Vincent Buckley, Colonialism and the Problem of Irish-Australian Identity


Perhaps no Australian writer or thinker has probed the condition of Irishness in Australia more extensively than the poet-critic Vincent Buckley (1925-88). His first memoir Cutting Green Hay (1983) considers how his own family negotiated their Irish heritage, often through modes of strategic amnesia in which Irish cultural modes mutate into Australian identity. This, for him, results in a cultural deprivation that he seeks to remedy in himself, not least through many extended visits to Ireland, his ‘source country’ or ‘imagination’s home’. Yet in Memory Ireland (1985) and other essays, he offers a scarifying analysis of contemporary Irish society also marked by a loss of memory, which he ascribes in this case to the post-colonial torpor and imaginative enervation of independent Ireland. So Buckley seeks to reveal the scotomisation, or mental blind spots, that characterise both Irish-Australia and modern Ireland. Drawing mainly on prose works, including archives and unpublished sources, this essay seeks to bring to the fore the question of colonialism in Buckley’s reflections on Irishness, attentive to some of his own blind spots. It considers his deep debt to Yeats, but also the impossibility for Buckley, as he saw it, to follow Yeats’s example in creating a national imaginary that unified settler and native. This impacts Buckley’s sense of how an artist achieves success in the international literary field, but also maps back onto the question of setter-colonialism in Australia. I argue that Indigenous Australia shadows his thinking about Irish colonialism, sometimes explicitly, as in the poem ‘Gaeltacht’ from The Pattern (1979), but in a more fraught and culpable way than simply through assertions of shared victimhood. If the conquest and dispossession of Gaelic Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mirrors that of Indigenous Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth, it also deflects, redirects and sublimates it for an Australian poet.The Irish have certainly been historical victims of British colonialism, but they have also been beneficiaries of settler-colonialism in Australia, as his poem ‘Dick Donnelly’, the Irish-named Aboriginal man, ‘the last songman of his people’, poignantly attests.

An Irish Sort of Place

Is there an Australian writer who has reflected on Irishness and on his Irish-Australian identity more than Vincent Buckley (1925–88)?1 The poet, professor, critic, memoirist, and public intellectual uses his own Irish ancestry, the Irish influence in Australia and, later, Ireland itself, as some of his major subjects. He freely owns the hyphenated handle ‘Irish-Australian’, piquantly described by the Jesuit Peter Steele in a review of Buckley’s memoir Cutting Green Hay (1983) as ‘a designation which announces roundly the enigma it offers to explain’.2 Through an examination of Buckley’s memoirs and essays including unpublished notes and manuscripts, and some of his poetry, this essay seeks to complement existing scholarship in assessing some of the stakes of Irishness as Buckley grapples with them.3 In particular, I want to reflect on how ideas of Irishness work with and against Australian settler-colonial identity and the establishment of a…

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Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Aboriginal Australians, Cultural & national identity, Folklore, History, Memory, Mythology, Poetry, Settler colonialism, Vincent Buckley, Irish-Australian Literature, Irish-Australian Identity, Life-Writing.

Cite as: McDonald, Ronan. ‘Vincent Buckley, Colonialism and the Problem of Irish-Australian Identity.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.838c294c71.