics.

  4. The difference between the freedom California afforded the Irish, and the restricted life of the Irish in Australia, republicanism verses the continued patronage of the Crown, were discussed extensively, by letter, in the correspondence between the two brothers, ‘D’Arcy Family Papers, 1836–1876, State Library Victoria, MS 9834. For an assessment of the Californian and Victorian political and cultural divergences see Goodman, pp.46–63.

  5. For the role of the ‘imagined community’ and the consolidation of ethnic and national consciousness through the development of the newspaper press, see Benedict Anderson. For examples of its use in an Irish context see Alan O’Day. An earlier idea of the development of the concept of an Irish ‘international consciousness’ is also explored in Sheridan Gilley.

  6. These newspapers included the Sydney published Australasian Chronicle (1839–43), Morning Chronicle (1843–46), Sydney Chronicle (1846–48), and the Freeman’s Journal (1850–1932).

  7. A critique of history based on the print revolution as a change agent, was initially developed by Elizabeth Eisenstein; see also Thomas Adams and Nicolas Barker, pp. 5–6.

  8. Major Irish Australian papers, such as the Sydney Freeman’s Journal and Melbourne Advocate were intercolonial, and also available in New Zealand. Besides the United States and Canada, the Irish newspaper press played a significant role in consolidating community identity in Argentina. For an extended discussion of this topic highlighting ten newspapers see Stephanie James.

  9. Over eighty-one Irish and Irish-American serials (novels over 300 pages) were reproduced in Australian and New Zealand Irish and Irish-Catholic newspapers between 1850–1900. Datasets in the possession of the author.

  10. Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow, or, The Homes of Tipperary, considered one of the most popular and highly recommended Irish books in nineteenth and early-twentieth century Australia, typifies that sense of nostalgia and home, while Sadlier’s The Blakes and Flanagans and Bessy Conway, deal with Irish migrants attempting to engage with ‘new world’ spaces while trying to retain their sense of Irishness and their Catholic religion.

  11. For the influence of Irish and European Celtic Twilight imagery upon Australian writers see Brian Elliott, pp. 61–70; Frank Molloy ‘Daley and the Celtic Movement’, pp. 123–32; and Val Noone, pp. 69–72.

  12. See for example the novels Meg of Minadong (1926) and Pretty Nan Hartigan (1930). Knowles produced numerous short ‘Irish-Australian’ stories in a similar vein, such as ‘Roseen Aroon’, published in the Adelaide Southern Cross during 1928 and ‘Johnny Lennon’s Wife’, in the Western Australian Record (1908).

  13. Four Years of Irish History was serialised 1883–84; The League of North and South, 1885–86; and My Life in Two Hemispheres, 1896–98. See also William P Linehan, Catalogue of Catholic Books Melbourne: Linehan, c.1916, in John Hennessy Collection, MS 15614, Box 13, State Library Victoria.

  14. Duncan noted that the newspaper, ‘soon became the medium of publication, for whatever the colony produced of a purely literary nature’ (32); it provided a suitable outlet for the early New South Wales writers such as Charles Harpur, Henry Parkes and Henry Halloran.

  15. Examples of recommended texts include: ‘Current Literature. The Best Catholic Books’, Southern Cross (Adelaide), 21 March 1924, p. 4.; ‘Catholic Writers A Notable List’ Catholic Press (Sydney), 23 January 1941, p. 21; ‘Catholic Novels and Catholic Novelists’, Southern Cross (Adelaide), 29 September 1950, p. 7. Between 1930–1960 the focus was very much on English Catholic writers such as G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh.

Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Cultural & national identity, Publishing history, Social Realism, Diaspora, Print culture, Catholicism, Irish-Australian Literature, Irish-Australian Identity.

Cite as: Molloy, Kevin . ‘Irishness as a Literary Condition: Australia and its Irish Reading and Writing Community.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.8d5c5fa8d4.