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…

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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.